The Guardian, Thursday 14 September 2006
The creator of 28 Barbary Lane, the most famous fictional address in San Francisco, lives, it turns out, on another street whose name begins with B, but at No 27. I look next door for No 28 but, this being a street in an American city, with the usual incomprehensible numbering system, the figure is about 50 digits off.
"Isn't that a riot?" says Armistead Maupin later, when we are talking in his spacious living room overlooking the city as the evening fog gently rolls in off the Pacific. "When I realised this place was No 27, I knew I had to take it!"
But in San Francisco, a compact city that you can lazily stroll across from east to west in about three hours, you never stray very far from anywhere else. "You can actually see Russian Hill from right here, but it's all the way across town," says Maupin. "I can actually see, as I could when I lived on Russian Hill - which is the approximate location of Barbary Lane - the Alcatraz beacon blinking on my bedroom wall. I wondered one night after moving in here, 'What is that light licking on my wall?' And it's the same light. And the famous wild parrots of Telegraph Hill, that were featured in Tales of the City 30 years ago and recently had a documentary made about them, they come over here and land in this tree out here at seven o'clock in the morning, breakfasting on all the different hills that have the right kind of hawthorn berries."
With Maupin, who grew up in North Carolina, you get a real southern welcome, warm, friendly, all arms spread and lemme-fetch-y'all-something-to-drink-or-toke. He is the picture of sixtyish avuncularity in his thick moustache, tossing out witticisms, anecdotes and aperçus by the cartload, effortless in his ability to keep everyone relaxed. You sense a real gift for friendship in the same kindly eye that bears indulgently down upon the strange and wonderful characters that populate the six novels in his Tales of the City series, from the Maupin-like Michael Tolliver to his transgendered landlady, Anna Madrigal.
Early on, I apologise for brandishing my tape recorder and say, "Of course, properly trained journalists of your generation [he was born in 1944 and first settled in San Francisco as a stringer for AP], you guys all have shorthand down, right?"
"Shorthand?" he chortles. "Gimme a break! I used one of those things back when I interviewed Christopher Isherwood in the 70s. Actually, he was very gallant about it when it broke down. He said, 'Oh, never mind. The same thing happened to me when I interviewed Somerset Maugham.' Yeah, right - in 1934!
"So, the Guardian, right? Now, the last time one of your guys was over here I was unattached and I confess I was a little gloomy about it, and I guess it must have registered a little too deeply with this fellow, because when the piece finally ran, with this terrible, miserable photograph of me, the headline was something like 'The Loneliest Man in San Francisco!' Which I wasn't. Or not really."
I promise we'll try harder this time. As Maupin takes our photographer upstairs to find likely spots for, one hopes, some less miserable pictures, he says, "Well, I really hate to leave a Brit anywhere near all my good books. I know how you guys are."
So I scan the shelves. Immediately, I pounce on a couple of ancient, well-maintained Isherwood first editions. I tug out Down There on a Visit and flip through the pages. Sure enough, it is inscribed, "To Armistead, from one of his truest fans, Chris." I put it back among the comprehensive selection of gay novelists, American and English, that cover most of one wall: the Vidals, the Audens, the Leavitts, the Rita Mae Browns, lots of Isherwood, Christopher Bram, Larry Kramer, and Plato cheek by jowl with biographies of David Hockney and Maupin's good friend (and sometime lover) Rock Hudson - "the movie star" of Further Tales of the City - and a healthy selection of Rock'n'Doris camp classics on DVD. Over on another coffee table, not far from a nude photo of the younger and - oh, I'll just say it - dauntingly well-hung Maupin, is a beautiful and tiny century-old edition of Théophile Gautier's Mademoiselle De Maupin.
Maupin first saw San Francisco in the late 1960s, as a naval officer on his way to Vietnam. "I was completely and utterly captivated by the sheer physicality of the place," he recalls. "It was also curiously comforting to me as someone who'd lived in Charleston, North Carolina, before coming here, because it had a lot of the same qualities. A small, contained area of old buildings that people revered highly, and a certain civic narcissism that was pretty great to be around. But I basically saw it for two days coming and going from Vietnam. And the very first time I spent here as a civilian, after I processed out of the navy, some friends invited me to a party out in Seacliff, overlooking the ocean. I remember being hugged there by a certifiably heterosexual guy because I was home safely from the war - and that was something that certainly would not have happened back in North Carolina."
