Wendy Lesser was born and brought up in suburban California, a setting she describes as having no “imaginative echo surrounding real places,” as places with more history do. Her father, Murray Lesser, an engineer and writer, was employed by IBM (International Business Machines). When Lesser was six, her parents were divorced. She, her sister, and her mother, also a writer, stayed on in the family’s Palo Alto home. In school, Lesser was taught by a series of unconventional and innovative teachers who brought avant-garde ideas like role playing and the Beat poets’ work into the classroom. From Lesser’s teenage years on, she was fascinated by cities and the urban lifestyle.
She attended Harvard University, from which she received a B.A. degree in 1973. Among the highlights of her college years were being a relative moderate within political action committees and a friendship with Benazir Bhutto, the future president of Pakistan. Unenthusiastic about the prospect of American graduate school, she took a professor’s advice to apply to Cambridge University. Once accepted, she loved the Oxbridge approach to scholarship, but a disastrous romance ended in a bout of near-depression for Lesser. The California with which she had tried not to identify now struck her as a good place to be; she returned to enter a Ph.D. program in English at the University of California at Berkeley.
While working on her degree, she concluded that she was not suited for a career in academia, yet she wanted a vocation in which her interests in word usage and in literary matters could have sway. With a fellow graduate student, she founded a consulting firm, Lesser & Ogden Associates. The two scoured the Peninsula (the highly built-up area south of San Francisco), selling their writing and analytical services to municipalities and other nonprofit entities. Lesser later admitted that they had no special qualifications to do this but figured their prestigious degrees, thinking ability, and skill with words would be sufficient. They did eventually get clients and worked as consultants from 1977 until early 1981. This gave Lesser some credentials with which she was hired as an “arts and environment” consultant by the San Francisco Foundation.
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