Monday, November 20, 1989

For 15 Years, He's Told Tales of San Francisco

Article from: The Boston Globe
Article date: November 20, 1989
Author: Richard Dyer, Globe Staff

'He was brown-haired and brown-eyed, mustachioed," writes Armistead Maupin of one of the principal characters in his novel-sequence, "Tales of the City," which has just come to a close with a sixth installment, "Sure of You."

"The mischief and sweetness in his expression," Maupin continues, "would have betrayed him as gay at a PTA meeting in Lynchburg, Virginia."

Maupin wasn't writing about himself when he described Michael Tolliver. And then, again, he was -- he says that he is most of the characters in the sextet, but maybe especially DeDe Halcyon, a lesbian who has a debutante past to live down. Maupin, after all, used to work for Jesse Helms. But when the novelist was in town a while back to give a reading to benefit the AIDS Action Committee, Michael Tolliver was just who he looked like, to the life, and his conversation was full of mischief and sweetness.

Maupin's sequence began in 1974 as a newspaper serial, "Tales of the City," which appeared first in the San Francisco Chronicle and, later, in the Examiner. The tales appeared five days a week in 800-word sequences, and it wasn't long before Maupin's lovable, horny and bewildered characters and their serio-comic sexual and sociological predicaments had won the hearts of a million and half readers.

"People took the characters as real," Maupin says, "and I felt a little like a ventriloquist whose dummy had struck up an independent conversation with the audience. I was only the proprietor of the characters in the story."

Macondray Lane, which was the model for the fictional Barbary Lane, where the characters live, laugh, worry and love, began to attract a steady stream of tourists climbing its now-famous wooden stairs. When someone in the tales fell ill, flowers arrived at the newspaper; people taking out personal ads wrote that they were looking for "a Jon Fielding type"; Maupin received what he calls "bushels of Christian hate mail" in response to the story's celebration of human sexuality in all its variety.

Maupin's original agenda was to produce a series of vignettes depicting famous San Francisco settings and institutions and characteristic local lifestyles. In a way, the tales are also a kind of diary, and all the way through there are things you'd have to have been there to remember. On the very first page of the first book the heroine Mary Ann Singleton arrives in San Francisco from Cleveland, notes that her mood ring is blue, and decides to stay.

"Six weeks into the first series," Maupin says, "I ran out of settings and I ran out of lifestyles. The characters began to interact and a story started happening, and it turned into a 15-year adventure. The first tales were written by a 32-year-old innocent full of adolescent yearning, someone just beginning to discover personal freedom, sex and romance. I winged it a day at a time -- coming out is a journey, not a single act. As the books progressed, I learned more and more about the power of love, friendship, compassion."

Over the years the plots of the tales become increasingly elaborate, following the patterns of 19th-century serial fiction and the old movies that Maupin loves. But Maupin never loses his direction, and his delight in the human comedy never flags. But the tone becomes more and more serious as the writer's life turns him into an activist. In the fourth book, "Babycakes," we learn that a particularly popular character has died of AIDS.

"People wrote to me that I was spoiling their light morning entertainment, but I had to report on life as I saw it, and this is what I was experiencing. In 1982 I lost a friend to AIDS, so I was brutally aware of it early on, and I wanted other people to feel the same sense of loss that I did. The only way I could do it was to take away a character they loved. At the time I liked that character a lot myself, but today when I look at the books I find him insufferable -- his death was the death of a certain romantic ideal that I had."

That romantic ideal was probably one function of Maupin's Southern upbringing -- something the writer is not sentimental about. Born in Washington, D.C., and brought up in Raleigh, N.C., Maupin says he is "amazed" at the person he used to be. "I have a picture of myself shaking hands with Richard Nixon, but it is no longer up on the wall." He grew up as a "tight-assed little Republican kid, an Eagle Scout, a campus conservative at Chapel Hill. Jesse Helms was a friend of my dad's, and I worked for him at WRL television. He nominated me for an award that I won -- Anita Bryant had won the same prize two years before!"

Maupin volunteered to serve in Vietnam and he did. "I thought going to Vietnam would be the easiest way to overcome my doubts about myself and my sexuality. It didn't turn out that way. Friends referred to my Lawrence of Arabia complex, which was more accurate than they knew."

After Vietnam, the Associated Press offered Maupin a job in San Francisco. "I packed my life into my Opel G.T. and drove across the country to California. In five years I held about 10 jobs. As a reporter for the AP I wrote about peace marches and covered the Angela Davis trial. I sold silk, I was a mailboy, I worked for the San Francisco Opera. I was never close to music, but I loved all the delicious, petty intrigues and diva dramas; my office was dish central. In those days a career was secondary to me; what I did really didn't matter -- I just loved the experience of everything."

In 1975 Maupin proposed a serial novel to the Chronicle. He was given five months to develop "Tales of the City" -- by the end of that time he was supposed to have 30 episodes ready, six weeks' worth. "It was exactly six weeks into the series that the first controversial material began to appear -- once the story was going and people were reading it, I began to have some leverage. The paper was expecting a horrified reaction to all the gay characters and situations but it simply didn't happen."

