One of the best things about reading a memoir by someone with a distinctive voice – both spoken and written – is that you hear them as you read their book. Let’s face it, award-winning writer and actor Harvey Fierstein qualifies as someone who has a distinctive voice, and while reading his revelatory memoir, “I Was Better Last Night” (Knopf, 2022), you’d swear he was in the room with you, dishing away. Harvey was gracious enough to make time for an interview shortly before the book’s March 2022 publication date.
Harvey, why was now the time to write your memoir, “I Was Better Last Night,” and does having a milestone birthday (70) in 2022 have anything to do with it?
What’s really funny is that so many sources, if you look online, have my birthday as 1954, even though it’s actually 1952. The reason is that when I turned 22, my friend Eric Conklin, who directed the original production of “Torch Song,” said “You should tell everybody you’re turning 21.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because if you lie when you’re older, nobody believes it. But if you start at 21, who the fuck’s going to care!” That year, I moved my birthday to ‘53. The next year, we decided we’d do it again. But I never took it seriously. Things just get picked up by this one or that one. I think it was in New York Magazine that they got the facts wrong and said my parents were Eastern European immigrants. They were actually third-generation Americans. But it got picked up by everyone and everywhere it said I was the son of Eastern European immigrants. My mother was born in Brooklyn and my father was born in the Catskills. So, I wrote the book, and there’s a fact checker, of course. Every time I mentioned my age he sent back a note, “Wikipedia says you were born in ‘54. This one says you were born in ’54,” I had to keep saying, “Why would I lie and make myself older? I’d only make myself younger!” It’s another one of those examples of why you should never lie. I am indeed as old as the mountains. So, did I write the memoir because of the birthday? No. Like everybody else in the fucking world, this pandemic hit. I was a very good boy. I sat down and did all the work on my desk. At that time, we were supposed to be doing a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” at the Kennedy Center. I finished the rewrites on that. I had rewritten “Funny Girl” which was done in London and then went on tour in England, and we were bringing it to Broadway. I wanted to make some more changes to it, so I got all those changes done. “Kinky Boots” was sold to cruise ships, so I had to do an adaptation, a shortening of the show, as I had already done for “Hairspray” and other shows. That was off my desk and done. I’m working on a new musical with Alan Menken and Jeff Feldman, the guys I wrote “Newsies” with.
Yes, I read about that in the book.
So, I was all caught up with that. Basically, I was done. Then I sat down and, as I say in the book, I made quilts. I owed a couple of quilts as gifts. I went down to my little sewing room and I made seven quilts in a row [laughs]. Usually, I turn out one a year. Everybody got their birthday quilts, their wedding quilts, whatever it was that was owed. I had cleared my desk and we were still in the pandemic. Then my agent said to me, “Why don’t you write your memoir?” I said, “Because I don’t write sentences.”
You wrote the children’s book. That has sentences.
But that’s kid sentences. I’ve written Op Eds, but for that you just have to get the voice of Edward R. Murrow in your head or something like that. That’s like writing dialogue, as well. All of a sudden, you’re Aaron Sorkin. I thought, “What the fuck? I’ve got a computer. Let me try.” I wrote four chapters, and I sent them to my agent. She said, “This is great!” She sent the chapters out to I think nine publishers, and eight of the nine made offers.
There are numerous powerful moments throughout the book. Without giving away too much…
Oh, go ahead, give it away! I already know what happens.
But I don’t want to spoil it for the readers.
That’s right. Goddammit.
Chapter 57 contains one of the most emotional sequences involving your parents. Would it be fair to say that writing the book was a cathartic experience?
Yes, the whole thing really is. When I started, I asked Shirley MacLaine because she’s written 300 books about her 700 different lives. She said, “Write what you remember because your brain has a way of editing, and it will give you what you need for this book. You’ll remember things for other books and other things, but write what you remember and just be true to what comes up.” I said, “Even about other people?” She said, “Yes. When you’re writing about other people, you’re really writing about yourself. Just trust that.” That’s what I did. There were hundreds of stories that I could have told. I just tried to sort of follow a line of thought and let it be.
That’s interesting, because the chapters in “I Was Better Last Night” are presented in chronological order, beginning in 1959 and concluding in 2022. Is that how they were written?
Yes, I wrote it exactly as it is. As you say, that particular chapter I knew was coming because I knew what happened to bring that memory back. I’m trying to say it as you said, to not give it away. What happened between me and my brother, when he sat down to watch the last revival of “Torch Song.” My editor was incredibly gentle with me. Now and then he’d say, add more here or there. But the only real note that I got from him was he wanted to move that story into chronological order since the rest of the book is. I said, “No. That’s in emotional order.”
It needed to be where it was.
Exactly! Most celebrity autobiographies begin “I was a kid and I saw a show and I said, ‘I wanna be a star, too!’” Which is obviously not my story. I never wanted to be in show business. I didn’t want to be a writer. I didn’t want to be an actor or a drag performer. It was not my dream at all. That’s why it was so important to do it chronologically. I wanted to show how I lived my life being true to the moment I was in.
In “I Was Better Last Night” you take readers on a journey through modern theater, from The Gallery Players and La Mama to off-Broadway and Broadway. With that in mind, would you agree that in addition to being a memoir, the book also functions as a theater history lesson?
I guess it does. I have certainly been told that by a bunch of people who’ve read the book. When I was talking to Patti LuPone about it, she said, “Geez, I wish I had done what you did. She came through theater school and right into the legitimate, not through the experimental. As I say in the book, I came from an art school, so I always approached it as art. Theater was part of an art movement, and I got involved because I wanted to meet Andy Warhol. Little did I know they would put me in drag. I guess there is a history there.
