SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 27, 2008
Novelist Armistead Maupin was just passing through San Francisco on his way to Vietnam when the hills "sort of captivated me and I felt curiously at home." (CBS)
San Francisco seems to have more than its far share of icons. There are, of course, the cable cars and the hills. There is the Bay, the Bridge and the fog.
And then, there is Armistead Maupin, the author who perhaps better than anyone else has captured the city's quirkiness and eccentricities.
He fell in love with San Francisco the first time he saw it.
"Yeah, on my way to Vietnam," Maupin said. "I had a couple days here before I shipped out and took a Gray Line bus tour. The hills sort of captivated me and I felt curiously at home."
The city became his home in 1971, not long after his Vietnam duty. He soon discovered the city provided all the inspiration he needed for his love of storytelling.
"It's a very small place. It's a village really. So people have a way to bump into each other all the time, and that works very nicely in fiction. And yet it's a cosmopolitan village. We have a little of everything."
But rarely has a writer created such a cosmopolitan collection of characters as those who inhabited Maupin's "Tales of the City," in six novels and on TV. They were the inhabitants of Barbary Lane, a microcosm of the city, says Maupin: "Sort of gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, with a transgendered landlady, all living under the same roof and taking care of each other. And that to me was what San Francisco was all about."
It seemed a uniquely San Francisco story, but with 6 million books sold and translated into ten languages, "Tales of the City" touched lives around the world.
"You know, everywhere I go, people come up at the book signing to say, 'This is my Michael and this is Mona and this is Mrs. Madrigal,'" Maupin said. "They have assigned the roles in their books to their friends. And that's true in Helsinki and Melbourne and anywhere else you wanna name."
Michael, Mona and Mrs. Madrigal's fictional home on Barbary Lane was fashioned on the real-life Macondray Lane. It was there that Maupin saw steps one day and thought, '"Well, they must lead somewhere."
Maupin had discovered one of the narrow lanes running to houses clinging to San Francisco's hillsides.
"People have this image of this wild bacchanalian, depraved city," he said. "But it's as sweet as an English village in lots of its corners."
But it was no English village Maupin depicted when he started writing "Tales of the City," as a daily serial in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976.
Maupin said the paper had no idea where the writer was going with his stories or characters when he started.
It began as the story of Mary Ann Singleton, a new girl in town.
"She meets a gay man, Michael Tolliver," Maupin said. "She thinks he's the man of her dreams, but he's there with the man of his dreams. And so, it doesn't work out."
Mary Ann was played on television by Laura Linney.
"I felt very much like Alice in Wonderland, as I think Mary Ann Singleton does when she first arrives in San Francisco," she said.
The intertwining lives, and sex lives, in "Tales of the City" were modelled on what Maupin experienced in 1970's San Francisco, a place where everyone seemed to be accepted.
He hoped his books may help spread some of the openness that he found in San Francisco to other parts of the country.
"I like to think that they may have. But I think that this is a revolution that's been occurring everywhere. Civilized people everywhere have been gradually looking at the gay people around them and saying, 'Why should I be judging these people?'"
Maupin admits to being rather judgmental himself, as a young man growing up in North Carolina.
"My mother had a hairdresser who looked like, I don't know, Liberace on steroids. It was frightening! And I thought he was the only gay person in the world, and I didn't wanna be like him.
"I figured out that the feelings that I had towards other boys were not to be revealed. So, you learn to live a double life"
Maupin's double life led him to follow his father's conservative politics. As a young Republican he met Richard Nixon, he supported the Vietnam War, and didn't become comfortable being gay until he got to San Francisco.
"Once I came out to one or two friends here, I started coming out to everybody in sight! I was coming out to cab drivers, you know. I remember the first time I asked the cab driver to take me to a bathhouse, I was just too embarrassed to mention the name of the place. So I just told this really gruff straight guy, 'Broadway, please.' And he said, 'Well, any particular part?' And as soon as he realized where I was going, he said, 'Oh, Dave's! Why didn't you tell me? Have a good time, man. See you later. Give me a call if you need to be picked up.'"
For most of a decade it was an easygoing life for Maupin, and for San Francisco. But by the mid- 80s AIDS started to change everything.
"It really was a terrifying moment when so many people were getting sick," Maupin said. "Everyone seemed vulnerable. Everyone seemed possibly on the verge of death, myself included. We didn't know about the virus then. We didn't know whether it was going to kill us or not."
Maupin included AIDS in the "Tales of the City" storyline, to the discomfort of some of his readers.
"They said I was spoiling their light entertainment with this political agenda that I had. But I was grateful that I had a vehicle through which I could express these things."
By the sixth "Tales of the City" book, Michael Tolliver had AIDS.
Then for almost 20 years Maupin left Barbary Lane behind. But now he's back, with "Michael Tolliver Lives"
And Maupin's many readers are delighted.
At readings of novel number seven in the series, Maupin is usually asked what took him so long.
"I didn't plan to return to 'Tales of the City.' But several things happened. One was that various AIDS medicines came along that made me realize that Michael, like a lot of my friends, might not actually be dead.
"And also another funny thing happened. I got old!. (laughs) And I wanted to write about that. I wanted to write about what it felt like to be a gay man getting older, and to be happy with my life. To feel like I'd made a journey, that I was lucky to be here.
"I think it's really bad taste actually to complain about getting older when you're gay because, you know, so many of my friends didn't make it this far."
At 63 he says his life has never been better.
Last year he got married to Christopher Turner, 28 years younger. They went to Vancouver, Canada, where gay marriage is legal.
Maupin describes old ladies coming up to them at English Bay saying "Congratulations, gentlemen," when they saw the pair in their groom-and-groom outfits.
And Maupin was recently honored by the San Francisco Literary Festival, with their first lifetime achievement award.
To many in the gay community his greatest achievement has been to gently persuade every community to be more accepting.
"I feel useful," he said. "If I died tomorrow I think I have done something that I'm proud of in terms of, you know, helping people make the same journey I made."
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