Julie Salamon and the Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein

GUEST: Julie Salamon
AIR DATE: 09/24/2011
VTR: 07/28/2011

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And I suspect that I’d be absolutely, totally devastated if ever when today’s guest joins me here every few years to discuss still another of her newest book I weren’t able honestly to insist that the pen with which she writes simply must be made of a quill from the wings of an angel.

Well, it’s true again today, of course, as Penguin Press publishes Julie Salamon’s Wendy And The Lost Boys … The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein.

Kirkus Reviews calls her book “Perceptive and empathetic, but also gently unsparing – a superbly nuanced portrait.”

Publishers Weekly writes that my guest “Brings full circle the life of Wendy Wasserstein in this insightful biography of the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright…[her] thoroughly researched account of a too-short life brings readers as close as anyone to such a private and complex woman.”

In fact, I want to begin today by asking Julie Salamon what did bring her so close to such a private and complex woman.

Was it, as she writes, that “Until the very end, Wendy Wasserstein took comfort in being part of a larger entity, the self-defined generation that had created a unified consciousness from a mass-marketed set of cultural references.”

Indeed, my guest concludes her intriguing book by quoting a late-in-life essay titled “Baby Boomers”, in which Wasserstein wrote of the hubris of the Peter Pan generation: “The thing about being a Baby Boomer is, somewhere we still believe that no one is going to do it better than we did. No one will be better than the Beatles, no one will be more glamorous than Jack Kennedy, no time will be as turbulent as the late 60’s, no parents will be as difficult as ours were, and no psyches as interesting as ours.” Julie, what’s the explanation? Why did you go at this book, this author?

SALAMON: I, I went at this book and this author because Wendy herself was a fascinating woman. She had many layers of secrets. She wrote in her plays and in her autobiographical essays about her life in such a way that even people who would meet her on the street would talk to her as if she were their best friend. “Hey, Wendy, how’s your daughter?” even though they’d never met her.

And yet, what I found pretty quickly was that the Wendy that she presented to the world was similar, but quite different from the Wendy inside.

And so that aspect of her persona was incredibly interesting to me … a little bit like a mystery story. The other aspect that made me really want to do the book was the idea of her connection to the Baby Boom generation.

She was born in 1950 … in the middle of the last century … and died not that many years after the 21st century. And so in her writing and her life … she tracked this generation that we call, sometimes, the Peter Pan generation.

And her plays and her writing was very much about that subject. About this self-important, self-aggrandizing, wonderful/terrible generation of which I’m a part.

HEFFNER: You really characterize it that way? Do you feel that way about the generation?

SALAMON: I do. I think it’s a … I mean I think every generation is fascinating in its own way. But I think it’s always a false characterization … you know, everybody in the Greatest Generation wasn’t so great or we wouldn’t have had two World Wars under their watch.

And I think everybody in the Baby Boom generation are not all the things I just said they were. But on the other hand, there are truths in these clichés and in these labels that we pin on a group of people.

And, you know, I thought about it a lot … about the Baby Boom generation. I think the one thing that distinguishes this generation is this is the television generation.

This is the first generation that was brought up with a national, unifying set of, of fables, really, that we all shared in simultaneously.

You know until the … until the nineties there were three channels and PBS (laugh) … so there were four channels.

But really only three that were national … all the time, playing the same programs in the evening. And I think that had a huge effect on people … everybody watched the same three news shows. There was no 24/7 Fox News or MSNBC.

And I think that we had a shared consciousness in a way … so you could either feel part of it, or alienated from it. But it was the same. And I think that was hugely important.

HEFFNER: Shared consciousness. And you think you can legitimately relate it to the media.

SALAMON: I think it’s very much related to the media. And, you know, I don’t want to say that this book is some kind of, you know, exegesis on the history of the Baby Boom … that’s sort of the context within … within which Wendy grew up. But I think it is very much the backdrop for her life and for her work.

HEFFNER: And … how would you define the way in which the generation made the woman?

SALAMON: So Wendy was born five years after World War II, to immigrant Jewish parents. She was born five years after fifty million people had been killed in a world war … six million Jews had been extinguished in Europe, including an Aunt of Wendy’s.

And she was born into this world where the idea was … “We’re going to have a lot of children, we’re going to start fresh, we’re going to create a new world”. It was an optimistic era, even though anybody who lived through the fifties could say it was a terrible era in many ways, with McCarthyism and all these horrible things.

But I think there was a general … maybe fabricated by the media, but I think it seeped into people’s consciousness … that this was an era of “go-go”, success, bigger, better, America on top. It was probably a good time to be born in this world.

And yet, on the other hand, if you were part of that generation, when you were a young person, you lived through the sixties, which … where a President was assassinated … Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert Kennedy, Jr. was assassinated … so there were all these contradictory forces going on at the same time.

