When I woke up this morning and glanced at the date on the front page of the newspaper, I realized with a start that my friend Wendy Wasserstein died two years ago.
Well...could I really call her a "friend?" She had so many people who were much closer to her than I was; but whenever I was with Wendy, she treated me as if I were the only other person in the world.
I came to meet Wendy Wasserstein about a dozen years ago when I was executive director of the National Book Foundation http://www.nationalbook.org and we were seeking a high-profile master of ceremonies for the National Book Awards dinner at the Marriott Hotel in Times Square (think "Golden Globes for books" to get the general picture.)
A theatre-friend suggested the legendary Wendy. I was quite nervous, but gave her a call. Wendy agreed to meet me for breakfast at a spacious coffee shop on the east side of Broadway diagonally across from Lincoln Center. I recognized her immediately -- big hair that she kept brushing back behind her ears with no success, big eyes, cherubic face, luminous smile -- and the greatest high-pitched giggle I had ever experienced.
I ordered an egg-white omelette. Wendy liked that choice. "I'll have the same," she said to the waiter, who knew her well. "Need to watch what I eat!" He nodded and turned away. "Wait a minute," Wendy called out after a moment's thought, "Would you mind putting some melted American cheese on that?"
We laughed. We laughed alot that day and for many days thereafter.
Now I'm thinking I should have entitled this piece, "Meals with Wendy."
Anyway, the next time we got together was for a cup of coffee in a bustling cafe diagonally across the street from Carnegie Hall to talk about the program for the Awards ceremony and go over her hilarious script, all of which I can remember now was that she threatened to assemble a chorus line of her women-writer pals, Judith Thurman and Honor Moore among them, and sashay across the Ballroom stage. Wendy purportedly wanted to be sure she wasn't going to offend any of the publishing industry CEOs in the black-tie audience. I could tell by the twinkle in her eye she meant just the opposite.
Moving up in the world...Wendy asked me to have lunch with her at the "W" Hotel in the West 40s, back when it was nicknamed the Conde Nast cafeteria -- before the company moved to 42nd Street and built their own. The maitre d' led Wendy to her special reserved banquette on the left all the way toward the back of the oblong space. She drank a glass of red wine, nibbled on some cheese, talked about making the movie "The Object of My Affection," and then something about how she had just come back on the red-eye from CAA in LA where she was supposed to have met with Madonna to discuss a project, but Madonna had stood her up -- all the way to LA and back, for what? Yet Wendy never got angry, at least on the surface. When she gossiped, it wasn't in the least acerbic. It was more like she was conjuring up a mellow equanimity about show biz. She seemed to roll along with the vicissitudes.
After she gave birth to her beloved daughter, Lucy Jane, Wendy preferred that I come over to her apartment on Central Park West for our chats. She was spending alot more time writing at home, unabashedly being a working-mom, taking Lucy to school and dancing lessons and so on. As her two immense furry cats enjoyed free range of the kitchen table, Wendy proudly "made" bagels for me, and a fruit plate, fresh orange juice, and coffee. I say "made" because she pulled everything out of a white takeout bag delivered by the doorman.
By this time, Wendy had joined the Board of the National Book Foundation and managed to convince none other than Steve Martin to take over her Master of Ceremonies responsibilities -- "This will be my legacy," she told me. "That I got Steve Martin to do the Awards for you!" She expressed this as if she had gone on a deep-sea fishing expedition and returned to port with the biggest catch of the day.
Our last time together was three years ago now, early February, 2005. We were both coming out with new books and Wendy felt it was cause for celebration. And so, we exchanged bound galleys in the Parlour across the lobby from the Cafe des Artistes around the corner from her building. Wendy did not look well; her color was bad, her face was tensely-drawn. She managed to sip some pea soup with difficulty. "Dearest Neil," she inscribed the title page of Sloth, her contribution to the Oxford University Press series on The Seven Deadly Sins, "Embrace your inner sloth -- It's time! XXX Wendy." It was an awkward chat. She had been approached about taking on the administrative position at the O'Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut. Her heart was not in it. She was working on another play.
I walked her to the corner of 67th and Central Park West and we embraced in the chilly night. "I have to tuck Lucy Jane into bed and get back to work," Wendy said.
Fast-forward to this fall, and it was time for me to select the syllabus for my dramaturgy course at Montclair State University. The chair of the Theatre and Dance Department insisted that at least one of the plays should be by a woman.
Here on my desk as I write these words is a copy of The Sisters Rosensweig by Wendy Wasserstein.
I imagine Wendy coming out here on the train -- or, more likely, we would send a car service for her -- and then traipsing into my classroom with a jokey/squeaky, "Hi, Neil!" and sitting down to tell us all about Sara, Gorgeous and Pfeni, and what it was really like to work with Jane Alexander, Madeleine Kahn, and Frances McDormand.Those were the days, weren't they Wendy?