San Francisco: Maupin’s real Tales of the City

October 2014
Eva Wiseman

He’s been called the man who ‘invented San Francisco’ but with his final Tales of the City book in the bag, has Armistead Maupin moved on? He talks to Eva Wiseman about fame, fans and visiting Russia

There are three 28 Barbary Lanes, four if you count the one embedded in Armistead Maupin’s faithful readers’ hearts. A steep wooden staircase with a story on every step. I’m standing outside the first, at Macondray Lane in San Francisco’s Russian Hill, on a blue-skied sweet-aired morning. The bay twinkles behind me like bracelets. Tales of the City, Maupin’s series of novels that have spanned four decades and many lives, is ending, and I have come to pay homage. To the city, one that over time has changed from tie-dyed hippy utopia to humming tech capital, and to the author, a man who Quentin Crisp once said, ‘invented San Francisco’.

For the uninitiated, the yet to fall in love, Tales of the City began life as a column in the San Francisco Chronicle, before being collected into a best-selling series following the same tribe through their sexual awakenings in the 1970s, the Aids epidemic of the 1980s and into a postmillennial city now shaped by the tech industry. After six non-Tales novels (including The Night Listener, which became a film starring Robin Williams), Maupin returned to Tales (our beloved ingenues Michael Tolliver and Mary Ann Singleton now in their 60s), but promises this ninth volume is the last. ‘I’ve been accused of “Cher’s last tour” syndrome,’ he said, admitting that fans are counting on him writing more. ‘But there really won’t be another.’ The Days of Anna Madrigal sees Maupin’s characters preparing to leave San Francisco for Nevada’s avant-garde festival, Burning Man. Mrs Madrigal, once their mysterious, bohemian landlady, now a transgender legend of 92, embarks on a journey back into the gloaming desert of her past.

Like his Tales children, in 2012 Maupin too left San Francisco for the desert. His decision to move, with his husband and dog, to Santa Fe, was treated by some of his fans as a small death. They grieved the loss of him from this city that he’d built —
12 June was declared Michael Tolliver Day by the mayor — but they needn’t have worried. The pull of the city proved so strong and, two years after leaving, Maupin once again has a home in San Francisco. He sits opposite me at the Palace Hotel, handsome and twinkling at 70, and we order tea. English Breakfast. ‘David Hockney once told me Earl Grey tasted like dishwashing liquid,’ he whispers.

He is treated like royalty here. The staff speak softly around him. ‘I have a manageable level of celebrity here,’ he smiles. ‘Enough people come up to me so I feel good about myself. Usually they just want to tell me they enjoy my work. They are very civilised, generous, loving people. The Game of Thrones writer, George RR Martin, is a friend of mine in Santa Fe, and people get downright personal with him about who he killed off.’

‘The thing that mildly peeved me when we announced we were moving,’ he says, politely refusing the waiter’s offer of cucumber in his iced tea, ‘was the suggestion of disloyalty. If anyone has paid homage to this city, I have. How can they doubt that I love it? There was a mildly funereal tone to the conversation. But the pleasure of writing a book is that we all can return, any time we want to.’

We meet the week that Laura Linney, his longtime friend (and the person who brought Mary Ann Singleton to life) announces that at 49, she’s given birth to her first child. And she’s named him after Maupin. ‘It was astonishingly moving. I turned 70 in May, and to be given a namesake by an actress who brought one of my characters to life… Well. It makes sense. She knew it.’

In the final novel, Anna Madrigal holds forth about the changing shape of San Francisco, the traffic, the money. But Maupin maintains that this is a city of magic. ‘It’s fashionable now for locals to bash San Francisco and the tech industry, but I remember the columnist for the Chronicle, Herb Caen, saying “It’s not the same anymore. It was so much better in the 1930s and 1940s”. This is what happens, we grow old, we hang on to our memories. I’m really trying not to say how much better it was before. Because even these Millennials who turn up in the Google bus have a certain wide-eyed fascination with this beautiful city. Everyone wants to live in this magnificent place.’ He gestures towards the bay. ‘And Anna’s a pretty tough old bird. She had a sense of wonder about her life, wherever it is. She’s always the character I aspire to be.’

Another ambition, he says, is to be given credit for introducing homosexual love stories to the mainstream. HBO’s new SF-set drama, Looking, owes much to the Tales miniseries — its creator has discussed how indebted he is to Maupin — but it’s in France and Italy that Maupin has really noticed change. As each country assimilates to the idea of homosexuality, he says, ‘As it seeps through the cracks, Tales are translated there. Russia is the inevitable barrier to break.’ Would he visit? ‘I’d go if they let me in. My friend Ian McKellen isn’t allowed in, as he’s “promoting the homosexual agenda”.’

A book signing in Russia would be a magical thing. His readings sell out with people who want to tell him how he’s changed their lives. People whose loved ones have been buried with his books. People who sent Michael’s coming-out letter to their families as their own. ‘I’m most proud of the way in which my work has opened up pride and self realisation for people. And I hear it still from young people, which is a little depressing, because I’d hope we were beyond that,’ he adds. ‘Each of us has to say, “This is my life and I’m proud of it, and the hope of love is more important than any of your stupid assumptions about what it means to be outside of the norm.” I didn’t understand heterosexual love until I accepted myself as a gay man. I remember hearing the men in my division in Vietnam pining for women, and I didn’t get it. And that’s why the books had to happen. That blossoming.’

He chuckles, suddenly. ‘I was afraid of betraying everything. I remember going to hospital with a broken nose, worried I’d sound too gay when I went under morphine. The lid is held on pretty tight when you’re in the closet, and to realise it’s no big deal and the agony you’ve been through is mostly self torture, and to transcend it is an extraordinary thing.’ It was Maupin who helped McKellen to come out, telling him he’d be a happier man and a stronger artist if he did; and, in 1985, when Maupin’s occasional lover Rock Hudson became the first high-profile casualty of Aids, it was he who spoke to the press, challenging the assumption that Hudson’s sexuality was scandalous. ‘I’ve been saying this for 40 years,’ he sighs.

So I’m standing outside 28 Barbary Lane. Ish. Macondray Lane, halfway between Green and Union, is the place Maupin says was the true inspiration for Anna Madrigal’s magical home, with its wooden steps and glorious greenery. One block away, another set of vine-covered steps were the body-double for those stairs, the ones used in all three of the miniseries. That’s the second Barbary Lane. The third is a road away, 39 Havens. When writing, Maupin lived in a penthouse studio overlooking this building. ‘When I first saw 39 Havens, I thought, “This is where I would have Anna live”,’ he said.

My tour of the Tales (following a map downloaded from toursofthetales.com) takes me up hills and through parks, to benches with postcard views and an ice-cream shop, Swensen’s (founded in 1948). Everywhere seems imbued with Maupin. It feels like I’ve been here before. Because of course, in my head I have.

‘You get pretty philosophical at my age,’ Maupin says, draining his cup at the Palace Hotel. ‘You realise there is no permanence, so you plan your days carefully. The great thing about 28 Barbary Lane is it gives the illusion there is a permanence somewhere. But, you see, our job is to embrace the impermanence.’

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