At a cafe the other day, Joel Grey was drawn to an item on the menu that was both confusing and intriguing.
He called over a waiter and asked: “What is this thing? The herbed goat cheese with chili flakes and pomegranate syrup?” The waiter was stumped. “OK, I’m going to take a chance,” said the Tony-and Oscar-winning actor.
Grey, 83, was in high spirits this day, which marked the publication of his memoir, “Master of Ceremonies.” For a performer who hid who he was for decades, Grey is now unburdened and emboldened.
“Let’s put it this way: I really feel good. But I have been feeling good for a long time. I don’t think I could have written this book if I’d had axes to grind,” he said. “I don’t like that in a book.”
The memoir traces his childhood in Cleveland, his rise as a nightclub performer and his breakthrough both on stage and film as the Emcee with rouged cheeks and cupid’s-bow lips in “Cabaret.”
It also examines his 24-year marriage to actress Jo Wilder and a long internal struggle with his attraction to men, which triggered feelings of self-loathing and proved his mother’s love was not unconditional.
Grey, who loved men and women, tentatively calls himself a “closeted bisexual” but language comes up short: “I never really thought that any of the names were exactly right for me,” he said.
A complex portrait emerges of Grey in black and white. He reveals he’s had a nose job, slept with a stripper, fought with legendary director Bob Fosse and once lugged his dirty laundry on a plane.
“I’m not that good. I’m just like the rest of you,” he said. “Maybe worse.”
Colin Dickerman, the editorial director of the Macmillan division Flatiron Books, which published the 230-page book, said it’s not a tell-all or a collection of funny stories, but an attempt to explore the roots of the man behind some beloved characters.
“He wanted to be as honest as he could be and I think the book really reflects that,” said Dickerman. “It really goes into some personal places and I think does so remaining incredibly respectful to everyone in his life.”
Grey’s story also mirrors the evolution of American entertainment, from vaudeville to nightclubs to Broadway and Hollywood, weaving both his personal and professional lives. It reaches a peak in 1985 when Grey started thinking about coming out while starring in the AIDS play “The Normal Heart.”
The book was written over 2 1/2 years with the help of Rebecca Paley and Grey consulted with his brother and his daughter — “Dirty Dancing” star Jennifer Grey — on parts of the manuscript. He said he was inspired, in part, by reading Andre Agassi’s very honest 2010 memoir “Open: An Autobiography.”
“I didn’t see that I could tell the story of my career and not my life because they were so intertwined. And I also saw myself as maybe an example and maybe, in some small way, helping one person,” he said. “I like that idea.”
Grey writes that he was attracted to boys as early as 8 — one of his first crushes was a 16-year-old bellboy — but being openly gay wasn’t an option. Physical violence and closed doors would have been his life.
“The price was very high,” he said. “There would be no career. Look how long it’s even taken for there to be a few out gay people. In the last 10 years, maybe. The last five, maybe.”
His embrace of his sexuality was also complicated by the fact that he desperately wanted to be a father. “It was something I was meant to do along with acting. However, it was a strange time,” he said. “Now gay people are having babies all over the place.”
Grey has since forgiven his mother, restored cordial relations with his ex-wife and is next focusing on his fifth book of photographs. The parts of his life that were volatile and complicated have gone.
“It seems to have all very much quieted down,” he said with a wry smile.