I Was Better Last Night: A Memoir
“He is that most American of species, the entirely self–made individual. There is nothing like him, never has been, and never will be.”
Harvey Fierstein—actor, director, drag queen, playwright—is that most American of species, the entirely self–made individual. There is nothing like him, never has been, and never will be. And in the American can-do spirit, citizens applaud him all the more for having persevered in spite of ugly discrimination, bullying, and worse.
It is hard for the reader not to sympathize with a dogged underdog who triumphs in the end in a big, international way.
Fierstein traces his arc through a series of 50 short but emotionally packed interludes: from a chubby childhood in Queens, to playgrounds beset by bullies, to ratty experimental theaters filled with actual rats, to Broadway and international stages, and thence to Hollywood and back and back around.
His wistful book is laced with understandable nostalgia. While Fierstein admits to “What an asshole I was,” and the “many stupid mistakes made,” he remains optimistic at the end. His insight that “Time upgrades survival to triumph” reminds one of a passage by Elizabeth Hardwick in Sleepless Nights: “Time edits, and memory sweetens.” Does it ever.
In 1959 Brooklyn, where entire lives “were lived inside a half-mile radius,” they called Fierstein’s obviously homosexual temperament “flair.” He then discovers the vivifying and electrifying effect of attention that simply makes him “come alive.”
What, then, could be more natural than a life on the stage, on the screen, and in repeated public view? Add to that his skipping two elementary grades and an IQ that “tested through the roof.” He is an unstoppable force yet suffered from disabling dyslexia that no one understood at the time. Play scripts spoke to him because they jettisoned all words beyond “a few necessary stage directions.”
His parents tried sleepaway camps to butch him up, but he missed his “solitude.” Crushes in high school and college left him frustrated until an even higher education in the rough, wider world forced its hand. We meet his intersection with Andy Warhol and entourage, and his years-long engagement with off-off-Broadway groups such as La Mama and kindred Avant Garde enterprises that were prominent in the heady 1960s.
He recounts his oft-stated argument for why straight men should not portray gays in the theater and on screen. By analogy, he says, the greatest ingénue cannot convincingly portray a grandmother because she lacks the life experience to do so. And yet we applaud straight men for their “bravery” in daring to portray homosexuals.
He shares a delightful anecdote about Stephen Sondheim, an idol to whom he pitches a show idea based on the 1940s film, A Letter to Three Wives. But no, says Sondheim. After the first iteration the audience will glance at their programs and say “Damn, we’ve got to sit through two more!”
The overall problem with Fierstein’s account will be a generational split. Younger gay people will not understand references such as Montserrat Caballé (the Spanish opera diva mentioned several times). His memoir will surely be enjoyed by Fierstein’s contemporary boomers.
Yet how ironic given his years of advocacy for gay rights, treating individuals with HIV with dignity, and equality in general, that he will never be appreciated by a younger generation for whom he has paved the way and who have personally never suffered the difficulties and ostracism that older gay people know first-hand too well.
Younger gay people don’t know this history and yet this book, for those willing to read it with an open mind, constitutes a blessed restorative.