Harvey Fierstein: Hello. I'm Harvey Fierstein, and my memoir is called I Was Better Last Night.
Anna Sale: When I say it, I didn't, I didn't like hit the last as much as you, you really get it.
HF: Well. Because I've lived it, you know.
This is Death, Sex, and Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
…and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
HF: Theater is an act of faith as you know. You go to a performance, only the people in the theater know that that performance happened. Either you were there that night, or you didn't, or else it was better last night, which is why I think actors hang on to so much crap. You know, they all have like pieces of costumes and, you know, and posters and programs and all this stuff, because we can't hang on to what we actually love doing, you know? A furniture maker can make himself a table and say, 'that's what I do,' but an actor can't.
Harvey Fierstein’s life… is one of dreams coming true. He’s won four Tonys for his acting and writing in shows like Torch Song Trilogy, Hairspray, and La Cage aux Folles. He played Robin Williams’ brother in Mrs. Doubtfire... and one night, in his dressing room after a performance, he got to kiss his childhood crush, Richard Chamberlain.
HF: Well, Richard Chamberlain I mean, is, is a gorgeous creature. And especially on television, he's absolutely flawless. And you know it's this beautiful man and I was very attracted to him as a, as a child and, uh, and followed his career. So he comes into my dressing room and he's sweet as anything. And I say to him, look, I have this terrible fantasy, you know, it's not, I won’t bite you or anything. But could you, would you, go along with me, um, and make believe this is our home, my dressing room, this is our home. And I'm going to be asleep on the couch, you know, like the lazy wife, and, um, you come home from work, you know, and catch me sleeping on the couch and wake me up. And he said, sure. And so then every, everybody else, he got everybody else to leave and I, I turned off the lights and I laid down on the couch, you know? And he came in and, um, and leaned over and gave me a kiss and woke me up. It was like, oh, it was like every kind of fantasy.
AS: Yeah. But I just love that you, in the moment, you're like Richard Chamberlain in my dressing room. Let me quickly ask him to pretend he's my husband and I'm a sleeping housewife. [laughs] It was all worked out.
Talking to Harvey means going on a journey. He’s got a plan for where he’s going to take you, even if it is NOT what you expected. And he told me he’s always been like this, starting when he was a boy in the 1950s in a close-knit Brooklyn neighborhood.
HF: Well, all my life, I studied art. I mean, um, my parents didn't know what to do with me. I was one of those kids. I was a strange kid. Um, so when they called them on the phone and they said, can we speak to Harvey Fierstein? Because we want to give him an art scholarship. My mother nearly passed out. It was like oh my God, he's an artist. And that was like the solution. What do we do with this really weird kid? He's an artist, you know who, that was a good excuse for why I acted the way I did. So in high school, which was an all gay high school as I used to like to say they just bussed in the heterosexuals cause they had to, but it was a it was an art school, you know, and our teachers were very, uh, political. In our classes, my teacher, Max Ginsburg is playing Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and protest songs. And I'm painting women being burned in napalm. And, um, we're listening to Buffy St. Marie so I come out of that world where all of that was okay, and where gay was normal. The straight people are the strange ones. They were off on their side. They were quiet and they stayed out of our way. We were loud, we were... proud, I guess. Um, I didn't know that being gay was sad until I got out into the world and they told me that. And I said, 'No, no, no, no, well, all the gay people I know are really kind of happy.'
Harvey finished high school in 1969, just as the gay rights movement in New York was beginning to take hold. His breakthrough show, Torch Song Trilogy, is a semi-autobiographical story of a gay man falling in and out of love in 1970s New York.
Harvey as Arnold Beckoff: There’s another group you gotta watch your food stamps around: the hopeless. They break down into three major categories: married, just in for the weekend… terminally straight. Those affairs are the worst!
It later became a movie. Harvey delivers this monologue in front of a vanity while putting on his drag makeup.
