Harvey Fierstein Sings the Song of Himself in ‘I Was Better Last Night’
Blessed with a high I.Q., Fierstein skipped two grades and attended the High School of Art and Design in east Midtown, where there was a smoking terrace for students: “Hello, 1965!” When the author Anaïs Nin visited Fierstein’s English class, an elegant harbinger of what would be many encounters with the celebrated, he read her tarot cards. Undiagnosed dyslexia drew him to play scripts: sparer texts, meant to be spoken aloud. Unsurprisingly, some of the snappiest parts of this book are bits of remembered dialogue. (“You’re Madeline Kahn!” a ticket seller protested when the comedian, nearing 40, brandished an N.Y.U. ID and demanded a student discount to “Torch Song.” “With so much more to learn,” Kahn replied.)
Andy Warhol also figures. Little Harvey had admired the illustrations of footwear the artist did for Bloomingdale’s newspaper ads; while a sophomore at Pratt, where he made ceramics with genitals called Bad Boy Jugs, Fierstein got the part of an asthmatic lesbian maid wearing a red wig in “Andy Warhol’s Pork” at La MaMa, the temple of Off Off Broadway. He mingled with underground types at Max’s Kansas City (to pay the check, the Factory would send over a painting), though not without what became a trademark contrariness. “I could never catch what Candy Darling was talking about, and when I did, it wasn’t worth the effort,” he snipes about one member of Warhol’s entourage.
The author’s parents, despite their qualms about queerness, must have done something right, because throughout his life Fierstein (he pronounces it FIRE-stein, though his brother pronounces it FEER-stein) has been both fiery and fierce. “Jeez, but it was fun to be a teenager dropped in the middle of a revolution!” he writes of his early activism. Plays like “A Taste of Honey” and “The Boys in the Band” troubled him as documents of loneliness and self-loathing, and spurred him to write of gay life more affirmatively, more assertively.
It’s sobering to be reminded that as late as 1973, a male culture writer for The Village Voice was arrested for holding another man’s hand as they crossed a street in Greenwich Village. Fierstein’s interview with Barbara Walters in 1983, during the first successful run of “La Cage Aux Folles,” in which she “questioned me as if I were an interstellar alien” from Planet Homosexuality, was a thundering call for acceptance that still echoes today, on YouTube. “The norm,” he realized, “meant nothing but the majority.”