And in Wendy’s case, I think the most important factor for her were the changes that were going on for women.

You know, the whole Women’s Movement flourished during Wendy’s lifetime. Just a few years before Wendy graduated from high school, Betty Freidan wrote her ground breaking work that changed the way that women perceived of themselves.

And when I say “women”, we’re talking about a certain group of women … upper middle class, middle class … educated … Wendy’s peer group.

And so, she wasn’t the woman for all people. She didn’t speak, I think, for poor people or for African American people, but she did speak for a large swatch of ambitious, educated women, who came of age in the sixties and seventies, when everything literally changed for them.

HEFFNER: I wondered whether that, essentially, was what pointed you in the direction of Wendy Wasserstein?

SALAMON: Maybe. Although, you know, it’s interesting … I’m just a few years younger than Wendy, but just enough younger that we grew up in this completely different circumstance.

So she graduated from college in 1971. She entered college, Mount Holyoke, in 1967. And when she started college, it was an all girls school … still is … but when she started college, it was … you know, no boys, obviously, allowed in your room. You dressed for dinner. You had “Gracious Living” as part of the normal routine during the week …

HEFFNER: And you make the point that you learned how to fold your napkin in “Gracious Living”.

SALAMON: That’s right. Exactly the right way. And, and the young women were actually instructed in gym, to take classes that might help their husband’s business career … learn tennis and golf, it will be very good for that.

And, and … by the time Wendy graduated, four years later, all that was out the window. You know the … everything had changed. They, they added to the student handbook … sort of a “no drugs” in the dormitory quad … so things were really …

HEFFNER: Please.

SALAMON: … right. And so by the time I started college in the early seventies … I lived in a co-ed dorm. And that’s a very different thought process.

By the time I graduated from college, you know … I went to law school … a third … forty percent of the people in my class were women. And that was very different from just five years earlier, it was a much smaller percentage.

And so Wendy came of age … and that was fascinating to me when … in a very sort period of time all these things changed.

The expectations for women … now it wasn’t good enough just to be a smart young woman who graduated from Mount Holyoke and caught a good husband.

You now had to go and compete with that potential husband in the workplace and be better than him, because you were probably still going to be discriminated against … one way or the other.

And I think a lot of the confusion that … of, of women of that period, which certainly carried on for many, many years and continues to … is this essential dilemma, which I think still has not been resolved.

And what makes Wendy’s story, I think, quite relevant is “Okay, we’re women, we’re very successful, we’re doctors, we’re lawyers, we’re journalists. But at a certain point a lot of us want to have kids and we want to settle into a marriage.”

Now we can be married to a woman or a man, but still some kind of … some kind of union with somebody. And that’s when things start to get really complicated.

Because … balancing … you know somebody once said to me … you know … can, can you have it all? And she says, “You may be able to have it all, but not all at the same time.”

And men, traditionally, have not had to make that adjustment.

HEFFNER: So this is a book about men and women. This is a book not about a Thurber battle, but something like that.

SALAMON: It’s a book about men and women. And honestly, it’s really a … to me … a book about family. And it’s a book about … it’s about Wendy’s family. About her desire for family … or she thinks her desire for family.

But it’s also to me about the coming of age of a, of an artistic persona.

And to me … the part of, of the story that I really loved and maybe it’s because I have children who are in that stage where they’ll start thinking about what they want to do as adults and how they want to be … in the world.

The parts when Wendy graduates from Mount Holyoke and is in New York … really not knowing what she … it wasn’t like she was … you know, said, “I’m going to become a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright.” She had no idea.

And I think from that indecision somebody struggling to find their talent, somebody struggling to find their voice, her voice … and then, against a lot of odds … you know, it wasn’t as though she was always anointed “The Great One”. She was kind of a mess, and I loved the messiness of her.

And the fact that she wasn’t a great student. And the fact that not all of her teachers loved her. In fact most of them kept writing, “Why don’t you do better? You’re a mess”.

And I thought the fact that she … through hard work, through … through really a kind of essential unwillingness to settle … she found her voice. And that’s a big part of the story, as well.

And I think … also you know, I think we live in a world where a lot of, you know, especially now … there’s a lot of noise. A lot of people telling you how to think and how to believe and what to do.

And finding your core, who you are is, is more and more difficult, the bigger the world gets, the bigger the cacophony is and I think … I think that to me was a very powerful pull of her story as well.

HEFFNER: Did you like her?

SALAMON: Yeah, I like her. Sometimes I liked her. Sometimes I started to hate her when I was writing (laugh) her story.

She was very secretive. And finding out who she was … she would present herself one way to one group of friends and another way to another group of friends. And then her public persona.