Harvey as Arnold Beckoff: You go into them, with your eyes open, knowing all the limitations, accepting them maturely. Then, wham bam, you’re writing letters to Dear Abby and you’re burning black candles at midnight!
Harvey was writing what he knew. One of the inspirations for what became Torch Song Trilogy came from a night of cruising at a place called The Trucks, along Manhattan’s West Side Highway.
HF: So you have these stations that trucks pull in, you know, to the warehouse and empty this stuff out and move this stuff in, and they leave just the truck and, um, the rumor was that the owner of this one warehouse, that his son was gay and that's why this became the place to go. And you'd have a couple of hundred people having sex, um, you know, in the, in the dark, uh, totally anonymous sex, the rule was no speaking. Um, some people did use cigarettes so you use the cigarette to light up, to see if you wanted to see who you were having sex with, but what's the difference? [laughing] I just, I feel like I'm talking of another age.
AS: Well, it was, yeah!
HF: And it was, it was, it was the age of, of some kind of innocence. I mean, the police busted it up every now and then, but they knew what was going on there... um, but anyway, so one night I needed to stay in the city and not go home to Brooklyn because I had a very early meeting and I thought, you know what? I had a show, it was a midnight show that we got out, like at one in the morning. And I said, instead of going back to Brooklyn, I'll just go out and find somebody and go home with him and have sex and sleep over and be in the city. But it didn't work out. Um, it was probably a Tuesday night or Wednesday night, Monday night was that was my favorite because it was all those people that didn't get laid over the weekend, or had to see their family over the weekend, and so they were very sexually frustrated. So I used to love Monday nights. But, um, it was a night that wasn't so hot, Nobody was around. To make a long story short, but a good play. Um, I had to, I went to the, I ended up with the trucks, must've been four in the morning. Um, somebody grabbed me, used me for sex. In such a way. And I was trying to talk to him, which was against the rules, and he kept hitting me on the shoulder like 'shut up!' And, um, you know, and, and, and had this thing. It was certainly not a terrible thing that happened. There was no forcible sex here or anything like that. But as I left, I was thinking, you know, I just got really used. I didn't get what I wanted out of this, he got what he wanted. And, and I had a pad and paper and a bench and a streetlight. What else does the writer need? An experience, an experience, a pad of paper, and a pencil! That's all we need! And the rest is magic. And I wrote this thing down that I thought was almost, it was almost a feminist manifesto, you know.
It was a feminist manifesto — Harvey-style. The monologue he wrote was cutting, self-effacing, romantic, but cynical about love.
HF: It's so human that you are almost embarrassed to hear it. And yet you understand it completely. You laugh because it's like the man falling on the, on the banana skin! You don't laugh because you want to see somebody hurt, you laugh because it's so fucking human. And I thought, oh shit, I, I've stumbled upon what actual comedy writing is about. And I, and I've sort of strained to, to, to continue that, that kind of truth, because comedy comes out of truth.
Coming up, Harvey and I talk about his love life.
AS: Are these people that you've known for a long time or do they tend to be people you're...
HF: That’s none of your damn business! A gentlemen, a gentleman does not give away those sorts of secrets.
We’re still collecting your stories of personal style transformations—and quandaries—for an upcoming episode. So far we’ve heard from some of you about how the pandemic changed your approach to clothing, like this listener Kate, who started weightlifting during quarantine .
Kate: I now as a, almost 44 year old woman, am wearing crop tops. I'm currently wearing one right now. I'm full figured, and a crop top was never a thing I would have considered, even in my younger years when I was probably thinner and maybe in better shape.
Have you recently changed how you’re thinking about your style? Or, are you struggling to figure out how to represent yourself through clothing? Record a short voice memo for us chronicling your personal style transformation. And you can tell us about your ruts and frustrations too. You can send it to us at email@example.com.
On the next episode, I talk to 33 year old Tampa resident Mary Gundel about what led her to post a TikTok series about her experience managing a Dollar General, while in the middle of a shift at work. The TikToks got her fired, and also started a Dollar General workers' movement across the country.
