Synopses & Reviews
Celebrated playwright and magnetic wit Wendy Wasserstein has been firmly rooted in New York's cultural life since her childhood of Broadway matinees, but her appeal is universal. Shiksa Goddess
collects thirty-five of her urbane, inspiring, and deeply empathic essays all written when she was in her forties, and all infused with her trademark irreverent humor.
The full range of Wasserstein's mid-life obsessions are covered in this eclectic collection: everything from Chekhov, politics, and celebrity, to family, fashion, and real estate. Whether fretting over her figure, discovering her gentile roots, proclaiming her love for ordered-in breakfasts, lobbying for affordable theater, or writing tenderly about her very Jewish mother and her own daughter, born when she was forty-eight and single, Wasserstein reveals the full, dizzying life of a shiksa goddess with unabashed candor and inimitable style.
"Sparkling....Wasserstein comes off...warm and honest, unassuming and modest. She's the quirky, cool aunt you always wished were your mom." The Boston Phoenix
"Perceptive....Sweet....The often-poignant writing embraces wit, tragedy, joy." The Miami Herald
"It's a small piece of writing hidden at the end of too much frivolity that points to Wasserstein as one of the most effective personal essayists we have. For the Wasserstein fan who remembers reading something of hers somewhere sometime and wants to rediscover it..." Kirkus Reviews
"Gut-wrenching, life-affirming...show[s] how powerful good writing can really be." New York Post
"Wendy Wasserstein writes with a heart as big as the Ritz....These funny, truly intimate and uncommonly passionate pieces are a model of their kind." Terrance McNally
"Wasserstein writes for a certain audience. And for the most part, they should not be disappointed." Publishers Weekly
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of The Heidi Chronicles comes this bestselling collection of 35 urbane, inspiring, and deeply empathetic essays covering the full range of her mid-life obsessions.
About the Author
Wendy Wasserstein is the author of the the plays Uncommon Women and Others, Isn't It Romantic, The Sisters Rosensweig, An American Daughter, and The Heidi Chronicles, for which she received a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, the novel Elements of Style, and Bachelor Girls. She was admired both for the warmth and the satirical cool of her writing; each of her plays and books captures an essence of the time, makes us laugh and leaves us wiser. Wendy Wasserstein was born in 1950 in Brooklyn and died at the age of 55. Her daughter, Lucy Jane, lives in New York.
Table of Contents
Shiksa Goddess 3
A Place They'd Never Seen: The Theater 7
Hillary Clinton's Muddled Legacy 17
The Forty-eight-Hour Turnaround 21
How Suite It Is 30
The LUMP List 34
She Saw Through Us 38
First Ladies Get Dressed 40
Good, Better, Bette 45
Three Sisters 65
Afternoon of a Fan 68
How to Do a Hollywood Awards Ceremony 72
Don't Tell Mother 79
Wendy's Workshop 85
The Holiday Chronicles 87
My Low-Fat Dinner with Jamie Lee Curtis 92
Jill's Adventures in Real Estate;
or, I can Get it for you at 3.2 101
Women Beware Women 116
Designing Men 120
The Muse That Mewed 123
Heidi Chronicled 128
The Me I'd Like to Be 131
Mom Says Every Day is Mother's Day 135
Waif Goodbye, Hello Bulge 138
Making Nice: When Is Enough Enough? 143
The State of the Arts 148
Dear Broadway, This Isn't Really Goodbye 156
Poles Apart 159
Ah, That First Feast in Wild Manhattan 165
New York Theater: Isn't It Romantic 169
Directing 101: George Abbott on What Works 175
Theater Problems? Call Dr. Chekhov 180
How I Spent My Forties 187
Days of Awe: The Birth of Lucy Jane 206
Reading Group Guide
1. Wasserstein says in the preface that most of these essays were written in response to a To Do list shed composed when she turned forty: “lose weight, exercise, read more, improve female friendships, improve male friendships, become a better citizen . . . move, fall in love, and the enormous ‘decide about baby” (p. ix). In what ways do these goals reflect a midlife frame of mind? How well does Wasserstein succeed in accomplishing these goals? What examples of humor and self-irony does she find in her attempts complete her list?
2. The title of this book is Shiksa Goddess, and in the opening essay Wasserstein indirectly pokes fun at gentiles like Madeline Albright and Hillary Rodham Clinton-both of whom publicly announced that they had Jewish ancestors-by revealing her own “Episcopalian” roots. In what ways does Wasserstein bring a distinctly Jewish perspective to her view of herself and the world around her?
3. What conclusions does Wasserstein draw from her experiment of taking eight high school students to see a variety of Broadway plays? How do the students respond to the plays? What do their responses suggest about both the strength of American theater and the problems it has in reaching a larger, more inclusive audience?
