Don’t be fooled by Harvey Fierstein’s book flap, which says he “lives in a small fictional town in Connecticut.” He’s always up to something. And more often than not, he’s being praised for it — the four-time Tony Award-winning author and legendary gay icon has plenty of greatest hits: the ground-changing Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles, Kinky Boots, Newsies, to name a few. This month, a revival of Funny Girl with a revised book by Fierstein opens on Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre.
When the pandemic hit, Fierstein cleared his desk of unfinished projects, got back to quilt-making (something he enjoys and does for his friends) and then took on mask-making. “After all that crap,” he says, he got on with the business of memoir-making, taking the advice of his agent who said, “Give it a try.”
The literary world is better off now that he did. The recently released I Was Better Last Night (Knopf/Penguin Random House) is a riotous romp through Fierstein’s impactful and entertaining life, from his upbringing in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn as a young Jewish gender-questioning boy (“It was down these streets that I, a self-possessed three-year old, nonchalantly wheeled my baby doll in her carriage”) to his triumphs on Broadway with lots of dishy and often hilarious encounters with creatives and Hollywood stars. In between, there’s sex, drugs and lots of musical and avant-garde theater. But it’s Fierstein’s raw, devilish honesty (and his way with a punchline) that draws you in and keeps you glued for 366 pages.
We caught up with Harvey Fierstein via phone about a week before I Was Better Last Night came out (it has since landed on The New York Times bestseller list) and, as expected, got an engaging earful of anecdotes and inspiration.
The book is chock-full of great stories — what did you leave out?
I left out a lot! [laughs] … The funny part is when you get to the end of the book and you are done and you know you are done, the tap does not shut off, so all the memories keep coming and coming and coming. … So then I had this idea that I would do a book just about my exes because a few are actually in the book — I changed the names — but I have so many more affairs. … I started making notes and writing stories about some of my exes, and then I came up with the title of that book: “Bottomless.” [We laugh.]
When you were done writing it — how did you feel, looking back at your life?
I definitely got a great feeling of accomplishment. Writing a book is nothing I ever thought I could do, let alone that I would do it.
It was interesting to read about the twists and turns from your childhood, schooling and what came out of it.
I’ve always been a little avant-garde, haven’t I? [laughs]
Yes, you do make an impression.
Even a play like Casa Valentina (2014), which isn’t that many years ago, when I did Casa Valentina nobody understood heterosexual transvestites (The play is about crossing dressing in the Catskills in the 1960s.). … Most of our lives the big discussion was a fight about sexuality — we had to fight to say that homosexuality was normal, that this is just another part of the human expression. But the battle was always sexuality. The battle’s not sexuality anymore. Well, it is in Florida …
You write about Torch Song Trilogy being proof of the struggle — what do you see as the struggle today?
Now the struggle is gender, really … we are where we were 30 years ago with sexuality (that’s where) we are with gender now. And that’s what’s frightening the hell out of them, which is why we have the problem we have in Florida — it’s because (they think) “It’s scary enough these damn homosexuals having their weddings, you know and acting like they’re normal. But now Joey up the block is Jolene, and Terry — I don’t know what to call Terry — ‘they/them?’ Oh my God. Don’t keep changing the rules on me, I don’t know where I am anymore!”
But why do you think it’s so threatening — what’s the big threat?
That’s the threat! Look, they did a very big study years ago … to see who were the happiest people on earth and they found something in common — the happiest people were in a relationship, had a job – not a career — had a job, had a place that they owned, a secure place and believed in God and went to a church or a temple or whatever. …. When you add that all up, those are all people whose lives are settled and done — they have no questions. They don’t ask any questions, they know who they are, they know where they belong … they are happy because they question nothing … there is nothing frightening in their lives. And then they have to face this world that’s changing.
Why do you think this whole movement “Make America Great Again” happened? The active word there is “again” as if you can go backwards. They want to go backwards. They’re scared of the future, they’re scared of their place in the world, they’re scared they’re getting old, they’re scared they may have to change — nobody wants to change and so “again” is the operative word for them; it’s the safe place for them. Any antiques dealer will tell you if you want to become rich, sell people back their childhoods. People want what they already know; they’re scared to death of the unknown.
So it’s new rules?
Everything that we’ve ever offered them is rule-changing. We are constantly changing the f—ing rules. First, it’s not enough that they have to be gay — now it’s he, her, them, this — we just scare the sh-t out of them. … Look at them, lined up on a bridge between Canada and America screaming that we don’t want to take vaccines — and who’s their hero? Donald Trump — a man who took the vaccine! How stupid do you have to be to stand there saying, “Donald Trump is my hero,” when he can be the exact opposite of what you are saying he did.
Same thing with Meatloaf — a man who said “If I die, I die” and then he f—ing died! These things have no irony — all they are is fear. In my mind, I see them all as dead — dead from the neck up … they don’t want to think and they don’t want to engage. … So when they look frightening to some people — and they look frightening to me in some ways — when they look frightening it’s being scared of dead people.
They are not so dead that they are not acting — there is so much anti-trans legislation. How do you fight that?
You can’t go backwards. You can f–k things up but it will get undone. Look at (Senator Chuck) Grassley (R-Iowa) … all he ever proposes is stuff to take us backwards. Backwards, backwards. They are so scared of living, it’s too frightening.
What is the antidote to all the nonsense?
You just keep moving forward, you make sure that you are engaged. You do the opposite of what they do — they don’t want to be engaged, they really don’t. They don’t really want to have to go out and vote for this stuff. So you become engaged and you run your candidates and you keep pushing your agenda and you keep moving forward and you don’t listen to them. You try to explain to them what they are frightened of and you try to explain to them as best you can that there is nothing to be frightened of.
So many highlights in your life. What are you most proud of, would you say?
Absolutely nothing sticks out because I’m so glad that I just live my life and I don’t sit and give myself awards for this and that. The funny part of writing a book like this is that it forces you to look back — but that’s not what I do … I don’t live in my past. I live in my present, hopefully, which is always the way I was, even before I got sober and all that stuff … being sober you definitely learn to be in the present.
Are there other stories you want to still tell?
Oh, I always want to — at the moment I have seven active projects. There’s always stuff to do. If you run out of stuff to do, you didn’t get out of bed that day. [We laugh.]
I Was Better Last Night is is available everywhere books are sold. For more information about Harvey Fierstein, visit harveyfierstein.com.
OUT EAST END PICKS
NORTH FORK WOMEN: FOUNDERS AWARD
Saturday, April 9, 6–9 p.m.
RGNY Vineyard, 6025 Sound Avenue, Northville
Lucille Field Goodman Founders Award honors Lori Cohen. Apps, buffet dinner, with DJ music by Susan Levine.
Saturday, May 14, 8 p.m.–1 a.m.
Dance the night away to support Hamptons Pride.
EDIE’S BACKYARD BBQ
Saturday, May 28, 1–4 p.m.
The annual tradition is back to kick off summer! In honor of Edie Windsor, proceeds from this fun, festive BBQ benefit the Edie Windsor Healthcare Center. With DJ Holly B.