Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 9, 2011

The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein

The lobby of the art museum at Mount Holyoke College is currently dressed a bit like New York City, with street lamps and green signs hovering over cases filled with old passports, playbills, drafts, and diaries from the Archives and Special Collections, who put together this spectacular exhibit, The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein.

Wendy Wasserstein (1950-2006) wrote novels, essays, and plays, including The Heidi Chronicles, which won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony award.She or her mother seemed to have saved just about everything. We can read from several of those hand-sized diaries with cheap gilded locks, and see her humor and eye for detail and tragedy in ordinary events evident even when she  was young. There’s a story from camp about buying a pencil at the canteen: “And I chewed some of it. So Caren had to tell everybody.” In high school, some of the diary seems to take off into fiction.

Later, letters include memories of her years at Mount Holyoke. She was a history major who decided to take a playwriting class at Smith partly because the shopping was better in Northampton (still true).

Her decision to go to graduate school at Yale is chronicled, and there are photographs including one of Meryl Streep, who also studied there then. A play she drafted there, The Uncommon Women and Others, was later performed on Broadway, and photographs of the all-women cast include Kim Cattrel and Sarah Jessica Parker, as well as a quote from a sweet note she sent to Wendy.

The show, which remains open until April 15, 2012, gives a good sense of how Wendy’s life inspired her writing and humor, which often had an edge. How could it not when, upon hearing that Wendy won a Pulitzer prize, her mother apparently said that she’d be happier if she brought home a husband? Perhaps my favorite display was made of photocopies of drafts of a play, showing how she revised tirelessly in search of, then moving toward, a key line. We see her deleting a final line of The Heidi Chronicles (noting “this is silly” in the margins) and shifted dialogue between two characters to a monologue near the end: “I thought the whole point was that we shouldn’t feel stranded. I thought we were in this together.”

A quote from a journal shows Wendy’s affection for her years at Mount Holyoke College, and it’s nice to know that Mount Holyoke, as well as Broadway, which dimmed its lights on the night after her death, loves her back.



  1. I wish I could visit that exhibit–it sounds fascinating!

    How fortunate, that she decided to chronicle so many events in her life (mundane or no) and that so many artifacts are being preserved/displayed! I don’t know that this would be possible for most of us, nor do I think we’re of a mindset to make it happen. But I can say with a certainty that I wish every day that even a small fraction of the pictures & documents that she saved would’ve been preserved for my own family archives.

    Here’s to foresight as well as hindsight–and for seeing things from the “right” vantage point in the first place….

  2. I wish you could see it, too: all that tangible evidence of creativity, and the mix of life and art. And I guess it’s an art to know what to keep and what to clear away. There’s a new biography called Wendy and the Lost Boys, and the biographer posits that W.W. was someone who seemed on the surface like somebody everybody knew, but that beneath the apparent openness, nobody really knew her. A family who said a lot, and a family who kept secrets. There was a disabled brother who Wendy never met until very late in life. It kind of breaks your heart.

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