Mary Gundel: It gets to that point in your life where you're just, you're like, if y'all want to fire me for it, then fire me for it, you know. I can't, I can't keep my head down anymore, and I can't keep just kissing your butt anymore.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
When we talked, Harvey Fierstein was sitting at his computer, Zooming from his office at his home in Connecticut. There was art around him, but it looked uncluttered, he’s donated all his papers to Yale University.
AS: When you look back, when did you feel financially secure as an artist for the first time? You're holding up rubber bands. Tell me why!
HF: I'm holding up a bag of rubber bands because I was innocent. I think, I think Torch Song Trilogy was off Broadway at the time, or it was just about to open off Broadway and I needed to do a bunch of paperwork. And I was at the bodega on, at my corner in Park Slope and I needed rubber bands, and I said to the owner, I said, I have you got any. And he said, yeah. And he handed me a bag of rubber bands and I paid for it and I stood there and looked and I said, I just bought a bag of rubber bands. Rubber bands is something that my entire life it's like, I picked them up off the street, or I, or if one came in the mailman or whatever, and I saved rubber bands because rubber bands is not something you could just buy and that bag of rubber bands became a symbol to me that I somehow had some kind of security now.
AS: Did you just hold up? Did you just hold up a mailman rubber band that you got out of your drawer or was that a purchased rubber band?
HF: No, they're downstairs! No, no no, this was from a bag of rubber bands that I bought. The mailman rubber bands are downstairs by the, you know, in the, in my kitchen where I open the mail. This is up in my office. Only the bought–
AS: This the fancy rubber bands.
HF: The fancy rubber bands end up here.
AS: I want to ask you about your brother because I love the way you write about your brother.
HF: Well, he doesn't! [laughing]
AS: Really? Um, I didn't know that you pronounce your last names differently. You have the same last name, you pronounce them differently.
HF: And I was winning and I was winning. I was winning. Now I'm gonna lose.
AS: It's a reason to become famous, to beat your brother.
HF: Exactly. It was my father's last name. And he pronounced it Fierstein [fEYEr-steen]. So I figured that's the way he pronounced it. Where the fuck they came up with this Fierstein [feer-steen] and Fierstein [feer-stEYEn] I'll never know, you know, it's like my mother pronounced it Fierstein [feer-stEYEn], my brother pronounced it Fierstein [feer-steen] and then, but he had, but he had two sons who now pronounce it Fierstein [feer-steen]. So it's like, okay, I'm going to lose this war. But it is, it is definitely fun and something I really have enjoyed going into a meeting and being introduced as Mr. Fierstein and Mr. Fierstein and them sitting there like I thought, I thought they were brothers.
AS: When did he begin, when did he start managing your money for you? Your brother?
HF: Oh, I think always. He’s my older brother, and, um, you know, I mean, I didn't have any money for most of my life, um, so it wasn't until later. And, and it's just, he had more sense that way. I mean, he's a lawyer. And, and so it was sort of more, more, more, just more natural for him to overlook and oversee. I mean, who's going to care more about your life? And if he does a good job, then his kids inherit a lot of money. And if he does a lousy job, I'm moving in with him! So, he's going to do a good job. [laughing]
AS: Did you always have a closeness together as brothers?
HF: The funny part is that we do have a closeness, and yet we couldn't be more opposite, and yet we couldn't be more alike. So it's like, in details, we couldn't be more different. But if there's a meeting, even if he came from LA and I came from Brooklyn, we're, you know, we're always going to be the first ones show up at a meeting. We're never going to be late, if you ask us for something online, you know, like you need a request, it's done before it, you know, the thing is we have that kind of thing that we both are alike, but in other stuff, not alike at all. [whispers] He's, he's, he's h, he's heterosexual!
