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For theater lovers, Fierstein bio a feast of memories

It’s also the story of a queer hero

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Harvey Feirstein (Photo courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf)

‘I Was Better Last Night: A Memoir’
By Harvey Fierstein
c.2022, Alfred A. Knopf
$30/383 pages

One night when “Torch Song Trilogy” first ran on Broadway, playwright, screenwriter, actor, gay rights advocate and four-time-Tony-winner Harvey Fierstein recalls in his sparkling memoir “I Was Better Last Night,” he went to his dressing room after a performance. There, Fierstein, 67, found theater legend Ethel Merman. “Oh, Miss Merman, I am one of your most devoted fans,” Fierstein said to Merman, “I’m so honored you came to see the show. Please, I’m dying to know what you thought.”

“I thought it was a piece of shit,” Merman told Fierstein, “But the rest of the audience laughed and cried, so what the fuck do I know?”

For lovers of theater, queer and hetero, “I Was Better Last Night” is a feast of memories.

For LGBTQ folk who lived through the early AIDS epidemic, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ – the fight for marriage equality – the memoir is the story of a queer hero.

It’s the tale of an icon who makes you laugh, cry and get angry (at homophobia).

The memoir is written in 59 short chapters. Reading it is like eating pistachios. Eat one, and you can’t stop.

Once you start “It Was Better Last Night,” be prepared to let the vacuuming go, the bills to go unpaid, so you can burn the midnight oil.

Listing even a few of Fierstein’s multitudinous credits is exhausting! Fierstein is a Renaissance man who’d give Leonardo da Vinci a run for his money.

He’s sung “Everything’s Coming Up Noses” with the Muppets on “Sesame Street,” appeared as Mrs. Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, played Robin Williams’ brother Frank in the movie “Mrs. Doubtfire,” was nominated for an Emmy for his appearance on “Cheers,” voiced Yao in “Mulan” and played the iconic Edna Turnblad in the musical “Hairspray.”

Before “Will and Grace,” Fierstein, as he notes in the memoir, was the “first openly gay actor to play an openly gay on a sitcom.”  

Fierstein came out when you could be arrested for holding hands with someone of the same-sex. While in his 20s, he wrote and performed in the pioneering and renowned “Torch Song Trilogy.” It was the first (or one of the first) play to feature gay characters who weren’t ashamed of being queer. Words can’t describe how transformative, even lifesaving, “Torch Song” has been  for generations of queers.

“What’s run in the mill today,” Fierstein writes, “was run for the hills” back in the day.

Without succumbing to self-pity, Fierstein describes the homophobia and gender-stereotyping that permeated the culture during his youth and young adulthood.

Fierstein’s mother loved his cousin Sheldon, who was known as the “queer.” Yet, Sheldon’s queerness wasn’t talked about.

In Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in second grade, Fierstein was cast as the king in “Sleeping Beauty” because of his theatrical “flair.” But this wasn’t for him. Fierstein wanted to be the witch because, the “Witch gets green skin, red lips, and long black fingernails,” he writes, “give me lipstick or show me the exit!”

Fierstein’s coming out story is gut-wrenching. His account of his friend Harvey being gay-bashed is terrifying. 

Fierstein speaks bluntly about the straight community’s homophobia at the height of the AIDS epidemic. “I have never been able to shake the feeling that the heterosexual community at large let us die,” he writes. “They wished us well, then turned their backs, issuing sighs of relief that they had nothing to worry about.”

There’s lots of glam, glitz, Tony Award ceremonies and celebrity in “I Was Better Last Night.” One night, Fierstein recounts, after he partied with Debbie Reynolds at Backstage, one of his favorite hangouts, he heard on the news that Reynolds may have had a heart attack. “Don’t worry,” he told Reynolds’ daughter Carrie Fisher, “it’s a hangover.”

But the memoir is far from a vacuous ego-boost. Fierstein writes with raw honesty about his alcoholism (his long “love affair” with Southern Comfort), his heart surgery and his regrets.

Reading “I Was Better Last Night” is like seeing a fabulous Broadway play on opening night.

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New book reveals that some secrets last a lifetime

‘All the Broken Places’ should be on your must-read list

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(Book cover image courtesy Pamela Dorman Books)

All the Broken Places
By John Boyne
c. 2022, Pamela Dorman Books
$28/400 pages

It shall not pass your lips.

No, That Thing You Do Not Talk About is off-limits in all conversation, a non-topic when the subject surfaces. Truly, there are just certain things that are nobody’s business and in the new novel, “All the Broken Places” by John Boyne, some secrets must last a lifetime.

She hated the idea that she would have to adjust to new neighbors.

Ninety-one-year-old Gretel Fernsby wasn’t so much bothered by new people, as she was by new noise. She hated the thought of inuring herself to new sounds, and what if the new tenants had children? That was the worst of all. Gretel never was much for children, not her own and certainly not any living below her.

Once, there was a time when Gretel could imagine herself with many children. That was nearly 80 years ago, when she was in love with her father’s driver, Kurt. She thought about Kurt through the years – he had fallen out of favor with her father, and was sent elsewhere – and she wondered if he survived the war.

Her father didn’t, nor did her younger brother but Gretel didn’t think about those things. What happened at the “other place” was not her fault.

She hadn’t known. She was innocent.

That was what she told herself as she and her mother fled to Paris. Gretel was 15 then, and she worked hard to get rid of her German accent but not everyone was fooled by her bad French or her story. She was accosted, hated. As soon as her mother died, she sailed to Australia, where she lived with a woman who loved other women, until it became dangerous there, too. She practiced her English and moved to London where she was married, widowed, and now she had to get used to new neighbors and new sounds and new ways for old secrets to sneak into a conversation.

OK, clear your calendar. Get “All the Broken Places” and just don’t make any plans, other than to read and read and read.

The very first impression you get of author John Boyne’s main character, Gretel, is that she’s grumpy, awful, and nasty. With the many bon mots she drops, however, the feeling passes and it’s sometimes easy to almost like her – although it’s clear that she’s done some vile things in her lifetime, things that emerge slowly as the horror of her story dawns. Then again, she professes to dislike children, but (no spoilers here!) she doesn’t, not really, and that makes her seem like someone’s sweet old grandmother. ‘Tis a conundrum.

Don’t let that fool you, though. Boyne has a number of Gretel-sized roadside bombs planted along the journey that is this book. Each ka-boom will hit your heart a little harder.

This is a somewhat-sequel to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” but you can read it alone. Do, and when you finish, you’ll want to immediately read it again, to savor anew.

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Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system

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(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

A Place Called Home: A Memoir
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

The Family Outing: A Memoir
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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