“Who the fuck are you and why am I looking at your ceiling?” boomed a voice, as smooth as glass in a blender, through my computer speakers a few weeks ago. It was that of playwright/actor Harvey Fierstein, and the occasion was a discussion about his new memoir, I Was Better Last Night, out Tuesday. There’s hardly a good answer to the question, “Who the fuck are you?” when someone with a resume like Fierstein’s asks, so I didn’t even try. I did, however, adjust the angle of my laptop’s cam.
I thought I knew who Fierstein was. I’d spent the better part of a week inside of his head via his extensive memoir, which is a vivid and wry trip through his life, as only he could tell it. To say his voice is singular is to acknowledge his distinctive timbre (he’s perpetually hoarse, as if always recovering from yelling the night before, which he says is the product of enlarged secondary vocal cords), as well as his unique vantage point as one of the earliest (and most matter-of-fact) out gay celebrities. He wrote and starred in, as he puts it, Broadway’s “first openly gay play with an openly gay lead,” Torch Song Trilogy, which debuted in 1982 and ran for more than 1,000 performances. In 1994, he became the first openly gay actor to play an openly gay role in a sitcom via CBS’s short-lived Daddy’s Girls. The 69-year-old has spent much of his career in drag, starting in the ‘60s in La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, where he acted alongside Warhol Factory staples Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and Holly Woodlawn. In 2003, he won a Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for his work as Edna Turnblad in the Broadway production of Hairspray. He memorably helped Robin Williams’s character transform in a supporting role in Mrs. Doubtfire.
In the book, as on Zoom, Fierstein alternates between earnestness and sarcasm. I knew this going in, so when he told me, “Fuck you!” within the first 10 minutes of our hourlong conversation, I took it as a compliment—a sign that he was comfortable enough to joke around with me. I did not get the sense that he meant offense or was offended at the question that prompted his profane retort: whether or not he worked with a ghostwriter on his memoir. He emphatically did not. “I mean, I write op-ed pieces, and my shows are actually good,” he submitted as evidence. “They’re actually well-written. I have like six Tony Awards. I must know how to type or something.” (Fierstein, per his Wikipedia, has four Tonys, but point taken. He definitely had the most Tony Awards out of everyone on our Zoom.)
A few minutes later, when I referenced the book’s oodles of Harvey-isms (“Guilt is stronger than instinct;” “Time heals nothing;” “The ‘60s happened mostly in the imagination;” “Prejudice is art’s greatest enemy”), he returned, “They wouldn’t be Harvey-isms if somebody else wrote them!” Later still, he referenced my question again after a philosophical monologue (hardly the only one he delivered) regarding what he views as an oft-spoke fallacy: that all humans are the same.
“From childhood, I was taught we’re all the same. And the truth is we’re not the same at all. We’re all completely and utterly different,” he said. “I will accept you for what you are, and you accept me, instead of this bullshit of, ‘We’re all the same.’ It hasn’t worked so far, and I just think it’s the wrong message.”
He paused as if to reflect and then continued, “Now the world will say, ‘Who wrote that for me?’” He added with a smile, “I’m not letting you get away with that.” Okay, okay! I believe him.
The dog by Fierstein’s feet was as close as he got to a co-writer while he worked on his book through the pandemic. When it hit in 2020 and he was locked down at his home in “a small fictional town in Connecticut,” he cleaned his desk, polished off some quilts he owed people (he sews them in his spare time), and then took the suggestion from his agent to get started on his life story. His friend Shirley MacLaine gave him this advice: “Let your memory guide you even when you’re writing about someone else.” What went in and stayed out was largely determined by his gut.
I Was Better Last Night is not a particularly gossipy book. For example, Fierstein tells the story of an actor who treated him like shit during one production only to apologize at the end for picking on him—to help ease daddy issues, she explained, she targeted a male castmate during every show and laid into him. It just happened to be Fierstein’s turn. He declines to name her in the book and reasoned during the interview that it wouldn’t do much good. “Do I have terrible things to say about people? Absofuckinglutely,” he said. “Does it belong in a book? And what good is it going to do anybody?”