AS: He is! [laughs]
These days, Harvey is single… but in his memoir, he wrote about a few serious partners and short affairs. His last long-term relationship ended in 1996, but he still has plenty of romance…
HF: I started writing down a list of these guys because I knew I couldn't put them in the book. It's not, nobody wants to sit and read a list of, of people you fucked, but, uh, well maybe they do. I don't know. What do I know about the real world? But, um, but I did start making this list and started writing these stories. I've got it right here on my computer and the name of the file... are you ready for this?
AS: I am.
HF: Since you liked the name of this, liked the name of this book, the name of that one is: Bottomless. [laughing] Um--
AS: Tell me what, what have been your experiences with apps?
HF: Are we going to get up to death? What's the other sex, death, and what? Rock n roll or?
AS: Yep. Money. Money.
HF: Oh money.
AS: Yeah. We're just moving through sex right now. I'm curious, like when you have looked at an app, like what, do they pull you in? Do you find them convenient?
HF: When we were on the road doing Fiddler on the Roof, and, um, you know, on the road is a pretty lonely life. But there were a couple of us that with older, more mature members and we were bitching about how we'd been on the road for a year and none of us had even had a date. Because obviously we weren't going to mess around with anybody in the company.
AS: This is about 10 years ago, right?
HF: Yeah, probably. So, so we made a deal that we would go on these apps and, and, and we made a bet. And, you know, I forget how much money it was, but whoever went on the bet and, um, and went on a date would, would win. And I was the only one who did it. So I went on, I don't even know what app it was, maybe Grindr. I think Grindr was around then. I don't know so I put, I put up a picture and I mean, I didn't make it, I didn't put, I don't think I put Harvey Fierstein, but I think I put Tevye because I had the big, I had the big beard. Right. You know it wasn't like I could really hide.
AS: For all the Fiddler fetishists out there! [laughing]
HF: Exactly. And I put little flowers around it. I mean, I wasn't, you know, and I didn't make it, like I was trying to be, you know, it was like, and, um, I think I went out with two or three people that were not interested at all. They just wanted to meet the actor, but they were not interested in anything at all, but I did meet somebody. Um, the big thing is I realized some time ago that, um, I really suck at relationships. I, I don't take lovers. I take prisoners. I just, I go right in there and I go right into my fantasy and I'm like clearing drawers on the second date. I mean, I'm practically a lesbian. I, you know, I, I like, you know, celebrating our first anniversary of our first kiss, you know, it's like, I don't do it well. Um, and I'm just, and I just realized that that in the long run, the reason I make them so much of my life is because it keeps me away from my real life. If I've got somebody to focus on outside of myself, then I don't have to do any work on myself. I don't have to do my writing, I don't have to do my acting, I don't have to do any of this stuff that I know I'm supposed to do. It's like my way out of homework. It's like playing baseball instead of going to math class.
AS: When did you realize about yourself that you, that, that relationships were like a procrastination tool. At what phase of life where you, when you started seeing it that way?
HF: Um, I think, you know, it way before you you're willing to admit it, but it was probably when I was with the lover that I was with when I got sober. We don't want to give away too much of that stuff. They got to buy the damn book, got to save some shit for the book, no?
AS: I promise you, I promise you, people will pick up the book, but we'll give them these little teases. Um, but I, I do want to talk to you about getting sober if that's ok because I was struck that, um, before you started going to recovery meetings yourself, you had a partner who was going through recovery and you started going to Al-Anon, which is, you know, the group of people who love people who have addiction issues. And I wonder for you did, did going to Al-Anon. Um, do you think it made it harder or easier for you to realize that you had a substance use issue that you wanted to address?
HF: Neither, neither. Uh, the act of going to Al-Anon was once again, one of those acts of fill my life with his stuff instead of my own. Like, I was very disappointed when I got to Al-Anon that we don't talk about the other person. You only talk about yourself. If I was in a relationship, it was always about how do I, how do I negate myself? How do I push the other person forward?
AS: When you, I mean, you, you, you can't hide when you go to recovery meetings and you yourself are going to say, I think I have a problem. Um, what, what was that like for you as somebody who, you know, by that point, you, you have this career as a performer, and then you're in a meeting environment where you're standing in front of people and testifying. Did it feel at all related? Like, did it, did you notice a performing aspect to it?