The San Francisco that Maupin would later render on to the pages of his novels was the world capital of the gay liberation movement. As Edmund White put it in States of Desire, his 1979 survey of gay America at its pre-Aids pinnacle of optimism and contentment, this was where "gay men came from across America to learn how to live gay lives".
The city had always been a leftwing bastion and was the scene of a famous general strike in 1934. Having hosted the chaotic and licentious gold rush that led to the founding of the state of California in 1850, it was used to integrating large intakes of oddballs and refugees from stale convention. By the early 70s, in the wake of the hippie influx that had filled Haight-Ashbury and environs, and with many returning Vietnam veterans (like their second world war counterparts) electing not to return to whatever southern or midwestern dumps they had escaped from, the city was alive with every kind of experiment and fad, a riot of possibilities for the satirist with an eye for sociological and sexual details.
Patty Hearst (the daughter of Maupin's publisher) was perpetually in the news, whether as kidnap victim, radicalised trust-fund baby-bankrobber, or simply under arrest. Jim Jones had not yet shipped his doomed flock off to Guyana. And gay city supervisor Harvey Milk had yet to be assassinated by his homophobic colleague Dan White. Gay icons such as the disco-diva Sylvester and the performance-art drag-troupe the Cockettes were still in full swing. Drugs were plentiful, cheap and easy to acquire. In no city in America had the possibilities of the 60s been so thoroughly mainstreamed and lived to the full as they had in the San Francisco that greeted Maupin.
But until then he had been a true son of the south: "The boring old story about me is that I was an arch-conservative until I hit San Francisco. I understand why there are so many log-cabin republicans these days, because an awful lot of closet cases move to the right when they have to keep the lid on. It's all about keeping control, so you have to have a rigid set of rules, and that fits a lot more easily with rightwing politics than with leftwing politics. Anyway, my father was an arch-conservative, so, knowing as I did that I was a little bit queer, and that eventually that was going to emerge, I felt I had to be everything I could possibly be for him, since I really couldn't oblige him in the sexuality department."
And how did you shed your old skin?
"By shedding my clothes, and I mean that quite literally. I came here and found this amazingly democratic world in the bathhouses. I had this whole fraternity of new friends based simply on the fact that I was a gay man in 1973 in San Francisco. It was extraordinarily liberating, and to realise that my work emerged from that and is pretty much inseparable from my life is pretty satisfying, career-wise."
This is the world that fed Tales of the City, which started out briefly as a column-cum-fictional narrative in the Marin County newspaper the Pacific Sun, and was then acquired by the San Francisco Chronicle. "I conceived it by the seat of my pants, in a state of abject panic every morning. And as the series went on, I started to conceive of them more as novels, especially some of the later books.
"Every single thing came out of my life at the time. There's a scene in both the [television series] and the novel about Michael sitting in a gay bar hoping to meet someone and a guy comes and sits next to him and tells him he's turned on by his Weejuns - a kind of loafer. That's as far as it went in the book, but in real life, I went back to the guy's place and he turned out to be the night clerk at the Huntingdon hotel, which at the time was the last place that would polish your shoes if you left them outside the door. And he would cruise the hallways late at night looking for Weejuns! And I couldn't put that in the story because I felt I might be hearing from the lawyers at the Huntingdon hotel.
"But there was no question that there was a revolution going on. I don't tend to get really grand about the 'gay culture', because it can be as kitschy and commercial as any other culture these days. But it was really quite exciting when the first Gay Men's Chorus formed and there were all these stalwart guys leaving San Francisco for Nebraska and places like that, to sing Stout-Hearted Men on stage at the local Baptist church. You just couldn't beat that shit!
"For me, the revolution was always about visibility. Always. It's why I'm now so adamant about outing. It's why, in the most natural way possible, homosexuality works its way into my storylines, makes itself part of the fabric of the world. The whole goal of my work was to put myself out there and by doing so, demystify that world for other people.
"I actually came out to my parents in the second book, More Tales: when Michael writes to his mother in Florida and comes out, that was basically my letter to my parents. At least that's the way they received it. They were subscribers to the Chronicle to follow the serial, which was running five days a week. And they knew I was talking about myself. I've done that my whole life. I've done it with everything when it's hard for me to avoid confrontation."