And it was fascinating but at times I thought “Who are you? Grow up, Wendy. Figure it out.” And so I would get frustrated with her sometimes. And … I … and a lot of the things that she sometimes valued … or … what … you know she was torn between kind of lusting after the sort of … you know, wealthy, privileged existence of a lot of New Yorkers … and wanting to be a, a good person who cared about the greater good.

HEFFNER: In other words, you can’t do both.

SALAMON: Right. I think she sometimes felt that you couldn’t do both. And I think, I think sometimes it’s a struggle, you know, to find … but in the end that’s what I … so I ended up liking her a lot. Because I thought she wasn’t complacent. She was trying to find her place in the world.

And she did want to do … she wasn’t selfish, she did want to be involved with other people. But I think she didn’t settle for any particular conventional path, at all. She was a real Bohemian and yet she was very drawn to a more conventional life.

But, you know, in today’s world what does that even mean? It’s hard to know.

HEFFNER: What do the feminists … those we identify with the Feminist Movement … how did they react to her?

SALAMON: Well, it’s interesting. With her first play “Uncommon Women And Others” … and … she, she was warmly received … Betty Freidan really like her, Helen Gurley Brown … you know, people were very accepting of her.

But when the “Heidi Chronicles” came out, which was her Pulitzer Prize winning play that came out about 22 years ago … so it … you know, 1989 … which was really still a pretty fractious time … well I guess they’re all fractious times … but any way … when that play came out … Heidi, who is the Wendy character in her play … is this woman who is a very successful art historian, but she’s constantly beset by doubt.

What is she supposed to be? Is she supposed to get married? Is she supposed to just pursue her career? Like Wendy … the man she’s truly in love with is gay … so that’s not going to work out.

And at the end of the play … Wendy ends the play with Heidi deciding to adopt a baby as a single mother. And that created outrage.

Because it was taken as indicating that Wendy was saying that a woman was not fulfilled until she had a baby. That it was saying that, you know, your career wasn’t enough. That, that without children you were nothing.

And Wendy’s response to that, which I thought was a fair one … “That’s not what I was saying”. She was saying that’s what I wanted … and that’s what …

HEFFNER: And that’s what she did.

SALAMON: And that’s what she did. Her plays were almost like forecasts of her life. It’s almost … they were very predictive in a lot of ways. So sometimes I wondered … was she kind of mapping out her future through drama?

HEFFNER: And what’s your answer to that?

SALAMON: Sure looks like it. I mean … based on the evi … I mean she never said that, “Oh, now I’m going to write a play to decide what I’m doing next (laugh).” But the evidence is in the plays themselves. Every play is a pretty good indication of what then happened the next few years of Wendy’s life.

HEFFNER: What about the lasting impact of this very creative woman?

SALAMON: HmmMmm.

HEFFNER: What’s your guess?

SALAMON: You know it’s always a hard question because the things that last sometimes are perplexing. But I think that … I think her work is going to last for quite a while.

And I think her, her … her work in a way is sociological. It is very much of its and place. But during the course of writing the book, I set up a Google alert for Wendy Wasserstein (laugh) just to see what was happening in the present world. And there are many, many productions of her plays going on now … often. And, it’s funny … a young friend of mine … in her twenties, when she heard that I was doing this play … several of them … were all so excited because they had all performed in “Uncommon Women” in high school.

And so I think a lot of the subjects she was dealing with … about the relationships between friends, about the uncertainty of young women, about the relationships of family in “The Sisters Rosensweig”, those are pretty on-going themes. And the plays themselves are, are funny and bright and witty.

And so I think they will … I think they will last.

HEFFNER: We know each other because years and years ago … you were writing about film, when I was spending time in, in Hollywood.

I wondered just now, when you misspoke … maybe you don’t realize it … you said “when I was …” … about this young friend, “who when she heard that I was writing this play …

SALAMON: Oh, I said “play” …

HEFFNER: I wondered what …

SALAMON: Oops … (laugh)

HEFFNER: … that indicated about my friend Julie? Do you want to write a play? Is this …

SALAMON: Never.

HEFFNER: … in part what attracted you to her?

SALAMON: No. I, I would not want to write a play or a movie, because I am not collaborative. (Laugh) I know that sounds terrible. But it’s such a collaborative process. And obviously …

HEFFNER: For her?

SALAMON: … for everybody. When you write a play … once you’ve written it … you give it to a director …

HEFFNER: Aha …

SALAMON: … and to actors. And it’s out of your hands at that point. So how that play is interpreted … quite interesting … “The Sisters Rosensweig” … when Wendy Wasserstein wrote that play she intended it to be sort of like a Chekhov play, sort of bitter-sweet and poignant.

And then Madeline Kahn, who was the great comedian, was cast as one of the sisters. And when they did the first preview, the audience was howling. And she realized, ‘Oh, I’ve written a comedy.”

