Harvey Fierstein on love, Broadway, secrets, addiction, and fighting anti-LGBTQ bigotry
The Daily Beast
April 1, 2022
Harvey Fierstein tells Tim Teeman why bigots are “emotionally dead, intellectually dead, and historically dead,” and talks Broadway success, love, suicide, and alcohol addiction.
Harvey Fierstein says he called his memoir, I Was Better Last Night, because “it’s what every actor thinks when friends come backstage. ‘Oh, you should have been here last night. The audience was funnier. I was better. Such and such got a bigger laugh.’ Also, I thought it would make the absolute best line on a gravestone.”
Will it be on his, this reporter asked. “No, I won’t have a gravestone,” Fierstein said. “Ashes to ashes, darling. Ashes to ashes.”
That line was delivered in Fierstein’s rich, sandpapered brogue hours before he was due to attend a dress rehearsal of the new Broadway production of Funny Girl starring Beanie Feldstein, for which he has written the book. Asked how the show was going, the 69-year old actor, playwright, and screenwriter laughed and said he didn’t know.
“I stay away from tech rehearsals. The last person anyone needs at a tech rehearsal is the playwright. There are places you can do nothing, and that is one of them. They’re trying to do lights, costume changes, the set, time everything out, write tunes. The last thing they need is someone saying, ‘Maybe if we changed that ‘a’ to a ‘the.’”
At the dress rehearsal, he likes to be able to say, “This is wonderful,” or “This needs to be tightened.” Fierstein pauses. “That can be valuable. Or that’s what I tell myself. I like to be valuable sometimes.” As he says, he’s been doing theater for “a very long time.”
Writing his memoir was “like giving birth. I’m sure it’s very painful but you don’t remember that part. You just look at the baby.” Rave reviews and placement on The New York Times bestseller list have made the experience “kind of like dreamland.”
He took to heart Shirley MacLaine’s advice in writing it: “to let memory itself be the editor,” and not to push his memory beyond what came to mind. “I describe it as an open tap. I let it flow. The hard part is, once you open that tap it doesn’t close. The memories keep coming.”
Some are very funny. He recounts a crush on Richard Chamberlain, and how he asked the Dr. Kildare actor to fulfill a (chaste) long-held dream of his one night. (“I think our time has come and gone,” Fierstein says today, with a chuckle.) He talks about growing up gay in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and finding his way in the arty demi-monde of New York, the Stonewall Riots, the AIDS era, experimental theater, the long gestation of the multi-Tony Award-winning Torch Song Trilogy, acting opposite Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire, encountering Andy Warhol, trying to take his own life, heart surgery, alcoholism, Hairspray (another Tony Award), Ginger Rogers’ homophobia (yes, really), playing Bella Abzug on stage, and his attempts at finding love.
It is a rich, beautifully written portrait of a life, and an instructive, extremely personal sweep of theatrical, pop cultural, and LGBTQ history. You can hear his voice in every anecdote. Fierstein even finally tells a key truth about his own life and its intersection with Torch Song Trilogy, after many years of lying to those who had asked—and it was his brother who unlocked it after a performance of the 2018 Broadway revival.
Fierstein, who turns 70 on June 6, said that he left some stories out, like being mean about someone well-known whose career is not going well, “but I’ve really tried not to leave anything out of the experience I wanted to tell, of living my life in a certain way. I’m sure I was mean about a couple of people, but I really tried not to be. Books are around for a long time, not like a magazine article or interview. So, if you write something about somebody, be really sure that’s what you want to say about them.”
Fierstein hopes the book shows he has lived his life “in a certain way. Most showbiz books are like, ‘I saw somebody on stage and said that’s going to be me someday,’ and that was not me. That’s not my story. I never wanted to be an actor. I never wanted to be a writer. I have lived this life sort of haphazardly. It has brought me on this wonderful, fabulous adventure.”
This adventure is one of determination, rather than ambition, he says. “I never said I wanted to be a Broadway star. Even writing the book, do you think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be a New York Times bestseller?’ Sure, but did I think it would ever be a reality? No, I didn’t. You’re working your ass off every day putting your heart onto the page and just hope people like it.”
His father died young, at 63, just when Fierstein had gotten his Equity card. He insisted the family be close, and Fierstein and his brother still are. His mother initially “didn’t have the knowledge to deal” with his homosexuality. “She didn’t have the vocabulary, didn’t have the emotional knowledge, the social knowledge. All she had was a mother’s fear that her son was going to be unhappy and miserable, and get arrested.”
