NEAR THE END of Harvey Fierstein’s large, fact-filled, anecdote-rich, entertaining memoir I Was Better Last Night is a photo of a sign bolted to a street pole that reads: “Accept No One’s Definition of Your Life. Define it Yourself.” And that is the writer–actor’s life story in a nutshell. This adage holds generally true for LGBT people of the Baby Boom generation, who pretty much had to create not only themselves but simultaneously a new queer language, society, and culture more or less from scratch. But Fierstein’s self-definition was more expansive than most, because from an early age it included gender explorations—something that was rare in those days (the 1960s), even if a large percentage of today’s young people are comfortable calling themselves nonbinary.
Another snapshot shows a young Harvey dolling himself up as a woman for Halloween trick-or-treating, and then realizing that this wasn’t going to fly with his tween friends in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. So, he smeared the lipstick and mascara and twisted the clothing and ended up as some kind of monster—to his friends’ applause. In many ways, Fierstein’s life and story are about un-smearing that boy’s face and clothes and just letting himself be—and damn the applause.
But doing that would turn out to be a long and hard-won battle, since Fierstein created and crafted an entire career around getting applause. The climax only happens toward the end of the memoir during a rehearsal for a Torch Song Trilogy revival, when his heterosexual brother Ron, with whom he has always been close, for the first time painfully understands that Mrs. Beckoff’s invective against her gay son Arnold in the play is verbatim the words their mother hurled at Harvey when they were kids. Later on, Fierstein deals more directly with that vituperation and concludes that he should have ignored “Jackie” and spent more time with his quieter and more understanding father.
But as so often happens, his pain was our gain, and the applause that Harvey sought wasn’t merely for costuming. As an art student in elementary school, he tossed off paintings that got so much attention that he realized he could gain approval with art. From high school to college he moved into pottery, creating popular pieces that somehow always included genitalia, whether male or female. He muses that if the college dean had allowed his work to be displayed in their school’s exhibition instead of banning them, pottery might have become his career. Instead, theater grabbed his attention. Despite his dyslexia, the words seemed to flow once he was onstage. Like many of us, his problem was with the gay and lesbian plays that were then current. Writes Fierstein: “Suddenly Last Summer, Fortune and Men’s Eyes, The Boys in the Band, The Children’s Hour, Staircase. Real [gay]life seemed a breeze compared to how it was expressed in literature.” But all that was about to change.
His years at Pratt Institute were odd ones. Of the staff he writes: “they watched you with cautious optimism, the way you watch a spinning quarter. You want it to spin forever but you know it will eventually fall flat or spin right off the table.” I Was Better Last Night wouldn’t be a credible stage memoir if there were not at least one suicide attempt and a decade of alcoholism.
Felice Picano’s latest fiction isJustify My Sins: A Hollywood Novel in Three Acts (Beautiful Dreamer Press).