Harvey Fierstein's mother
Published in The Jewish Mothers' Hall of Fame
"Is Harvey gay? I don't know. I don't sleep with him."
In her two-bedroom apartment, in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, Jackie Fierstein is sitting down to breakfast—a buttered onion roll, a boiled egg, and o.j.—when the phone rings. In no time, Jackie is talking about her sons: Harvey, the Tony Award-winning playwright (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles), and Ronald, a lawyer who is spending more and more of his time investing Harvey’s money.
You saw the show?
Did you like it?
How were the seats?
Did it get a standing ovation?
Can you believe our little boy did that?
No, Harvey wasn’t there.
He’s involved with the third show now.
It’s going to open in February.
And another group is going to open La Cage in Los Angeles. So he’s very busy—they’re auditioning people. I really don’t see too much of him.
I don’t know. I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Ronald.
Even Harvey doesn’t know. He says to Ronald, “Can I have an accounting?” Ronald says, “Harvey, what do you want? What is your heart’s desire?” So he says, “I don’t know. Sometimes, I go into a store, and I think, ‘Can I buy this? Can I buy that?’” So Ronald says, “Harvey, the sky is the limit. Go in and buy what you wish.”
So he’s so cute—he went to the Fulton Street Mall, and he bought himself a pair of shoes. I said, “I don’t believe it. You mean, I’m not going to see you in those stupid sneakers anymore?”
Sure, sure, when do you want to come? I don’t care. You’re not in my way.
Yeah, his picture is on the new Life magazine. But if you’ve got People magazine, he’s one of the twenty-five—the twenty-five most intriguing people.
And, yeah, that’s him, in Vogue, with the high hat.
I want you to know that he had a picture in Hustler. Harvey said, “It’s not such a nice magazine.” I could have killed him. I said, “I had to spend five dollars for that stupid magazine.” I couldn’t even show it to my friends, because of what’s on the back. So now I have to get it mounted.
Listen, I have a gentleman here. He’s trying to interview me. Yeah. No, don’t be silly. I don’t talk to you that often.
Okay, darling, be well.
It is, I learn by spending time with Jackie, a conversation she is called on to repeat at least a dozen times a day. Five years ago, the repartee would have been very different. Harvey was just another starving playwright then—“and I mean starving,” says Jackie. Recently widowed, she would look for excuses to stop by his basement apartment, in another part of Brooklyn. When she brought him food, she’d insist, “Your mother still doesn’t know how to shop for one; you’ll have to take some.” And when she wasn’t at his place, she’d worry. Occasionally, Jackie would take the subway to Manhattan to see one of Harvey’s plays. None of them seemed destined for Broadway. The International Stud followed a drag queen on a visit to a “backroom” bar, where he engaged in simulated intercourse with a virile stranger. Fugue in a Nursery explored the relationships between the same drag queen (named Arnold Beckoff), Arnold’s lover, and the lover’s wife. “The first time I went, I just sat there,” says Jackie.
“A lot of these things I had never seen before. And there were questions in my mind; it’s natural. But since my husband was already dead, I didn’t have anyone I could ask. He was a very wise man and I was always the kind of person who, if we went somewhere and someone told a joke, my husband would have to explain it to me later. “And I couldn’t ask any of my friends,” Jackie goes on, “because they were just as naïve as I was. So mostly I waited patiently in the theater until somebody discussed it, and then I listened. It was quite an education for me.”
If Harvey was uncomfortable about her being there, Jackie remembers, “he didn’t say anything to me, and I didn’t say anything to him.”
Harvey’s third play, Widows and Children First (which, with the other two, makes up his Trilogy), dealt in part with a somewhat more familiar subject: the relationship between a gay person (still the drag queen Arnold Beckoff) and his mother, a Jewish dynamo who arrives from Florida to try to straighten out his life:
MA: Arnold, do what you want. You want to live like this? Gay gezzintah hait. I don’t care anymore. You’re not going to make me sick like you did your father.
ARNOLD: I made my father sick?
MA: No; he was thrilled to have a fairy for a son! You took a lifetime of dreams and threw them back in his face.
ARNOLD: What lifetime of dreams? He knew I was gay for fourteen years.
MA: What? You think you walk into a room and say, “Hi Dad, I’m queer,” and that’s that? You think that’s what we brought you into the world for? Believe me, if I’d known I wouldn’t have bothered. God should tear out my tongue, I should talk to my child this way. Arnold, you’re my son, you’re a good person, a sensitive person with a heart, kennohorrah, like your father and I try to love you for that and forget this. But you won’t let me. You’ve got to throw me on the ground and rub my face in it. You haven’t spoken a sentence since I got here without the word “gay” in it.
ARNOLD: Because that’s what I am.
MA: If that were all you could leave it in there [Points to bedroom] where it belongs; in private. No, you’re obsessed by it. You’re not happy unless everyone is talking about it. I don’t know why you don’t just wear a big sign and get it over with.