He writes in the book that eventually his mother became a great ally, delivering meals for the charity God’s We Deliver, and working with young LGBTQ people. “That’s the point of trying to educate the general public. You tell them the truth, so they don’t live in fear.”
That is particularly acute now, with over 300 anti-LGBTQ bills in Republican-run state legislatures, and a return of the lies and poisonous Republican rhetoric of LGBTQ people “grooming” young people.
Fierstein condemns the bans on young trans people playing sports at school and accessing gender-affirming healthcare, as well as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. “Science says you cannot go backwards. You can’t go back to where you were. You can make-believe you can go back to where you were, but you can’t unlearn something. Pandora’s Box never closes again. I have a great anger towards these people obviously—that they dare to say we are not citizens and that there is something wrong with us, blah, blah, blah. On the other hand, I have great sympathy for them because they are dead. They are emotionally dead, intellectually dead, historically dead. When you want to go backwards, you’re not alive anymore. You’re not experiencing life.”
Fierstein says there is a saying among antique dealers—that if you want to get rich, sell people back their childhoods. “Think of that penny candy you had as a child. Now you’re 60 walking through an antiques mall, you see it, and you pay 50 dollars for that penny candy. You’re trying to get that memory back. But you can’t. You can’t go back. That’s not living, that’s remembering, and these people with their ‘Make America Great Again’ are just frightened of change. We’re all frightened of change. But you can’t change change. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t stand still. You can’t breathe that breath again. It’s not possible. So, they scream and yell. They’re letting their fear run them, not their bravery.
“There’s nothing brave about these people. They hide behind their Bibles. They hide behind their memories. They hide behind everything. They do not live. They’re the walking dead. We have far too many of these old people in our government. I have nothing against old people, but I do think we need to get them out of our government. When I think of people like Chuck Grassley—these old men who haven’t heard anything said to them in 50 years, who haven’t had a new thought—that’s not my country.
“What we see as a great adventure of life they see as trying to steal their happiness, their peaceful deaths. They just want to live out their days, saying ‘Stop challenging me, stop making me think about new things. I just want to watch The Andy Griffith Show on TV.’ I believe in young people. I believe the world must be run by young people. They will guide us to where we need to go.”
Fierstein believes that while Republican legislatures are successfully passing anti-LGBTQ legislation, and whipping up hatred against LGBTQ people, right now, that ultimately they will lose. “Look at Putin. He’s trying to do the same thing, to somehow return to the glory days of the USSR. He’s like, ‘Why are the Ukrainians fighting me so hard?’ Because you are dead, you are the past. These are living people. Eventually, you are going to lose.”
What would he say to trans kids living through these times of intense prejudice, vitriol, and bullying?
“You must be yourself. You can’t be somebody else, or try to be somebody else, because that is suicide. In my book Sissy Duckling, one of the things I write is, ‘Be brave, be you.’ My generation fought the battle of sexuality. Our job was to somehow get the heterosexual, normative idea out of the way, to say that being gay was just as normal, just as much part of the human experience as being straight. Obviously, we are still working on that or there wouldn’t be 300-plus anti-LGBTQ bills. This next generation’s focus is around gender. And so I get in line and take my place behind them in the army of right.”
In the book, he writes about watching Torch Song anew in the Broadway revival in 2018, and the transformation of a play that was once dangerous into something joyous. The sting of Arnold’s mother’s rejection remained the same, but the LGBTQ audience had changed. From being “too frightened to go see it, they now hold it up as part of their history and lives.”
Fierstein recalls fighting the good LGBTQ fight on TV at a time when there was little visibility. Today he says vociferously it was “never my job” to be a figurehead. “The hardest part of my job was to tell everybody that I represent no one but myself, because no one can represent the entire gay experience. It’s just not possible. We’re too much of a rainbow of experience. The hardest thing was to say, ‘Yes, I’m gay. No, I don’t represent all homosexuals.’ Nobody elected me to shit.”
Indeed, he says, when he wrote Torch Song Trilogy he was “screamed at” by some within the LGBTQ community who objected to the portrayal of a gay man wanting what looked like a conventional marriage. Or: “You’re just trying to turn us into heterosexuals,” as Fierstein says.