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

SALAMON: And, hmm, so I think you don’t have that control over the situation. And with screen plays … I was a film critic, as you know, for many years, and I know the tortured journey from screenplay to film. And as a write … it takes a certain kind of person to enjoy that. And I’m not that person. (Laugh)

HEFFNER: Looking back where we began today … at the Boomer generation … what, what judgment do you pass upon it?

SALAMON: Well, I’m not passing judgment, I’m not God.

HEFFNER: Since when?

SALAMON: Oh, this is bad. (Laugh)

HEFFNER: Movie critic.

SALAMON: Okay, what’s my judgment of the Baby Boom? I think it’s like every generation … it starts out with a sense of one kind of ideals that gets tempered, altered, changed over time by circumstances, by maturity, by all kinds of things. And sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. And when I look at this generation I think some things it’s done extremely well.

I think that if you look at the progress of women, of gays of that kind of social advancement … we’ve done well.

When I look at the environment consciousness … I could say we’ve done well, but the same Baby Boom has become obsessed with bigger is better in a way that completely is mind-blowing to me.

That now the mark of making it is to have a kitchen that’s bigger than a normal apartment should be. You know, SUV … thank God have kind of gone by the wayside. But for a long time, to have a big, gas guzzling car … now we’re moving into … now it’s cool to have a hybrid, which is good. So I think we’re a mixed bag.

And … but I think under our watch … I don’t even want to say it, because I don’t want to bring it down … yeah, we’ve had a lot of wars and we’ve had a lot of unrest … but we’ve skipped the fifty million dead … war of World War II and World War I … so I don’t know if we’re better or just more scared. Because we know worst things can happen. So I think we’re a mixed bag.

HEFFNER: Safe. You’re playing it safe.

SALAMON: No, I’m playing it accurate, I think.

HEFFNER: All right.

SALAMON: I think I’m playing it accurate. I mean I … you know, the truth is I have to look at the 20th century which was a pretty big mess in a lot of ways.

But I could argue with you that the worst part of it … in … if you just want to do body count … (laugh) … was in the first half …

HEFFNER: It’s interesting that that’s what impacts most upon you. That thought about the, the dead. The count of the dead before you Baby Boomers. And no denying that you’re right.

But in the few minutes that we have remaining. You think … I wondered as I read Wendy, whether you see her as a … and her work … as a lasting phenomenon? Or is this a part of winning a battle, or at least of entering into a struggle that … gonna be won, is won?

SALAMON: I mean, I think the part of her work that will last … it won’t last because of the battle, it won’t last because of the politics. Whether it will last will be whether the characters in those plays … be it relationships between the people depicted in those plays … will resonate in twenty or thirty years. That’s hard to predict because things change so much … it’s hard to know … will this seem very dated?

But when I think of a play like “The Sisters Rosensweig”, for example, which is a family play, I think that certainly has a really good chance of lasting. And “Uncommon Women”, even though it’s a period piece … the relationship of those young women to one another, I think that will last.

“The Heidi Chronicles”, oddly enough, which was her most successful play, I think is the most problematic in terms of thinking “will it last or not”?

HEFFNER: Why?

SALAMON: Because it is so geared to that moment in time, that indecision. And the main character, Heidi, is a cipher … she’s watching, so she’s hard to kind of hang your hat on. She’s hard to kind of grasp because she’s a watcher … she’s observing the events around her. And I think it hit a nerve at that moment because the events she was observing, were the events that were happening. So I’m not sure how that will play in the future.

And yet, I will say in, in … writing the book and it’s always hard to evaluate when you’re writing a book about somebody because you do start to become … you start to understand their thought process and that translates into your appreciation of the work. So I may appreciate it more now than other people will. But I think a lot of it has a, has a really good chance of lasting.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the critical world received her appropriately?

SALAMON: I think the critical world received her amazingly well … was it appropriately?

HEFFNER: But appropriately?

SALAMON: I think that appropriately for that time. I mean I think she probably … you know she was a good networker and a good marketer of herself.

HEFFNER: I gather.

SALAMON: And I think that she made herself part of the zeitgeist, but I also think that … I don’t think it was a form of shrewdness … but I do think that the people reviewing the plays at the time were very much the people she was writing about, so I think when the reviewers were reviewing, they were seeing themselves … portrayed in a very accurate way.

HEFFNER: What more could a writer ask for?

SALAMON: Exactly. It’s, you know, it’s part of the narcissim fo the Baby Boom.

HEFFNER: (Laugh) We’re back to that which is the point, of course, at which Julie I thank you for joining me again on The Open Mind … and I expect to be able to say the same things about the next book. So hurry up.

SALAMON: Oh, thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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