Granted, he can be acerbic about the bold names he’s rubbed elbows with. For example:
Of the three legendary queens of Warhol, Holly was always my favorite. I could never catch what Candy Darling was talking about, and when I did, it wasn’t worth the effort. Jackie Curtis was a genius—absolutely—but she’d steal your lipstick, eat your sandwich, smoke your last cigarette, and get pissed that you didn’t have more to swipe.
But he’s also quite charitable. During a notorious 1983 interview that occurred as his Broadway star was rising, Barbara Walters asked him, point blank, “What’s it like to be a homosexual?” In his book, Fierstein reveals that he knew Walters personally at the time, and that her othering act was way outside behavior he’d observed off camera. Yet at the same time, he continues: “Credit Barbara Walters. She could have edited that interview to make me look like an asshole and for her to come off as a brilliant reporter. Instead, she made me look great, while she appears uninformed. She aired a discussion that to us seems conventional but back then was groundbreaking.” For someone who, more than most people on earth, has embodied the label “drama queen” as part of his job description, Fierstein is way more likely to approach his subjects with an open mind rather than scathe.
Fierstein writes that Walters questioned him “as if I were an interstellar alien.” As an out man in show business in the ‘80s and ‘90s, though, Fierstein was nearly as rare. Fierstein, the public figure, spent zero time in the closet. He was out upon arriving on the scene. He knew he was gay when he was about 5. He went to New York’s High School of Art and Design, where he says he was surrounded by gay people. “They bussed in heterosexuals,” is a joke he’s told a lot about his school through the years.
“In my world, gay was normal,” he told me. “Gay was okay. It was just fine. Everyone I knew was gay. Everybody was happy that you could be in a gay marriage, you could cruise and carry on.” He says it wasn’t until he started taking in the scant gay culture of the ‘60s that he realized his experience wasn’t the norm. “I didn’t know we were supposed to be miserable until I started reading things [like] Boys in the Band,” he said.
Was there hardship as a result of him being out? A bit. In his book, Fierstein tells the story of a family member who was initially less accepting than they turned out to be (this is saved as a final-act reveal, so I won’t spoil it). “I’m sure I lost jobs because of it,” added Fierstein. “I’m positive I did, but that’s not my problem. Do you live to work or do you work to live? I mean, what is your balance of life?” He recalls being criticized by the likes of author Edmund White for espousing the virtues of committed relationships and coming off as heteronormative in Torch Song. It’s not that Fierstein didn’t take part in the flesh buffet associated with gay liberation—he writes about cruising the backroom of the long-shuttered gay bar the Stud and the notorious trucks at the loading dock of a warehouse on Washington Street—but after a while, he got bored of anonymous sex. He writes that it became “a habit,” and one he ended up kicking: “I eased my way out of the cluster and never engaged in anonymous sex again. For those doing the math, this was the autumn of 1981, so boredom was most likely the reason I escaped the oncoming plague.”
It is the nonchalance of Fierstein’s openness that always impressed me. His appearances on Arsenio Hall in the early ‘90s, speaking openly about his sexuality, were a revelation and more than a little intimidating. The act of broadcasting self-acceptance to a national audience seemed Herculean to adolescent me. Fierstein writes repeatedly in his book of situations in which his ego won out “over sense,” but during our interview he appeared entirely uninterested in basking in any glory derived from the revolutionary nature of his openness at a time when those like him were few and far between. In his book, he pragmatically assesses, “What’s run-of-the-mill today was run-for-the-hills back then.”
I tried broaching the topic of Fierstein’s bravery repeatedly, and he deflected every time. Upon my last attempt, he interrupted me, and as testily as his overall jovial nature allowed, bellowed, “You’re insisting on complimenting me!” Guilty as charged!
He likewise refused credit for what he meant for gay representation, reasoning, “One person can’t represent an entire community. It’s impossible. Pete Buttigieg does not represent me. Does Ellen [DeGeneres] represent me? Absolutely not. Does my darling wife Rosie [O’Donnell] represent me? No. [RuPaul’s Drag Race’s] Bianca Del Rio represents me better than those people, and Bianca certainly doesn’t represent me.”
Fierstein then directed me to the dedication of his book, which reads: “To the radical fairies who flew before me.”
