Saturday, July 7, 2012

Like Rose Water and Lysol, An Evening With Armistead Maupin is Breathtaking

by Tony Hobday in Arts News

Having been in the esteemed company of author Armistead Maupin, for a short two hours, on June 23, I left with the sensation of actually having been at a party at 28 Barbary Lane. Housed in an airy gallery located in the 15th and 15th district, Maupin stood over a crowd of 100 or so adoring fans like the gay alter ego of Jesus, the white-washed walls illuminating him, and read from the second chapter in the ninth volume of his ‘Tales of the City’ series, titled The Days of Anna Madrigal – the final book he irresolutely stated, summoning a few dubious chuckles from the audience.

Two decades ago, Maupin believed, after six books, the series had reached its culmination. “When I left the series in 1989, (the character of) Michael Tolliver was found to be HIV positive – at that time it was pretty much a death sentence. I didn’t want the series to end with which ‘the gay man dies,’ because that was the scenario with so many books, so many movies, year to year to year,” he pointed out.  “I wanted Michael to sort of be a beacon of hope. I wanted to leave the series with him living his life, consuming it and being strong.”

Come 2007, Michael Tolliver Lives — however, the book received much criticism. This seventh book was initially written as a stand-alone from the series, according to Maupin; hence the backlash on the author for having written MTL in first-person narrative, unlike all previous incarnations of Tales. Maupin simply explained to the audience, “I wrote MTL in first person because I really wanted to celebrate my generation of gay men. I don’t regret it.”

Then, in 2010, came Mary Ann in Autumn; the eighth installment, in which we find an embittered Mary Ann returning to San Francisco seeking solace from Michael. “Who really is Mary Ann,” asked a fan, hinting to the nonfictional basis of the character, “and what did she do to piss you off so bad?” Maupin replied with an observation about himself made by a friend: “I think that Michael Tolliver is the person you wish you were, and Mary Ann Singleton is the person you’re afraid you are.”

An astonishing cliffhanger in Mary Ann in Autumn, seemingly puts the ex-residents of 28 Barbary Lane on a precipice. Set among present day San Francisco and 1936 Winnemucca, Nev., The Days of Anna Madrigal, will open many more windows into the beloved character, from her younger years in a brothel to the ripe old age of 92.

“We just came from Winnemucca, by the way,” Maupin opened the evening, referring to himself, his husband Christopher and their dog Philo, who’s named after Philo T. Farnsworth. They were there researching for the book a place called “The Line” – an area of Winnemucca lined with whorehouses, he said. (Decades ago it consisted of five brothels in a row, and of which only two remain today.) He told of the uses of Lysol and rose water, “Lysol was sold as a feminine hygiene product in the 1930s and 40s.  It was also believed to prevent pregnancy.” He also suggested to the audience, with scads of enthusiasm, to google “1930’s whorehouse menu.” Which I did and wished I hadn’t.

Maupin’s stop in Salt Lake City was the first in a national tour called the Madrigal Mystery Tour, and which will eventually drop off Maupin and his family to settle in Santa Fe, N.M., via The Burning Man, he said, uprising a roar of laughter from the crowd. The announcement prompted more anecdotes – he reflected on a dinner party he attended and was seated next to “Shirl” (Shirley MacLaine), “… she said (to me) ‘I’m trying to figure out who your gorgeous husband reminds me of.’ So I had to sit there and play the guessing game with her and she finally said, ‘Christian Bale, Christian Bale!’ I said Christian Bale’s an asshole! And she said ‘No, he’s an actor.’” She then preceded to tell me that it was very important to move off the coast because something terrible was going to be happening very soon. And I asked which coast and she said ‘any coast.’”

“So I told this story to Olympia (Dukakis),” Maupin continued, “and Olympia said ‘I’m 82 fucking years old, I don’t have time for the apocalypse!’”

Olympia, whom as it became readily apparent that Maupin holds in the highest of regard, was (and is) Anna Madrigal. Olympia played the part of the pot-smoking landlady of 28 Barbary Lane in the 1993 miniseries of Tales. “Oly, she went out and hired a transgender consultant for her role,” Maupin told us, “and talked to this women about why she did it and how difficult was it and what emotional journey did she make. She asked ‘why would you go through this process, given that you know how hard it would be to live in this society as that person?’ And she (the consultant) said, ‘all my life, I’ve wanted a friendship with women.’”

Following the reading and spirited conversation copies of the first two chapters of The Days of Anna Madrigal were put on auction: “Who’s going to help me with the auction, I’ve never sold myself before,” Maupin joked. Auctioned off at $325 per chapter, with the total of $650 plus a percentage of the ticket proceeds benefiting the Trevor Project, the evening ended in great success.

Two days prior to Maupin’s visit to Salt Lake City, he was presented with San Francisco’s Silver Cable Car Award. The San Francisco Travel Association, each year, honors an individual or organization that has made a significant contribution to San Francisco’s visitor industry.

“Through newspapers, books, films and the stage, Armistead Maupin has introduced people around the world to a place that is as unique as the person reading about it. In his descriptions of people and places, he imparts a sense of acceptance and tolerance that lets the reader know that all are welcome here,” said Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco Travel, during the ceremony. “It’s no wonder that so many people say they knew they wanted to visit – or even live – in San Francisco after reading his books.”

In Maupin’s acceptance he said, “I’m so happy to have this opportunity to stand here and thank you, all of you, and this city for giving me my life, for giving me my story, for allowing me to be me, allowing me to find who I was, and for continuing to do that. That’s scornfully referred to as ‘San Francisco values’ in other parts of the country. Here it’s something we’re proud of and you can see it here in this amazing amalgamation of gay and straight and ‘traveling,’ as I refer to it.  I’m just so grateful to you San Francisco, thank you so much. I will always, always consider myself a San Franciscan, no matter where I am. San Francisco made me a citizen of the world. And I’ve learned this from people who read my books. Even people who don’t come here love it for the same reasons that those of us who live here love it. And that’s why it’s so magical. I’ve very honored. Thank you very much.”

The Days of Anna Madrigal is scheduled to be published in 2013.

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