4. Wasserstein is a passionate advocate of funding the arts. In the essay “The State of the Arts,” she writes, “For every congressman who would say that the arts are elitist, I would answer that museums, plays, and dance are not responsible for violence in elementary schools or the tragedy at Columbine High or the hopelessness felt by many adolescents” [p. 153]. Is this an effective argument? What other reasons does she give for why the government should support the arts? What does she feel is the ultimate value of the arts for the individual and for the nation? What direction does she think future funding for the arts should take?
5. Why is Wasserstein so disappointed with Hillary Clinton? Are her criticisms just? How does her view of Hillary Clinton fit with the other statements she makes about women throughout the book?
6. Much of the charm of Wassersteins essays comes from the persona she presents. In “Making Nice: When Is Enough Enough?” she writes, “Whatever nice means, Ive been it all my life” [p.143]. How is this quality revealed in her writing? What other characteristics or personality traits of Wendy Wasserstein are on display in Shiksa Goddess? How seriously does she take herself?
7. When Wasserstein visits her mothers Poland she is reminded of the terrible fate of Polish Jews in World War II. How does her own Jewish perspective help her understand what is happening in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina? In what ways does the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans parallel the Holocaust? Why does she feel it is so important to keep telling the stories of oppression and genocide?
8. Many of the essays in Shiksa Goddess are imbued with a deep admiration for the important people in Wassersteins life, from her sister and her mother to the 101-year-old director George Abbott and the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. What does Wasserstein admire about Chekhovs plays and Abbotts direction? How have these two figures influenced her work?
9. In “Waif Goodbye, Hello Bulge” and “New York Theater: Isnt It Romantic,” Wasserstein challenges prevailing views about the attractiveness of womens bodies and the vitality of contemporary theater, suggesting that super-thin supermodels are now trying to gain weight in order to be fashionable and that actors are now spurning Hollywood movies for the New York stage. What point is she making in these satirical essays? Why is this a more effective way of revealing societys foolishness than a more straightforward criticism would be?
10. In “Three Sisters,” after Wasserstein has just watched her play The Sisters Rosensweig, she thinks to herself that “this author must be very mature. She must believe in family and personal history. She must believe in the challenge and tradition of well-structured plays. . . . She must believe there are possibilities. Obviously, then, the author could not possibly be me” [p. 67]. Why would Wasserstein view herself in this way? Where else in Shiksa Goddess does this self-deprecating humor occur? In what ways do these essays in fact demonstrate a strong belief in family and personal history?
11. Wasserstein observes, “Chekhov got to do it all. He was funny, he was sad. He was moving, he was satirical” [p. 183]. Where does this mixture of humor, satire, sadness, and poignancy appear in Wassersteins own writing? How does humor help her to deal with her sisters illness and death, and with all the painful, nerve-wracking uncertainties surrounding her daughters birth?
12. In “Jills Adventures in Real Estate,” a one-act about an aspiring writer searching for affordable housing in Manhattan, the interior designer Bario Baronial complains, “The thing about these Park Avenue apartments is theyre all really too small. Thats why the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, and the Warburgs all built houses. The problem is theyre all museums now, and its very hard to get Landmarks Preservation to permit you to turn a museum into a private home” [p. 109]. What is Wasserstein suggesting here about the relationship between art and money, or between artists and real estate agents, in New York? What makes her satire of the way artists are treated in New York so biting and so effective?
13. In discussing her sisters career, Wasserstein writes, “My sister would say that life takes its toll, male or female, period. I heartily disagree. I cant help but wonder what difference it would have made in my sisters personal or corporate life if she had been a man. Of course, Sandra would say that if youre a player, gender shouldnt be an issue. But for my generation, gender is the issue” [p. 82]. Based on these essays and on her plays, how does Wasserstein view the unique problems and possibilities women face in contemporary America?
14. Wasserstein often mentions or quotes her mother, Lola, in these essays. What kind of woman is she? How has she influenced Wassersteins life?
15. While many of the essays in Shiksa Goddess are quick and lighthearted, the final two, “How I Spent My Forties” and “Days of Awe: The Birth of Lucy Jane” are longer and deal with the much weightier subjects of her sisters terminal illness and the turmoil of her daughters premature birth. Why would Wasserstein choose to end her book with these essays? What makes them so powerful and moving? In what ways does Wassersteins skill as a playwright allow her to convey all the tension and drama of these real-life events?
“Perceptive. . . . Sweet. . . . The often-poignant writing embraces wit, tragedy, joy.” —The Miami Herald
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your groups reading of Pulitzer Prize—winning playwright Wendy Wassersteins Shiksa Goddess, a collection of smart, funny, insightful, appreciative, and touching personal essays.