“I was standing on the shoulders of all of them, and they did fight and they did go to jail,” he explained. For example, Fierstein said he knew everyone at the Stonewall uprising, including icons Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. He continued: “You know, a lot of them had miserable lives, and I watched people beaten in the street, and I watched people get robbed because they were gay, and I watched people lose their jobs.”
Addressing me as “Cookie,” he continued, “we live in a country with 30-something states in which you can still be thrown out of your home for being gay. We live in a country where it’s illegal for me to give blood. We have not finished our battle yet, so I’m not going to stand on a hill with a flag saying, ‘Look what I won!’ I may have gotten a lot of what I was fighting for, but the war is always for the children. The young people always define what the war should be.” (Technically, it’s not illegal for gay men to give blood, but the FDA currently bans “a man who has had sex with another man during the past three months” from doing so.)
Fierstein writes that at 69 he remains sexually active. “As for sex—I’ve found a balance that’s right for me. My desire for physical contact has not waned, but satisfying it seems best when kept casual, nonromantic, and in most cases entre nous,” reads a passage from his book. He does not, though, use hook-up apps. “It is definitely harder when you’re a well-known person to meet people,” he said. “You have to be careful about why people want to know you.” He also said that “disease and age” prevent him from having the anonymous sex that he once loved. PrEP isn’t something that appeals to him. He writes: “I spit at the TV screen every time I see a cheerfully produced ad announcing yet one more new drug that will allow you to live as if you were normal. They’ve turned us into drug addicts, and managing us is a very profitable business.”
“I’m not for turning our community into drug addicts,” he reiterated to me when I broached the subject. So is he certifiably anti-PrEP? “I’m not anti-PrEP, I’m pro-health. I’m pro-I want everybody to be healthy and not be sick,” he said. Of course, PrEP is a highly efficacious way to avoid disease—HIV, at least.
“Do I like my community having to take a drug to have sex? No,” he elaborated. “Do I like the fact that those drugs do long-term damage to people? No. I hear about kidney damage and liver damage and other things. I don’t know what you know because I’m an old person and I don’t take PrEP and I believe in safe sex. Do you know anybody who’s gotten sick because of PrEP?”
I don’t. As someone who’s taken PrEP for the larger part of the past decade, it’s never made me sick and, as I pointed out to Fierstein, I get tested every three months to monitor my levels, ensuring I’m not experiencing any of the (rare) side effects associated with PrEP. Plus, quarterly STI testing means I stay on top of my health and that potentially asymptomatic infections can be identified and treated.
“Do you want to think of yourself as a diseased person all the time?” he countered. I don’t! Never crossed my mind! I think of myself as healthy and vigilant. When it comes to my health, I am the helicopter parent I never had. Fierstein paraphrased a line from his 1987 play Safe Sex—“I remember when the worst you got from loving was a broken heart”—and conceded that what he wants “more than anything” is for his community to be healthy. He noted that anti-vaccine hysteria in the time of covid would look absolutely ridiculous during the throes of the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“We would have been so fucking thrilled to take three shots and then be able to go to the baths,” he said. “We would have loved it. I have to wear a mask? That’s fine. I don’t want to know your name. I don’t care what you look like.”
I’m not sure if this counted as a concession, but ideologically Fierstein and I were aligned, if not practically. I too want my community to be healthy, and PrEP is one way of achieving that goal. Fierstein, at least, seems open to evolving, in a broad sense.
“One of the reasons I love acting is because I don’t know what I want to be, and I don’t have to decide,” he told me toward the end of our conversation. “You know, I still question on some level whether I’m transgender or not. I talk about it in the book: I didn’t know if I was a girl trapped in a boy’s body. Were these homosexual feelings? Were these heterosexual feelings? Because of the life I led and because of doing drag and all that, I was able to live out all of that and find out how very hard it is to be a woman. I’m not really sure I want to work that hard.”
The irony here should not be lost: Harvey Fierstein has written a 400-page book detailing who he is, only to openly question his identity during his memoir’s press cycle. At the beginning of our conversation, he asked who the fuck I am, but the more pertinent question is: Who the fuck is Harvey Fierstein? His book may only scratch the surface, but it is riveting and does so with flair. That is showmanship.