And just as these gains were being locked in place and beginning to be accepted, Aids arrived.
"For us, that was the extraordinary pain: that we felt we were on the brink of liberation, of being understood by the heterosexual world, and along came this disease that was laid at our feet. And even the victims had no idea why they were sick, and they were being blamed. I mean, what do you say about that time that hasn't been said [already]?"
And here, as is often the case when talking with gay men of Maupin's generation, one senses, however briefly, a procession of ghosts marching for a moment through his mind, before he blinks them back down to their rest.
"One thing I learned about San Francisco was that the families that we already had in place - the gay and lesbian families we had, without benefit of marriage, back when Aids hit - were very efficient at rallying and coming to the aid of their loved ones. It was the absolute proof of our non-frivolity. And all these institutions and frameworks began to fall into place, all of which have now reached stuffy middle-age. Everybody's got a stuffy black-tie fundraiser now!"
This may be the place to mention that Maupin is no longer "the loneliest man in San Francisco", if indeed he ever was. He has been partnered for two years with 43-year-old Christopher Turner, an adult-film producer, and seems contentedly uxorious. "Lucky for me he's always been into older guys," he says, with a richly suggestive chuckle. He even took Turner home to meet his dad shortly before he died. "Christopher and I went down to North Carolina and basically to say goodbye to him. And my father couldn't give me too much shit because his wife is 25 years younger than him. He met a 35-year-old when he was a 60-year-old widower. There was no-o-o-o leg to stand on there! And as most people do, he adored Christopher and he did that whole thing, sort of, 'Watch out for this one, he doesn't know a damn thing. You look like you got a head on your shoulders.'"
I ask him about one of his most famous creative decisions: killing a beloved character, Michael Tolliver's dreamboat lover, Dr Jon, offstage between books, with Aids, which certainly, if brutally, conveyed the cruel, utterly arbitrary nature of the illness. "Well, it feels good to evoke any kind of emotions in a writer, even grief. And at the time people were telling themselves, 'I only go to sweater bars, I don't go to leather bars, so I'm OK.' Michael says at one point, 'I've tried to tell you that cashmere is no respecter of disease!' But there was this attitude that only the most depraved were coming down with this, not the gentlemen, and so I decided to take the gentleman in the book and make him the one." Michael Tolliver, by contrast, survived. Next year will see the publication of Michael Tolliver Lives, which finds him in his mid-50s and living with HIV.
We talk also of Maupin's book The Night Listener, now a film with Robin Williams and Toni Collette, which arose out of Maupin's involvement with a literary hoax in the early 90s, when he was approached to write a blurb for a book purportedly written by a teenager with Aids called Anthony Godby Johnson. It later emerged that the book was probably the work of a woman named Vicki Fraginals, who claimed to be Johnson's adoptive mother but masqueraded as him on the phone and fooled a great many people besides Maupin, including the novelist Paul Monette and the American TV anchor Keith Olberman. Maupin spent a good deal of time on the phone with this apparently straight, well-adjusted "secular-humanist" kid - "mainly goofy conversations about movies or politics". But he was never able to meet the boy.
"I got more and more suspicious. I had also noticed how alike the voices sounded. I never heard them overlap. I often mistook Tony for Vicki. It was a perfect example of me being unable to confront people directly. So The Night Listener was written to convey a message through fiction, to one person, Vicki Fraginals, to tell her that I was on to her and see what her reaction would be, but she has maintained her silence through it and three other exposes."
Have you read Johnson's book since?
"I've skimmed it - to my huge embarrassment, because once you know it's a fake, it reads like the most godawful kitsch!"
We conclude by sharing our unalloyed delight in the tribulations of Tony Blair. "Hallelujah!" he says, offering high-fives with a resounding, satisfying slap. "All right! One down, one to go! By the way, I had the honour of winning an online poll where Britons chose their favourite gay-themed novel and Tales of the City won. So I went to Manchester to accept the award, and it felt so great to stand up in front of all these Mancunians and say, 'I can't tell you how good it feels, because in the old days I always had to apologise to you for our leaders - and now you guys are in the same fucking boat.'"