In a New Memoir, Harvey Fierstein Shares Gossip and Regrets
“As much as it hurts, tell the truth,” says the Tony-winning performer and playwright, tracing his path from Brooklyn to Broadway.
By Bob Morris
March 1, 2022, 5:00 a.m. ET
Harvey Fierstein contains multitudes. The playwright, screenwriter, actor and drag performer has inhabited at least as many personalities as Walt Whitman. With trademark wit and empathy, he has written about himself in “Torch Song Trilogy”; a father with a drag queen partner and a straight son in “La Cage Aux Folles”; the bootlegging song and dance man Legs Diamond; English factory workers and an unlikely firebrand in “Kinky Boots”; heterosexual cross dressers in “Casa Valentina”; striking newspaper boys in his Broadway adaptation of “Newsies”; and a sissy duckling for an HBO animated special.
And he has revised the script for the musical “Funny Girl,” a show about Fanny Brice, an unlikely star like himself, which opens on Broadway this spring.
Now, at 69, the multitalented Tony Award winner has added memoirist to his kaleidoscopic résumé. “I Was Better Last Night,” published by Knopf and described as “warm and enveloping” and full of “righteous rage” in a New York Times review, just released.
The title refers to what Fierstein would often say to friends after a performance. But it’s also about regret. “What’s the harm in looking back?” he writes. “If you’re willing to listen, I’m willing to dig.” This video interview has been edited and condensed.
Can we get this out of the way at the top? What’s with your voice?
My father had the same voice. It’s enlarged secondary vocal cords. It’s the most boring answer. You end up with a voice kind of like Harry Belafonte, except not so pretty because I abused it early in my acting career. I had no training and I listened to no one because children listen to no one.
Like all your writing, your memoir is full of humor. Do you think it’s a form of defense?
I think of humor as perspective. Perspective plus time. When I started writing, I realized that when you’re looking to talk to an audience, you have to find that line between the tragedy and the comedy and the humanity. The man slipping on the banana peel. What makes that funny is how human it is, how it could be you.
In the book, your adolescence sounds pretty great.
I arrived at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, this total innocent from Brooklyn into this world of kids that wanted to be artists. And all the teachers were professional artists and everyone was gay. I used to tease them that they bused in heterosexuals because it was the law. All of a sudden, I had a community.
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It almost coincided with Stonewall.
I was too young to go to the bar. But I was already hanging out in the Village.
As a teen you also did community theater with the Gallery Players in Brooklyn, and there was this gay male couple involved there that made a big impression on you.
They had been together for 30 years, and they were the very first gay couple I knew. They had dinner parties. They had fights. And so, as a kid I was introduced into the world of gay couples as something I recognized. When I started reading and seeing gay theater, I was shocked by how negative it was. It wasn’t the gay people I knew.
You were in drag in a Warhol play at La MaMa and Ellen Stewart, the legendary producer there, had her eye on you. Why?
The closest I could tell was when she called me up to her office one day and said, “Mama’s baby don’t wear bloomers no more.”
Right. “These other people, Mr. Fierstein, I love them,” she said. “They’re all talented and wonderful and they run around in their bloomers, and I let them do it here because it’s a safe place, but that’s all they will do. Mr. Fierstein, you are made for something else. I don’t know what that is, but we’re going to find out.”
So, after some wild plays that imitated others, you wrote an honest and personal monologue after an anonymous sexual encounter.
It was already 5 o’clock in the morning and I had a meeting at La MaMa, so it made no sense to go home to Brooklyn. I sat down on a bench and I wrote this monologue. Then I read it to a friend on the steps of La MaMa and she laughed and thought it was absolutely fabulous. But here’s the thing — she saw the character I wrote as a woman, not a gay man. She felt exactly the same way about her sexual encounters. She saw the humanity, and it wasn’t gay or straight. It was about being used as a sexual object. It was an eye-opening moment that taught me that as much as it hurts, tell the truth. And in that truth, you will find an audience, you will find other people feeling exactly the way you feel. And you will even find humor.
When your mother came to see the first part of “Torch Song” at La MaMa in 1978, she noticed that you were wearing earrings she’d been missing.
