Remembering Wendy

I met Wendy Wasserstein only twice, though it was the first time that made an impact. It was the purest "meet a celebrity" moment I've ever had. Before I tried to get into parties, before I was “cool” enough not to care. And, truth be told, the moment I met her -- the drive I had to meet her -- had nothing to do with fame or celebrity. It was about recognition.

In August 1991, I was 16 and about to be a senior in high school. My parents had friends with a house in the Hamptons who had invited us out for a long weekend. At the end of a lazy beach afternoon, I was sandy and frizzy and dirty. In the car I had taken off my soggy bathing suit and put on a pair of men's boxer shorts and a white Hanes T-shirt. My hair -- always big and frizzy and Jewish -- was in full revolt from the salt and humidity. My father was driving. I screamed, "STOP THE CAR." He braked, thinking something was wrong.

He turned but by then I was half out of the Honda and pointing to a sign on a church that read "Wendy Wasserstein, speaking today." It indicated that a reception would be held on the lawn behind the building. The event had started at least two hours before. Barefoot, awful outfit and all, I set out to see if I could find her.

From the moment I first saw The Heidi Chronicles, around the time it debuted on Broadway in 1989, I was fixated on Wasserstein's melancholy message of feminism's legacy. In some respects, it didn't make much sense. I'm not a baby boomer, for one, and her work, especially her early work, is very much located in the baby boomer woman's experience. I was technically too young for it then, in my early teens. But despite that, I sensed that the problems Heidi and Wasserstein's other women faced -- career, relationships, babies, compromises -- would be mine as well. That balancing everything I wanted and still being an "uncommon woman," would be painful even if I was a success. I over-related to her characters. And though her social commentary could be seen as simplistic, it was revolutionary in its stubborn willingness to push women to recognize that to be lonely had been a piece of our achievement. In a tribute to Wasserstein in yesterday's New York Times, Charles Isherwood quotes one of my favorite lines from The Heidi Chronicle: "We're all concerned, intelligent, good women. It's just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the point was that we were all in this together."

That hot August day in '91, I ran around the back of the building -- smack into a very genteel, very Hamptons, champagne-fueled afternoon cocktail party feting Ms. Wasserstein. I saw her there, more well-dressed than I, of course, but just as frizzy haired, carrying an oversized, bulky handbag that was anything but sleek, talking to admirers who held delicate flutes of light sparkling beverages. She saw me and smiled. I obviously wasn't supposed to be there. I had a moment of panic, but I had already come that far. And suddenly, as one clutch of well-wishers moved on, she was alone. I approached. She said, "Did you come to see me?" and I babbled, in a mortifying stream of consciousness: "I did. But I missed the talk. I mean the reading. I mean … I just ... I just wanted to tell you that I love your work. And it speaks to me, it's feminist and it's Jewish and it makes me feel like, well I'm a writer, I mean I think I could be a writer. And it makes me feel like, well maybe I could be a writer someday, but for real." I said this all in a rush and then felt instantly flushed and childish. Wasserstein didn't laugh. She reached into her bag and pulled out a dog-eared edition of her book of plays, The Heidi Chronicles: Uncommon Women & Others and Isn't It Romantic. I vaguely noted that someone there was selling them near where we stood. In her hand was the copy of the book she had read from that day, so there were notes in the margins, little directions, thoughts. She asked, "Do you have my book?" and I said, "No," and over-explained, in another embarrassing stream of verbosity -- I didn't have a wallet on me, I just wanted to meet her, etc., etc. She ignored that bit. "Tell me your name again," she asked. I said “Sarah,” and she bent back the cover of her book, pulled a pen from her voluminous bag and wrote on the title page, “To Sarah, who also writes ... all the best, Wendy Wasserstein.” She added another line beneath that, something like "looking forward to reading your work,” and handed me the book. I protested the gift to which she simply said, "Sometimes it's best just to give things to people."

I saw her read once more, when I was in college, but I didn't really get to talk to her afterward. For years I've hoped to meet her again and tell her what it meant, that moment, to be recognized. It was, on a small scale, akin to the recognition she gave two generations of feminists. I never had the chance.

Sarah Wildman is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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