Nevertheless, over the years a lot of energy went into Maupin's battles against the Byzantine censorship imposed by the newspaper on what had become one of its most popular features. "By the time of 'More Tales of the City' in 1977, the managing editors were sweating; they thought I had pushed the limit. 'You've got everything but cannibalism in there,' they thought -- and they were absolutely right! One of the editors kept a chart in his office with columns of the heterosexual and gay characters, and no more than 30 percent of the cast was supposed to be gay because they thought that was roughly the percentage of the gay population in San Francisco. So I had one of my society matron characters fall in love with a Great Dane, which I insisted the editor put in the heterosexual column, and he got rid of the chart after that!"

Although the tales are not directly autobiographical, the books depict places Maupin has been, experiences he has sought out, situations he has investigated. Sometimes Maupin's life and his tales intersected in unexpected ways. Michael Tolliver writes a coming-out letter to his parents, which became Maupin's own coming-out letter when his parents read it in the paper. "It may have been the easiest episode in the whole series to write because I had been composing it for years in my head. If you love someone, it is hard not to tell them the truth about who you are. I have a typical family. My father told me he could accept it but it was really killing my mother; my mother said it was really killing my father. Eventually they came around."

Maupin recognizes that all but one of the principal characters of the series reflect aspects, or "fragments," of his own personality. "One person represents the more cynical side of me; another, like Michael Tolliver, represents the romantic. One of them is the sexual gadabout I used to be and he turns into the completely domestic creature you see before you today. The landlady, Mrs. Madrigal, on the other hand, isn't me at all, but the person I aspire to be. She's the only one who comes from outside myself -- her spirit is that of my grandmother, who was the biggest influence on me in my childhood. She was a suffragette in England, a vegetarian, theosophist, palm reader -- everything Shirley MacLaine does now, she did then. She was a generous loving spirit, and I simply appropriated that. Her spirit is what rescued me in the long run; she was the explainer and the forgiver."

In a way Mrs. Madrigal is who Maupin himself became when the tales turned him into a public figure -- he has been a spokesperson, an educator, a reconciler. His reading at the Brattle Theater was punctuated by cheering and laughter, and during the question period more than one speaker began by expressing thanks to Maupin; he has written books that mean something to people, books they read over and over again. The public role is one that Maupin welcomes. "I don't believe in preaching to the choir; we need to go out and get ourselves heard. I'd just like people to recognize the humanity of others in a way that goes beyond their external differences; everyone feels the same emotions. This is a subversive idea that is very seldom reflected in modern fiction, something that doesn't get said enough. And I think that's the reason people embrace these books."

The final volume, "Sure of You," which entered the best-seller list last week, represents both a summing up and a change. "It's the only book that was not serialized first. There is far less zany plotting, and I can pursue character and emotion, what makes these people the way they are."

In some ways "Sure of You" is the darkest of the books because the '80s are darker than the '70s were -- Michael Tolliver is going through the trials of HIV infection, T-cell counts, AZT and waiting for the other shoe to drop. But in some ways it also is the warmest of the books because of how quietly, nobly and supportively people are responding to new challenges in their lives. One aspect of the book has already been controversial -- one of the best-loved characters has not risen to this challenge; she sells out, betrays her friends, repudiates all she has experienced and learned. "Some people say they were surprised; others have said, 'I knew she was a bitch from the beginning.' There are some people whose ambition is so strong that they can scuttle whatever character they have left; we don't always turn out the way we should." Disarmingly, Maupin adds something to this thought. "Maybe I wrote this as a cautionary tale for myself."

"Sure of You" is definitely the end of the series, Maupin says. "It seemed a good time to stop -- I was afraid of getting stale. The characters had matured along with me, and it was time to kick them out of the nest, and let them fly on their own."

They won't be quite "on their own" in their next incarnation, which will be six two-hour television films made by the producers of "My Beautiful Laundrette." "Television and the movies have been interested all along, but then someone would always say, 'We just love these stories, but we have this slight problem with all those gay and lesbian characters . . .' These producers will film the stories in San Francisco with an American cast and according to British standards of honesty. They have a wonderful sense of period and the time is right for a '70s comedy -- we are ready to laugh at Qiana shirts."

Maupin will supervise the television films. He is also involved in a musical-in-development called "Heart's Desire" that will try out at the Cleveland Playhouse next fall with Patti Lupone in the principal role. There also is a new novel he wants to write -- and doesn't want to talk about.

He says he lives "an extremely domestic life" with gay activist Terry Anderson in San Francisco -- "and no longer with hundreds of characters from 'Tales of the City.' We've rented a penthouse in the Mission District with a deck garden. We stay home and watch movies and TV. Neither of us loves to cook but both of us do it. Our best friend is a single father with a 7-year-old son. All the kid things in 'Sure of You' are directly lifted from our experience of this precocious 7-year-old. We live in an extended family. Life is not that far off from the one on Barbary Lane."

Richard Dyer, Globe Staff. "FOR 15 YEARS, HE'S TOLD TALES OF SAN FRANCISCO." The Boston Globe. New York Times Company NY, NJ, DC, MA, TX & Intl Addresses. 1989. HighBeam Research. 13 Dec. 2008 .

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