When I was doing drag early on, I would snatch a lot of her jewelry. When I took my jewelry course at Pratt, where I went to college, I gave her everything I made.
You felt supported by your parents, didn’t you?
My father was raised in an orphanage. He instilled in me and my brother that all you have is your family, and he would always be behind us. I’m sure he and my mother had many sleepless nights talking about what I was up to, wearing dresses, whatever. My brother once told Lesley Stahl in an interview that never aired, “Harvey was just always Harvey, we always accepted him as Harvey.”
So how did your mom respond to those early plays that were tender, but also brutal?
First of all, she loved the theater and took me as a kid every chance she got. And she knew my boyfriends and stuff. She wasn’t an innocent.
It’s a different world now. When you wrote your trilogy, gay couples didn’t have kids so often.
But at that time, there were all of these gay kids thrown out of their homes and getting beaten up in group homes. And so there was this need for us to go beyond our own needs as individuals and start becoming this community and take care of our children. My mother was a New York City schoolteacher, and we had a fight over the Harvey Milk school for gay kids. She told me that if you don’t mainstream these kids now, they will never have lives. Then she had a gay student and all of a sudden, she changed her mind.
You refer to L.G.B.T.Q.L.M.N.O.P. in your book. Could you get canceled for being glib?
No, because everybody knows we’re an ever-growing group. When I was a kid, I thought there were gay people and straight people, and everybody else was in the closet. As I grew up, I started realizing there are many colors in our crayon box. The men in my play “Casa Valentina” were based on real-life straight cross-dressing men in the 1950s, and not one of them agreed on anything. The great lie is that we’re all the same. Not one of us is like the other. We are all so magnificently individual.
Well said for a man who, in one year, went from playing Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” to Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
I was so happy onstage as Edna in that wig and persona. And I was happy offstage when people called me Mama. Then I go into playing Tevye, and I am surrounded by five daughters and I’ve grown my own beard and I’m talking to God and I’ve never been happier. I was completely and utterly in ecstasy when anyone called me Papa.
You were playing Bella Abzug before the pandemic in a solo play you wrote and had a Gloria Steinem incident.
At the end of the play Bella is saying, if only women would vote the way they should and not the way their husbands tell them to. And Gloria stood up and said, “No, no! Whitewomen!” She was telling me that white women vote in the interest of the men who are supporting them. Gloria will always be about encouraging independent women who take care of themselves.
Do today’s changes around sexuality and gender surprise you? Nonbinary pronouns, kids considering hormone replacement therapy? And what about polyamory and open relationships?
I’m going to be 70 in June, so I still have to make adjustments. But this is where the world is, and the conversation now was not my conversation then. But I love it. I love young people telling us where to go. I love young people defining the world and saying, “This is the world I want to live in.” Although I don’t know how my friends who are raising teenagers do it.
You’ve lived in Connecticut for years. What’s the appeal?
I never breathe freely in the city. It’s always there, calling you or frightening you. Here I live on top of a hill. I come home from work, walk straight through the house pulling my clothes off, and I fall into the swimming pool.
You write about lovers and heartbreaks in the memoir. Now you’re happily single. Are you on dating apps?
Not right now, but I once met a really nice guy on one who I’m still close with.
Wouldn’t people recognize you on a dating app?
That’s why I don’t go on them much, but when I did, I was totally open. I once put up a picture with my beard, and I think I labeled myself “Tevye is in town.” I was not trying to hide. And I did meet a few people interested in meeting Harvey Fierstein. That was fine.
Not Harvey Weinstein, as happens on occasion?
I was in a diner in Connecticut and this guy’s saying, “Oh my god, it’s Harvey Weinstein.” And I said, “No, I’m not Harvey Weinstein.” And he says, “Yes, you are,” and he wouldn’t stop accusing me of doing terrible things. I told him that that Harvey was in prison somewhere and that I was Harvey Fierstein.
Did that end it?
I paid for his dinner on my way out and that shut him up.
Your memoir has some dicey celebrity anecdotes. You got in a hot tub with James Taylor at Canyon Ranch?
I didn’t get all crazy and ask for his autograph or anything.
Did you ask for a selfie?
I didn’t do any of that. That’s fangirling.
But you managed to compliment him on his private parts.
Is that such a terrible thing