Certainly, when I look around me, and I look at the people that I grew up with – Kathleen Chalfant and Obba Babatundé — and, of course, La Mama became something bigger. There were lots of others. Meeting Matthew (Broderick) at 18, or Estelle Getty who was a housewife from Bayside, Queens. She wouldn’t even admit she was from Bayside. She told everybody she was from Long Island [big laugh]. I said, “Estelle! Bayside is in Queens. Shut up!”
What is history? After all, history is just day after day after day after day. I did start, as a baby, in this experimental theater. I wish that experimental theater still really existed. There were a few of us that I would say destroyed off-off-Broadway. I think greed is what destroyed off-off-Broadway. I think what happened was when people saw Tom O’Horgan make it, when “Hair” became a hit, that had a lot of people going, “Where’s my Hair?”
But don’t you think that experimental theater might exist in cities where it’s a little more affordable to do that kind of thing? Say, Austin, Texas.
There will always be experimental theater. It’s just, how is it looked at? Is the government funding there for it? I hear a lot of people saying, “Let’s not waste money on theater.” “Torch Song Trilogy” wouldn’t have been what it was if not for a government grant. I don’t know if you know this, but I just gave a grant to the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center to build a theater laboratory because rehearsal space is incredibly expensive in New York and almost impossible to find. David Rockwell is designing it and I’m hoping it’ll be open in two years. I tell a story in the book about how (years ago) we were rehearsing at the YMCA, and the director just disappeared and left us with the bill for the rehearsal room. If I can leave a rehearsal room behind… Lin-Manuel (Miranda) developed “Hamilton” in the basement of the Drama Book Shop. For my shows, I used the basement of La Mama which was this small space, but big enough for us to rehearse and develop what we needed to do. I even did a couple of shows down there.
Chapters 19 through 22 give readers insight into the inspiration for and the writing of “Torch Song Trilogy” and then much later you write about the recent revival with Michael Urie. What was it like to revisit the creation and the revision of “Torch Song Trilogy?”
They’re your children, so they never really leave you. You may not think about them in the same way all the time, but they don’t leave you. You ask a mother about her son when he was six, and she can tell you a story about that time. It doesn’t mean you live with those stories every day. But they’re always there. Unfortunately, as you get older and people die on you, you remember them, or you go back to those stories time and again to remember how you all met and all that. With something like “Torch Song,” which is so much a part of my life, there was no real shock to going back and looking at that stuff again. Seeing Michael do it was not a shock either, because I cast all of my understudies. The show ran on Broadway for five years, but I didn’t play it all five years. There were other Arnolds and I saw all of them. There were matinee Arnolds, and then we had a bus and truck tour, and a regular tour. I saw all of those guys play it. I saw it in London with Tony Sher, who died a few weeks ago. He won the Olivier for “Torch Song.” Writing a memoir is not a time to blame other people [laughs]. When you’re writing plays, it is.
I’m so glad you said that because one of the things that I think will strike readers about “I Was Better Last Night” is the brutal honesty with which you write about alcoholism and sobriety, as well as your suicide attempt. What do you hope readers will take away from that?
There’s a certain point when you’re writing something like that…I don’t really care [laughs]. I needed to tell the truth and you hope that the truth will do good. When you’re writing fiction, you care more about how it’s read and what somebody gets out of the fiction. When you’re writing non-fiction, it’s like, “This is what happened, like it or not, Cookie.” The only hope is that I hope you know I’m telling it the best I can and being truthful. Because the truth does affect people, that I know. When you’re writing drama, you are manipulating an audience, and a story, and emotions. When I was writing the book, of course, there’s still an art to it, but I’m not turning away from something because it’s not comfortable. I’m going to say it. If somebody thinks I’m an asshole, let them think I’m an asshole. You read the book, and thank you very much for doing so.
That’s my job!
You see in the book that I don’t have an answer for my own gender. Had I been born in 1980, instead of 1952, would I be a woman now? I don’t know. I don’t have those answers. I don’t have the luxury of being born in a different society. The first (trans) person I knew was Christine Jorgensen, who died owing me money, that bitch [laughs]. When I was writing the book, I was going through photographs. There’s a picture in the book of me and Marsha P. Johnson and Jon Jon marching in a Gay Pride march. I put that picture up and somebody wrote to me telling me about Marsha, like you should know who this person was. I was like, “What are you talking about? This was a friend of mine!”
Thank you for mentioning pictures. I live four blocks south of Wilton Manors in Fort Lauderdale. In the book you include a photo of the WiltonArt.com street sign that features a quote by you. What does it mean to you to be immortalized in this way?
While it’s very flattering, another place I looked had it that Walt Whitman said it! With one hand, you’re flattered, and with the other, you’re slapped across the face.
At least they got the attribution right in Wilton Manors.
That’s lovely, it really is lovely. It’s a lovely thing to see something like that. I was watching some interview with Billy Porter and as if by accident, they walked down the block where there was a mural on the side of a building of his portrait. As if, “Oh, I didn’t know that was there!” You sort of laugh, like, yeah, right! You brought a film crew because you didn’t know your picture was there on the wall [laughs]. That sort of stuff of celebrity is always funny. Especially when you have friends who are famous and you try to just be human beings together, but then you go out in public, and you realize that they mean a whole other thing to the public than to you.