HF: No. Cause I had already been through Al-Anon. Al-Anon did so much for me in that way. By the time I went to AA which was, I dunno, five years later, whatever, however many years it was, I had gone to AA meetings with my partner. So I already knew all of this stuff. I was in such a low, horrible place. So I didn't care what anybody thought of me. It didn't matter. You know, I kind of come into this room and I'm going to sit in the corner and cry. Well, I didn't sit in the corner and cry, I sat in the first row and I cried. Because I knew that, I knew it was a safe place to do that. I knew everyone in that room may not have gone through what I went through, but they went through their own shit or they wouldn't be sitting in that room. If they were judging me, it was wrong of them to do so, but it wasn't my business.
AS: I think for some, for some people who get sober, um, the idea of, uh, surrendering to a higher power, that can be an alienating question. If that's not something that's part of your belief system. Um, for you, prayer became an important practice in, in recovery. Um, what did that look like for you?
HF: It was easy because, um, though I'm an atheist, I knew that prayer was, uh, just a way of focusing your own mind. But usually I prayed for acceptance. You know that, that, that's the, um, the serenity prayer was and still is a huge part of my belief system of, you know, making me okay with what I can't fix. That's not what it's about. You know, I was talking to somebody the other day about the difference between writing a book and writing a play is you're writing a play. You come up with these characters, you come up with the situation and then you let them go and you get the fuck out of their way, as best as you can and let them speak and let them fight with each other. And you stay the hell out of it. It's not your business. You know, it's like being in a family fight, you know, you stay back and watch them fight and you write it down because that's your job as the writer, you write it down, but it's not your job to control them. And that's what playwriting feels like.
AS: I wonder about, now on to death. Have you thought about who might be looking through your collection of papers at Yale and what they might come across? Like, do you, have you thought about that person in the future who might be studying your work?
HF: You know one of the great parts, I mean, my favorite parts of being an atheist is I don't give a flying fuck. I'm gonna be dead. What the fuck do I care? You know, like I'm gonna leave something behind, you know. Like anybody else I watch the news at night and up comes the thing that so-and-so died and even if it's a big, huge star, you know, three or four seconds, on the TV is what they get. And, and you say that's, that's a life worth living? That, to be remembered in that way, is worth...? You know, it's so stupid. Um, I don't know. And I don't care.
AS: Have you thought about, you know, I know that you think it's sort of like a, not, not a great way to sum up a life, but have you thought about what the news alert might be when you're gone? What your three to four seconds on TV might talk about?
HF: You know, I used to tease Robin that I'd done all this political work and, you know, wrote La Cage and Torch Song and all this other stuff. And, um, and, and, um, and all anybody's going to remember us as I was your brother in Mrs. Doubtfire. You know, and that's, and that's the silliness of it all. I mean, half the world thinks of Harvey Weinstein, so what the fuck? [laughing] You know, how serious, how serious can you take it?
That was Harvey Fierstein. His memoir, I Was Better Last Night, is out now.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Afi Yellow-Duke and Gabriela Santana. The rest of our team includes Julia Furlan, Zoe Azulay, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Lilly Clark.
The Reverend John DeLore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I'm on Instagram @annasalepics, that’s P-I-C-S, and the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Thank you to Daniel Cullinan in Ames, Iowa, who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Daniel and support what we do here, by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
While I talked to Harvey, his dog Charlie was down below, listening along.
HF: Charlie is quite a talented dog. Charlie! There are certain songs that he cannot hear and not sing to. The opening of CBS Sunday Morning. [AS laughs] You know, Wynton Marsalis.
AS: I thought it was going to be like some show tune. No, the opening of CBS Sunday Morning.
HF: Let me see if I can just play this. [theme music plays, Charlie howls in the background] And he's singing live downstairs. [more howls] Charlie! Charlie! That’s enough!
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.