An Uncommon Life

Wendy Wasserstein, renowned playwright and essayist, broke onto the New York theatre scene in 1977 with Uncommon Women and Others, a new play that chronicled the lives of a group of determined Mount Holyoke graduates. Since then, the phrase “uncommon women”—which Wasserstein took from MHC President Glenn Gettell’s 1957 inaugural address, “A Plea for the Uncommon Woman”—has found its way into the everyday parlance of the College and the world at large.

More than any theatre artist of her generation, Wasserstein changed the way contemporary women’s lives were presented onstage. Through her eyes, audiences encountered the complexity of the New York woman—that strange new species who captivated us long before Sex and the City arrived on the scene. More than three decades later, appreciative audiences still sit—spellbound—in the theatre, listening to Wasserstein’s words and contemplating her difficult, honest, and funny female characters.

Wasserstein was born on October 18, 1950 in Brooklyn, New York, to Polish Jewish immigrant parents Morris W. Wasserstein, a textile manufacturer, and Lola (Schliefer), a dancer. The youngest of five siblings, she graduated from the Calhoun School in New York in 1967 and earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Mount Holyoke in 1971. After studying writing at City College in New York, she earned an M.F.A. in playwriting at the Yale School of Drama in 1976.

During her 30-year career, Wasserstein wrote and published dozens of plays and screenplays and numerous articles, essays, and speeches. After the success of Uncommon Women, she went on to write The Heidi Chronicles (1988), The Sisters Rosensweig (1993), An American Daughter (1997), Old Money (2000), and Third (2005), all of which were produced in New York. In these plays, Wasserstein addressed a range of topics of special concern to contemporary women, and did so with humor and compassion.

Wasserstein was a charming and gregarious presence in New York social circles, and a cherished teacher and mentor. She taught playwriting as an Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University and was a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College. With the Theatre Development Fund, she founded the Open Doors program to provide underprivileged students access to New York theatre. She also served as a trustee of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Widely recognized for her work, Wasserstein was awarded virtually every major theatre prize, including the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Drama Desk Award, and the Dramatists Guild’s Hull-Warriner Award. From Mount Holyoke, she received the Mary Lyon Award in 1985 and an honorary doctorate in 1990.

Mount Holyoke College, and the world, lost a tremendous playwright and friend when Wendy Wasserstein died of lymphoma on January 30, 2006.