Man of the hour.
Man of the hour. Gary Gershoff / Getty Images Stringer

“I was very backroom-oriented,” said Harvey Fierstein in an online appearance organized by Elliott Bay Books Wednesday night and hosted by Bianca Del Rio. Fierstein, the gravelly writer known for his contributions to Hairspray, Mrs. Doubtfire, Mulan, and Torch Song Trilogy among many other works, was recalling his sexual exploits of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

“I was at a club called Jay’s, busily having sex — God gave you two hands and a mouth for some reason,” he said, and that’s when he made a realization that probably changed his life.

“I stopped and went, ‘I'm bored. I'm not getting off on these guys, I'm just doing it out of habit.”

He packed up his things and went home, the sexual extravagance out of his system. It was 1981.

If he seemed nonchalant about the memory, it’s because so much has happened in Fierstein’s thankfully-long life, from his adventures with Andy Warhol’s troupe to writing the show that made Estelle Getty a star to the time he made a live audience so exasperated Robin Williams cast him in Mrs. Doubtfire. Many of these highlights are captured in his delightful new memoir, I Was Better Last Night, but it was in last night’s livestream that Fierstein really cut loose, sharing a few juicy tidbits and teasing a possible someday-sequel about his romantic partners, tentatively to be entitled Bottomless.

"I think there's relief after it's done,” he told Del Rio of the self-reflection required to write a book. “Every gay person does self-analysis. ... When we're little kids, we look at the world and go, ‘ooh I don't fit into the world the way I'm supposed to’ ... until we say, ‘I guess the world is wrong and I'm right.’"

Fierstein’s fortunate in that he came to that realization fairly early in life, raised in Brooklyn and attending the very gay High School of Art and Design. He quickly fell in with the city’s avant garde, and lived an odd triple-life for a while — certainly not closeted, but code-switching from home to school to work. “I was this nice Jewish boy living at home,” he recalled, “then I was going to school full-time getting my degree, and at night I was working in this experimental theater stuff.” By day, he heard lectures about the city’s cutting-edge artists, and at night he’d wander down to Greenwich Village and hang out with them.

Sitting in front of two framed Warhol sketches and a desk lamp named Tina Turner, Fierstein explained that he wrote the memoir over COVID after he’d finished cleaning out his desk and his fridge. He didn’t want to move on to cleaning the freezer, he said, so the book was a handy distraction.

And what a gift to the world it is. Here you’ll find juicy stories, like the time Fierstein cursed out Ronald Regan’s son on Bill Maher’s show (Maher bleeped the cursing from the episode, but completely removed an accusation of sexism for having so few women as guests). There’s also an arresting moment when famously foul-mouthed Ethel Merman came to see Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy and delivered a backstage review that was not entirely favorable. And then there’s his encounter with Madonna, whom he’d hoped would play a drag queen in an upcoming project.

“Do you really think I could play a drag queen?” she asked him.

“Of course,” Fierstein told her. “Everyone’s already seen your pussy. It’s time to show them your dick.” (The project did not move ahead.)

In his casual chat with Del Rio, Fierstein let loose with a few more fun stories. There was the one about a Hairspray actress who was worried about losing her voice, so she cranked up the humidity in her hotel room so high the wallpaper fell off the walls. He also recalled the first time he and Del Rio met — she was extremely nervous about meeting an icon, but he entered the room and declared, “Mary, I have been trying to be your friend on Facebook for years, what the fuck is wrong with you?” And with that, the ice was broken.

Though they’re now thick as thieves, there were a few stories that Del Rio wasn’t able to extract from him. At least, not publicly. Musing about his work for The Birdcage, Fierstein started to describe — well, something, before he stopped himself with a sly look off-camera: “There's always a story,” he said, “you cannot tell.”