“You can’t win with our people, we are such a bitchy lot,” he adds. “We’re so negative so many times. There’s still a level of self-loathing in our community that pops up every now and again that says we don’t deserve freedom.” He sees it as a hangover of sorts from the era of activism of the Mattachine Society, whose members would wear dark suits and ties and hold placards aloft. Even if it was born of a very different time, Fierstein thinks there is an element of LGBTQ thinking “that if we look like them they will accept us, they will accept us. It wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now. Nobody goes out of their way to accept somebody different unless they are forced to. It’s just human nature.”
In the book, Fierstein writes powerfully about the moment and aftermath of trying to commit suicide many years ago. “It really was exhaustion. On every level. I really felt I had fought enough, I really felt I had done enough. I survived the AIDS era, I did the best I could. I survived all these political battles. I fought as hard as I could. I had my successes in several fields. I was dead. The alcohol does that to you. If you take depression and the exhaustion and put the alcohol on top of it, it’s a very bad combination, cookie. A very bad combination. Alcohol is a depressant, right? So if you’re already depressed and then drinking half a gallon of Southern Comfort every day, you’re not going to end up in a good place.”
Did he really mean to kill himself?
“Cookie, I didn’t leave any note. If you want to know if someone is really serious, they’re not going to leave you a note. I knew if I wrote a note, people would say I was wrong. I worked it so that nobody would find me for at least two days.”
He woke up the next day and called a friend who was in Al-Anon (the group for families and friends of alcoholics), and asked for help to find an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. “I was ready to be reborn, as it were. In AA they call it ‘surrender.’ I was ready to say, ‘OK, doing it my way has led me to a garage, let me try it your way.’” Today, Fierstein confesses to not going to “as many meetings as I should. I’m a bad boy. I’ve been sober 26 years, and most of my friends are sober. There is no one in my life who doesn’t know I am clean and sober, so there is no chance of someone giving me something I shouldn’t have. But I am aware that on my way home from the theater tonight I could stop and buy a bottle. Nothing stops me from buying a bottle other than 26 years of happiness.”
Has his depression lifted? “It has. I must be much happier than I used to be. Well, I don’t put as much faith in boyfriends as I used to and that’s bound to make you happy.” He laughs.
The trajectory of Torch Song Trilogy is one that very clearly follows one gay man’s embrace and desire for love and family. Does Fierstein really not want love now? “I don’t want to sound awful…” he laughs… “but truthfully I’m really glad I’m alone. Like now, I will leave a couple who are really happy, come home, sit on the couch and think, ‘What if there was somebody else here?’ I laugh to myself. When you live in your head, which most writers do, it is easier to live alone.”
He writes about the occasional hookup he has enjoyed (and continues to enjoy). His friends mean he is “constantly surrounded by love,” but he laughs as he recalls a recent workshop of the musical A Catered Affair, which he wrote the book for, about a woman who lives her whole life believing her husband didn’t love her when he did. Fierstein says Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club, turned to him, tears running down her face, and said, “You write this show, and you say you want to be alone?” Fierstein’s reply: “Lynne, I write about God, and I don’t believe in God. That’s the job of the writer, isn’t it?”
On June 6, there will not be the conventional landmark celebration of a 70th birthday—at least at his behest. Fierstein actively dissuades his friends from marking it. “When you are in the public eye, you get so many lovely things all year long. I don’t need the day I was born to be celebrated. Enough about Harvey already.” Such a life moment also doesn’t make him dwell on his mortality. He says he has no fear of dying, having attempted suicide and having “died” momentarily during heart surgery.
At the end of the book, with so much divulged, he asks on the page: “Will this telling heal?” So, this reporter asked, had it?
“Yes, absolutely,” Fierstein said. “The only things that have power over you are secrets. Once you open up, once you put your secrets out there, they can’t hide in the shadows anymore waiting to get you. Leonard Cohen in his song ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’ talks about memories that make you ‘clench your fist’ and veins that ‘stand out like highways all along your wrist.’ If you are open about your memories, if you tell someone about them, if you are honest to yourself about them they lose that power to be that frightening. It’s why confession is good for Catholics. It happens in 12-step programs. You try and get that stuff out so it doesn’t have that power over you anymore. Writing this book did that. A lot of stuff that’s in the book is now very benign for me.”
Fierstein has always lived emphatically on his own terms, even down to winding our conversation up. “Alright, I am leaving you,” he announced grandly suddenly at the end of a sentence. “Bye, darling.”
Never has a phone line gone so fabulously dead.