Reflections of a Calhouner
by Wendy Wasserstein ’67
On the occasion of the Dedication of Calhoun’s Mary Lea Johnson Performing Arts Center, October 2004
When I went to Calhoun, you couldn't wear skirts that were an inch above your knees. I can't tell you how many times Miss Parmelee and Miss Cosmey, our Headmistresses at the time, sent me home to change at eight-thirty in the morning. One time, I returned to the school wearing a longer skirt and bedroom slippers.
Calhoun was obviously a very different place then than it is now. First of all, it was all girls. Second of all, it was really small. I think there were twenty girls in my class, and I can still remember not only all of their names, but their shoes. I even remember the shoes of the older girls in the school. Marsha Plotkin always wore Pappagallos and yarn ribbon to match. She had pink, she had purple, she had yellow, she had light blue. I tried to wear those shoes, but what I realized was that Marsha had a petite size six foot with an arch, while I was a flat-footed ten-and-a-half.
I was at Calhoun from 1963 to 1967. What I remember, even more than the shoes, were my wonderful teachers. Miss Kramer, our Latin teacher, taught us to recite both the first twelve lines of the Aeneid and the Catullus poem, “Ode to Lesbia.” Forty years later, I heard that poem in Tom Stoppard's play The Invention of Love, and thought to myself, “Oh my God, Miss Kramer promised that it would come in handy!” And Caris Hall, my beloved history teacher, who had me reading in a private tutorial, Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. My father did ask me, “Is this what they teach at that nice girls’ school?’ And I said, “Yes, Dad. They make us memorize lesbian poems and read communist books.”
There were times when I hated Calhoun, like when the headmistress called my mother to say that I had made all the girls cut school to go shopping with me at Bergdorf’s. I was incensed. I certainly didn't make them cut school. They volunteered to cut with me. And it's not like I took them to Macy’s.
I do believe, at Calhoun, I was able to find my own voice and began a love of putting on plays. So I thought I would share with you, with Joan's aide, a memory of one of my favorite Calhoun productions. Anne Ellen Lesser was the hip, young administrator and also held a philosophy class. One year, she had an idea to put on a play in our auditorium, which was at that time, the Jewish Community Center on West 89th Street. The play she chose was Gunter Grass's The Wicked Cooks. Gunter Grass, for those of you who don't know, has two major claims-to-fame. The first was that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. The second was that he had an all-girl high school production of the absurdist play, The Wicked Cooks.
My parents were in Europe during our rehearsal period, and my big sister Sandy, who was an executive at General Foods, came to stay with me. At night, I would rehearse my lines with her and she would make her Maxwell House account executive buddies listen to it and ask them if it made any sense to them. There would be a stunned look on their face, and they would ask me, "Why isn't your school doing Annie?"
The day of the performance arrived, and the proud parent body sat in the theater as we came out on stage with giant chefs’ hats and aprons and began reciting lines in unison like, “The moon is a potato/ The star is a tomato/ And everywhere are cooks/ In all the halls and nooks.” I distinctly remember seeing jaws dropping and a hushed silence, and at the end, a burst of parental applause for the completely incomprehensible event.
On the other hand, the first plays I ever wrote were for the Calhoun Annual Mother/Daughter fashion shows. To this day, I don’t know very much about fashion, but I did know they’d let me out of gym class if I wrote them. So in fact, I did make my playwriting debut on a Calhoun stage.
In all seriousness, I think it’s very fitting that the dedication of the new theater here in Calhoun is in honor of Bernard Jacobs. To put it simply, I loved Bernie Jacobs. He produced my play, The Heidi Chronicles, on Broadway. But more importantly, he was a real friend and mentor. Bernie was not only a generous man, but a man who never let gender get in the way of his evaluation of talent. When Bernie spoke about the artist he believed in, like Michael Bennett or Bernadette Peters, he had the pride of not only a parent, but a man who believed in the possibilities of perfection in the theatre. A life in the theatre is a lonely one, but Bernie made his artists feel that there was someone very strong, very smart, and very caring on their side. My greatest hope, for all the future artists from Calhoun who inhabit this stage, is that Bernie’s spirit of kindness and deep professionalism is with them.