NEW YORK - Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who celebrated women confronting feminism, careers, love and motherhood in such works as "The Heidi Chronicles" and "The Sisters Rosensweig," died Monday. She was 55.
Wasserstein, who had been battling cancer in recent months, died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Andre Bishop, head of Lincoln Center Theater and Wasserstein's close friend and mentor, said the cause of death was lymphoma.
"She was an extraordinary human being whose work and whose life were extremely intertwined," Bishop said. "She was not unlike the heroines of most of her plays - a strong-minded, independent, serious good person."
Wasserstein's writing was known for its sharp, often wry observations about what women had to do to succeed in a world dominated by men.
In "The Heidi Chronicles," which won the best-play Tony as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1989, its insecure heroine (played by Joan Allen) takes a 20-year journey beginning in the late 1960s and changes her attitudes about herself, men and other women. "The Sisters Rosensweig," which moved from Lincoln Center to Broadway in 1993, concerned three siblings who find strength in themselves and in each other.
Her most recent work, "Third," which ended a New York run Dec. 18, 2005, dealt with a female college professor, played by Dianne Wiest, whose liberal, feminist convictions are put to the test by a student she sees as the epitome of the white male establishment.
In public, Wasserstein was genial, often quite funny, presenting herself as a rumpled observer of the baby-boom generation.
Many of her plays were initially seen at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons and later at Lincoln Center Theater, both run by Bishop.
Wasserstein was first noticed with "Uncommon Women and Others," written as a Yale School of Drama graduate thesis. The one-act play was expanded and done off-Broadway in 1977 with Glenn Close, Jill Eikenberry and Swoosie Kurtz in the cast. A year later, this satire about the anxieties of female college graduates was filmed for public television with Meryl Streep replacing Close.
The playwright continued her off-Broadway success with "Isn't It Romantic?" - about a free spirit who rejects her fiance and tries to find a life as a single woman.
In 1997, Broadway saw "An American Daughter," Wasserstein's story of the political downfall of a perfect career woman, played by Kate Nelligan. It was followed in 2000 by "Old Money," her look at money, manners and morals at the beginning and end of the 20th century, done at Lincoln Center's small Mitzi Newhouse Theater.
While primarily a playwright, Wasserstein also wrote for TV and the movies, most notably the screenplay for the 1998 film version of Stephen McCauley's novel, "The Object of My Affection," about a gay man and a pregnant woman who meet and move in together.
Wasserstein was the author of the best-selling children's book, "Pamela's First Musical" (1996). She also wrote two collections of personal essays, "Bachelor Girls," published in 1990, and "Swhiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties" (2001).
At age 48, Wasserstein had a daughter, Lucy Jane, born in 1999, three months prematurely. Despite persistent speculation, she always declined to reveal the identity of the girl's father.
"The thing about having a baby (at an) older (age) is that she doesn't have to live her life for me," Wasserstein said in an interview with the Forward, a Jewish weekly. "I can see her, I hope, as a person."
Born Oct. 18, 1950, Wasserstein, the youngest of four children, grew up first in Brooklyn in what she has called, "a nice, middle-class Jewish family," and later in Manhattan. Her father, Morris, was a textile executive.
She attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and then went to Yale University, where she became friends with such budding playwrights as Christopher Durang and Albert Innaurato and began her theater career.
"I find myself being more interested in my old friends and in deeper alliances," Wasserstein said in an interview with Time last year. "My 50s are also about being a mother and the joy of my daughter Lucy Jane and about loss. Real loss. My sister Sandra died of breast cancer at 60, so I know about things I didn't know about before. My father died two years ago, and then my friend (director) Gerald Gutierrez died. He was 53. I think if you experience loss, you also on some level try to treasure joy. It can be as simple as going to the ballet or being with your child."
Wasserstein is survived by her daughter Lucy Jane; her mother, Lola; a sister, Georgette Levis; and her brother, Bruce Wasserstein, chairman and chief executive of Lazard LLC.
Funeral services will be private.