Gail Collins remembers the "steely inner toughness" of a genuinely nice person, her friend Wendy Wasserstein
Hmm, I do seem to be focused lately on dying—and in particular on how a person is remembered and by whom. Which in the end seems to me not a terrible measure of the way the person lived.
To me, to be remembered, and remembered this way, by Gail Collins is some big deal. Collins has been editorial page editor of The New York Times for, oh, a bunch of years now (the crack research staff here at DWT will fill in the exact number later), and as far as I can tell, she's done a bang-up job. I don't remember a time when NYT editorials were timelier, more on target and to the point, or better-written. One thing I'm almost never able to discern, though, is her own voice. I can hardly ever guess which editorials she may have written herself. I suppose she considers this a hallmark of the job. But I miss the heck out of her.
I kept hearing about Collins when she was writing a column for the New York Daily News, and finally discovered what the fuss was about when she joined the roster of star columnists that was the glory, all too briefly, of New York Newsday. When the suits in L.A. killed that remarkable paper, she landed at the Times, and it seemed to take her awhile to "refind" her column voice in that sea of gray type. But she did. Then she vanished into her present job.
I can think of a very few writers today who are as good. I can't think of any who are better.—Ken
The New York Times
January 31, 2006
An American Woman
By GAIL COLLINS
Wendy Wasserstein and I had a running e-mail joke in which we took turns taking responsibility for everything bad that happened. "I'll bring the Iraqi constitution and we can work on it in the bar," she wrote last year before a theater date. I congratulated her for getting Michael Brown the FEMA job. We both claimed to be in charge of the Middle East peace process.
We were making fun of Wendy's reputation for good-heartedness. Her outrageously premature death yesterday deprived the nation of a beloved playwright, but it also stripped the city of one of its best people.
The first time I met her, she was rushing to a speaking engagement at a small library in a faraway section of Brooklyn. I assumed that either this was the historic spot where she had learned to read or that she was related to the librarian. But no, it was simply a place that had the moxie to ask a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright to come and do its event.
"Last month I was voted Miss Colitis," Wendy once wrote. "I was honored at the Waldorf-Astoria and presented with a Steuben glass bowl — by Mary Ann Mobley Collins, a former Miss America. It's not that the treatment of colitis is an unworthy mission, but I have no connection to the cause except that I received a letter from the Colitis Committee asking me to show up. In other words, I became Miss Colitis because I am very nice."
Sometimes it was almost impossible to resist taking advantage. Wendy and I once jointly agreed to give talks at a convention of women journalists being held in Montana, under the theory that it would be an excellent opportunity to see one another. (We had reached that circle of scheduling hell in which two people who live less than a mile apart have to traverse the continent in order to have coffee.) After I arrived, I got a call from Wendy, who had missed the plane. Her only alternatives were to cancel or fly in at midnight, give her address at breakfast and then immediately return to the airport.
"You should do whatever you think best," I said cruelly. "The only thing I can tell you is that these women are really nice and they're looking forward to meeting you."
I picked her up at midnight. "You were right," she said, as we drove back to the airport 10 hours later. "They were awfully nice women."
Wendy was a charter member of the company of nice women, a river of accommodating humanity that flows through Manhattan just as it flows through Des Moines and Oneonta, N.Y., organizing library fund-raisers, running day care centers, ordering prescriptions for elderly parents, buying all the birthday presents and giving career counseling to the nephew of a very remote acquaintance who is trying to decide between making it big on Broadway and dentistry.
In the essay that began with the Miss Colitis story, she noted that niceness had become unfashionable, and promised to be crankier in the future. It was just a literary device. Wendy understood that being considerate in a society of self-involved strivers was not for wimps. It required a steely inner toughness that was the hallmark of many of her heroines.
She also knew her own nature. "Frankly, I never want to leave a room and be thought of as a horrible person," she admitted. But Wendy never explained what the rest of us were supposed to do when she left the room before us.