Harvey’s plays are largely autobiographical, and it’s natural to wonder how much of Mrs. Beckoff is Jackie, how much of the dialogue between Arnold and Mrs. Beckoff was first uttered in Sheepshead Bay. Jackie has heard the question before, and she’s quick to answer. “I don’t mind if people think I’m Mrs. Beckoff, because she’s very funny. But I never thought of myself as that character,” she says. “I would see Estelle Getty [who played the part on Broadway] in Harvey’s dressing room, and she’d say, ‘Am I doing okay?’ And I’d say, ‘Why not? You’re a mother.’ ”
There is one episode Jackie claims as her own: when Mrs. Beckoff talks about her husband’s death, she says she took home his belongings in a paper bag. Says Jackie, “That really happened to me. My husband had a heart attack at work. By the time they called me from the office, he was dead.” Otherwise, she says, “The character is universal. In the theater, I hear people talking—and everyone sees their mother in it. A lot of people relate. You don’t even have to be gay—every mother wants the same things, that her kids have a nice home, some means of livelihood.”
Then again, Jackie sees more than a bit of her own mother in Mrs. Beckoff. Harvey’s grandmother is ninety and living in a nursing home upstate. “For years,” says Jackie, “I’ve been calling her ‘the little actress.’ If she doesn’t get her way, she gets a phony heart attack. That’s how she shows me. She’s always known how to manipulate me very well.” Indeed, Jackie recalls, “My mother didn’t believe in college for girls. So when I was sixteen, I had to quit school to go to work. And by the time I was nineteen, my mother was calling me an old maid.”
So Jackie, who was still sharing a bedroom with her younger brother, married Irving Fierstein. Ten years her senior, “he was like a father figure,” she says. “I was naïve, and he was a man of the world. He came from the mountains—the Catskills—and in the mountains, young men got experienced very fast.” The marriage, which lasted thirty-three years, was a good one, according to Jackie.
But, she says, “I went from my mother’s house to my husband’s house. I was always under someone’s thumb. We would make decisions together—he would let me rant as much as I wanted, but when he opened his mouth, I would shut up.” To make matters worse, “my mother came to visit for at least three months a year. So I always had someone telling me what to do.”
Now, for the first time in her life, Jackie says, “I’m independent.” Five days a week, she works as a librarian—a career she began after going back to high school and college in her forties—at an intermediate school in Brooklyn. It’s not an easy life; students are abusive and money to buy books is scarce. Jackie reports, “My mother says, ‘How come Harvey doesn’t take care of you? How come the millionaire’s mother has to work?’ And I say, ‘Why should I stop working?’ When you take from someone else, you may not have to do exactly what they want, but you at least have to listen to them. This way, I’m spending my own money, and I can spend it the way I want. My choices may not always be wise, but they’re my choices.”
Jackie goes on, “A lot of people say to me, ‘Why don’t you meet somebody?’ I say, ‘I don’t know.’ I hesitate. I really don’t know if I want to tie myself down. Sometimes I say, ‘Yes, I do,’ and sometimes I say, ‘No, I don’t.’ I don’t know if I want to have to run home and prepare dinner. I like to cook—I like being a homemaker—but I’ve been introduced to another world, and I like this business of being free and doing what I want.”
Jackie’s liberation parallels Harvey’s. He has become the most visible and outspoken homosexual in the country. On talk shows, he happily converses about his lovers and about his own stints as a drag queen. And no gay rights parade in New York would be complete now without Fierstein waving from an open car. Jackie recognizes the similarity between her evolution and Harvey’s; she tells him, “I don’t want you to tell me what I should be; you do with your life what you want.”
But it will be a long time before Jackie rides with Harvey in that open car. If she has come to terms with Harvey’s success, the urge that prompted that success is one she still doesn’t completely understand. “Harvey says that there are people everywhere who are gay and I am starting to see that,” she admits. But it is not her favorite subject. “People in the building are very polite,” she says. “They never bring it up.”
On one of her fourteen or fifteen visits to Torch Song, Jackie recalls, “I took my mother. And when it was over, she turned to me and said, ‘Jackie, is Harvey gay?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, Ma. I don’t sleep with him.’ “I feel being gay is a personal thing,” she explains.
“This is where Harvey and I differ. I think he’s made his point, and I wish he would go on to something else.” She offers an analogy: “Being a widow, I come in contact with a lot of other widows. If they have male companions, that’s their business. I don’t know if I would go that route. I’m very straitlaced. But whatever I did in my bedroom, I wouldn’t make it public.”
Jackie won’t say when she first realized Harvey was gay. But she remembers, “Even as a child, he was different. Ronald was interested in sports, but Harvey never was. He was very artistic; he had hands of gold.” She says, “We never expected him to become a writer. We—Irving and I—encouraged him to take art education. We figured as a teacher you get off at three o’clock, you have your summers and your weekends free. You can still do your art. But at least you know the dollars are coming in.”
Harvey tried teaching—in Jackie’s school. He lasted exactly one day before returning to the theater. Ronald, meanwhile, was a folksinger. “Irving used to say, ‘What am I going to do with my two bums?’ I mean, there was a one in a million chance of his making it. Who thinks their son will be the one in a million?”
Not Jackie Fierstein. “I used to be just Jackie Gilbert,” she says. “Then I became Mrs. Irving Fierstein. Then, when the boys were growing up, I was Harvey and Ronald’s mother. When I went to work, I was Mrs. Fierstein again. And now? And now I’m back to being Harvey’s mother.” Does that bother her? “If somebody came up to you and said, ‘I saw your son on TV,’ wouldn’t you be proud?” she says. “It’s like something rubbed off on you. “As a parent, you feel like maybe you gave something—maybe your genes are there. I don’t know—I don’t think I’m so talented. I know my husband was very talented. My mother is very talented. I look at it that we set a good example, and that’s that.”