A defining figure in theater, cultural icon Harvey Fierstein reveals in his new memoir, I Was Better Last Night (out March 1), never-before-told stories of personal struggle and conflict, sex and romance, from his fabled career. Even those closest to him have never heard most of these tales, he tells the Village Voice. We spoke by phone in February, and I’m still laughing.
Frank Pizzoli: Why write your memoir now?
Harvey Fierstein: COVID brought life to a halt. I did what we all did—cleaned off my desk. Then I made five quilts. Next, my agent suggested a memoir, but I don’t think of myself as a writer, never wanted to be one. My dyslexia influences that; I’m better at shorter pieces. I figured no one’s going to see it anyway. Plus, so many friends have died. How will I correctly remember all that without them?
FP: But you resolved those feelings.…
HF: I did. By remembering my friend Gloria Steinem’s book on self-esteem [Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem]. She wrote that we all grow up with holes in our personality and ego. Because we don’t always know how to express what we need. Others in life fill in those holes and that’s what’s important to remember—how they did that for you, not the TikTok “facts” involved. Her idea released me, and I gave myself permission to write my memoir.
FP: How’d you progress from there?
HF: The publisher wanted 200 pages and I wrote 400. So much for not being a writer! Eight of nine publishers pitched made offers. Some more than one, which I greatly appreciate.
FP: You performed in The Haunted Host, by Robert Patrick, of Caffe Cino fame. [Caffe Cino is widely regarded as the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway.] You wrote that his play gives us a character whose problem “isn’t being gay, it’s being human.”
HF: Haunted is similar to my play Safe Sex, which portrays NYC gay life pre-AIDS—an underground denizen of clubs with late-night sexual activity. Then AIDS brought us into the light. We saw teachers, tradesmen, doctors, lawyers, husbands, fathers, brothers, friends, and neighbors struggling with illness and death. Now we were seen as “human beings” rather than only a “gay” guy.
FP: During its heyday, Fran Lebowitz says, the VIP room at Max’s Kansas City was full of cranky, needy creative people. Your memoir notes, “The ego-feeding frenzy among the denizens of Off-Off-Broadway was a melodrama all its own.” How so?
HF: Remember that it’s in the ashes we find the important stuff of Off-Off-Broadway. As playwrights and writers found success, they rushed off to their next project. The synergy among them crumbled. It was no longer about the work between them. The whole premise of Caffe Cino and other downtown scenes was to try different things. That’s why I think I like acting in other people’s stuff. For what I learn.
FP: After downtown celeb Harry Koutoukas’s apartment caught fire, in 1972, you authored In Search of the Cobra Jewels, a show about his attempt to help clean up the mess. You played Koutoukas. Your memoir recounts that Village Voice culture writer Arthur Bell “was arrested for holding another man’s hand as they crossed the street” from the theater. Progress has been made, but with record-breaking trans deaths and a Conservative backlash, are we moving backward on queer issues?
HF: I don’t believe it’s possible to move backward. We must allow each generation to find its way. What we see happening now with MAGA is the death throes of a generation that can’t stop progress. Conservatives want to move back to a time when they felt more comfortable. But that time is coming to an end.
FP: But there’s such a strident push to recreate the past.
HF: There’s a saying in the antique business—“You can’t go broke by selling people their childhood.” Hucksters are selling back to MAGA a picture of America that no longer exists. Think of it as the difference between weather and climate. The weather changes (MAGA arises) but not the overall (political) climate of ongoing, unstoppable change. That makes them all nervous.
FP: Hyperbole abounds while critical thinking skills evaporate.
HF: My “eBay theory” helps to explain. A postage stamp for sale is displayed in a 3-by-4-inch screen image. A Rolls Royce is presented in the same image size. Over time, Internet and social media technologies have us believing all things are equal.
FP: As in, my opinion is as legitimate as your evidence-proven fact?
HF: Yes. The idiot next door is a COVID expert because he says he is. If everything is equal, then what are critical thinking skills for? As the COVID pandemic progressed, we learned new ways to treat, what/what not to do regarding transmission. It’s a constantly moving target. What was true last month may not be true today, so we adjust our perceptions. We evaluate with critical thinking skills. Many have lost the ability to do that.
FP: Back to Steinem, via the late  Congresswoman Bella Abzug. When Hillary Clinton ran for president, you noticed that she faced similar criticisms as Abzug—notably, that being female makes her unpredictable. Then, for the 2020 election, you wrote Bella Bella, stating, “Women far too often vote the way their husbands tell them to.” During a scene development session, Steinem called out “White women. The problem is white women.” Explain.
HF: Steinem, she’s a religion, you know. With the 2020 election coming up, I wanted to give my friends a vehicle to raise money for women candidates. [In 2020, unprecedented numbers of women ran for office and won their races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.] During a scene development session, Steinem stressed that white women generally cast votes based on their husbands’ recommendations, because husbands financially support them. My point was that women could run the show if they all banded together.
FP: Your sobriety journey began in 1996. You wrote, “Putting down the glass was so much easier than being sober.” Meaning—although sober, one can still be an emotional mess?
HF: I’ve been sober for 25 years. We drink to avoid issues that are waiting for our attention, and we escape nothing. I firmly believe in the 12-Step program. People go to fancy-schmancy rehabilitation centers and come back with nothing. Some will find their way to a 12-Step program and finally set their course.
FP: You wrote in your memoir, “Artists return to paint the same landscape over and over, but they do so looking forward.” What’s next?
HF: I’ve revised Funny Girl, which opens April 24 on Broadway. I have seven projects in various stages, but I can be lazy. I’m a hermit by nature. Good luck to the Village Voice on returning. And don’t believe anything Michael Musto tells you [laughing his laugh]. ❖
Frank Pizzoli is a journalist who has been covering politics, queer issues, healthcare, and literary celebrities for the past 25 years.