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At 51 and a Mom, Writer Wasserstein Scales Back a Bit

Her 2-year-old girl has changed her life, as one in a new collection of her essays reflects.


Wendy Wasserstein no longer has a to-do list.

In the preface to her recently published collection of essays, "Shiksa Goddess," the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright writes: "When I turned 40 I made a To Do list composed mostly of items left over from when I turned 30."

It's not that, at 51, Wasserstein has finally "done it all," but she has achieved several of those pesky leftover goals. "I have lost a great deal of weight, so I'm thinner, and I have a baby," she explains from her office in New York.

The baby is Lucy Jane, who turned 2 on Sept. 12. Her birth, more than two months premature and at less than 2 pounds, is the subject of the final, touching essay in "Shiksa Goddess."

Lucy is also one of the main subjects of Wasserstein's conversation on this particular afternoon. "I'm a Jewish mother! Oh, my God," she says. "I used to joke with my mother there was a naches [Yiddish for 'proud pleasure'] invitational at the Fountainbleu Hotel where all the mothers come down to talk about their children. Now there's a whole new generation of us. We look different, but it's the same thing."

A single mother who gave birth after years of fertility treatments and who has chosen not to disclose the identity of Lucy's father, Wasserstein eagerly shares some of the tidbits she might impart at such a baby invitational. Lucy's first word, for example, was "cat." "I would like to tell you it was 'book' or 'encyclopedia'-- it was 'Aristotle'! It actually was 'cat,'" she says, adding that her household includes two cats.

Then there's Lucy's schooling, which has begun at the Barnard Toddler Center. "We're two generations of Seven Sister school women," says Wasserstein, who turned her experiences at Mount Holyoke College into fodder for her 1975 play "Uncommon Women and Others."

Having a baby has altered Wasserstein's life and work routine. "My writing day used to go all through the day," she says. Now, "it has to be slightly more disciplined because there's only so many hours I can do it, and then I want to see Lucy."

She still tries to spend four hours a day writing, but she does it at an office 10 blocks from her West Side apartment. "If I can spend time alone and write, I do feel in touch with myself. If I don't, I just think, where's Wendy gone?"

Although she doesn't feel ready to write a play about motherhood, Wasserstein says the experience "makes me want to write about my own family. It puts [in] a little bit of perspective about my parents.

"I would like [Lucy] to know about it from my point of view before she starts writing about me."

Essays not only provide a quick writing fix between plays, they also allow her to write about subjects she might not want to deal with onstage. "Plays take me a long time to write and then to get on," she explains. "In writing an essay, there's a beginning, middle and an end. The essay about Lucy Jane was a way to put the experience in some perspective. I couldn't have put that in a play. It's almost as if I had to blurt it out. In some ways, it ordered it for me. I think writing essays has given me almost an eye, an observer's eye, that has helped in playwriting."

"Shiksa Goddess" is Wasserstein's second essay collection and contains essays previously published in national publications including Harper's Bazaar, the New York Times and Vogue.

In the title essay (reprinted from the New Yorker), Wasserstein comes clean about her Episcopal heritage--a mock revelation prompted by the sudden discovery of Jewish roots by everyone from Madeleine K. Albright to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The next-to-last essay, however, "How I Spent My Forties," was written exclusively for the book. It focuses on the 1998 death of her oldest sister, Sandra Meyer (the model for the protagonist in Wasserstein's 1991 play, "The Sisters Rosensweig") and on the playwright's decision to have a child. That essay and the concluding one, "Days of Awe: The Birth of Lucy Jane," are her favorites.

"I think there's a synthesis in those two essays. What I was trying to build toward is that there is comedic writing that is serious--even writing about something as profoundly serious as my sister's death or the birth of my child." she says.

Besides raising Lucy and promoting "Shiksa Goddess," Wasserstein is writing the book for a Broadway adaptation of the 1951 Gershwin movie musical "An American in Paris," to be directed by Jerry Zaks. "I love that I'm collaborating with George and Ira. We sit in a room, me and George and Ira," she says.

She has completed the book for a stage musical based on her 1995 children's book, "Pamela's First Musical," set to a score by Cy Coleman and David Zippel. And she's working on several screenplays, including an adaptation of Mameve Medwed's novel "Mail" for director Sharon Maguire ("Bridget Jones's Diary") and, for Julia Roberts' production company, an adaptation of an unfinished novel by Laura Zigman (whose "Animal Instincts" was made into the movie "Someone Like You").

Wasserstein often writes about how different she is from her mother, Lola. One of her choicest anecdotes concerns the opening-night party for "The Sisters Rosensweig." The literary manager of Lincoln Center turned to Lola Wasserstein and said, "You must be so proud of Wendy." To which Lola replied, "Yes, but wouldn't it have been nicer if this was Wendy's wedding?"

Lola, the playwright says, is crazy about baby Lucy. And Wasserstein is convinced the child has inherited certain traits from her grandmother. "I see a line from Lucy Jane to Lola. They are both coquettish and feminine. They both have a guile. They're like actresses, those two."

But adoring her new grandchild doesn't mean Wasserstein's mother has stopped nudging Wendy about marriage. "She always says, 'Maybe you'll meet somebody,'" Wasserstein says.

J. Wynn Rousuck is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.

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