These Hills Still Talk to Him

Published: August 19, 2007

PEOPLE ask him how his city has changed over the years, and Armistead Maupin tells them it has not. One of the better-kept secrets of San Francisco is how little time has altered the place, at least in a superficial sense, since the days when Mr. Maupin arrived in the early 1970s, fresh from the Navy and looking for his future.

Yet in the decades since “Sure of You,” the last installment in Mr. Maupin’s best-selling “Tales of the City” series was published, waves of new immigrants have arrived, not necessarily looking to make fortunes so much as to spend them. The sexual frontier that once beckoned to adventurers as unalike as Gianni Versace and Michel Foucault has largely shifted to the cybersphere. Gay San Francisco, so vivid a presence in Mr. Maupin’s writing, now gives the appearance of having slumped into cozy middle-age.

And that, in some ways, is a good thing, or anyway a surprising one, as readers who have propelled Mr. Maupin’s latest book, “Michael Tolliver Lives,” toward the best-seller list have found. Ask him about San Francisco today, and Mr. Maupin will observe that the need for gay enclaves is less great than the need for gay retirement centers. Michael Tolliver, the charming naïf Mr. Maupin invented decades ago as a fictitious alter ego, was never expected to reach 55, his age at the beginning of the new novel. Yet there he is, slightly creaky but vital, thriving on “a fine tuned mélange” of the retroviral drugs Viramune and Combivir, kept sexually humming thanks to a little blue pill.

He has a partner, as does Mr. Maupin, many years his junior. He has a cozy business, as one might say Mr. Maupin does — considering that the “Tales of the City” franchise has spawned three miniseries and a passionate global readership. He drives a hybrid car, as does Mr. Maupin, a Toyota Prius with a bossy G.P.S. he calls Carlotta.

Carlotta was on mute the day Mr. Maupin conducted a visitor on a driving tour of gay San Francisco, starting at the house atop Parnassus Heights that he shares with Christopher Turner, whom he married last February in a small ceremony in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The Arts and Crafts cottage where Mr. Maupin lives is filled with books and artworks by gay eminences and friends like David Hockney and the artist Don Bachardy, whose late partner Christopher Isherwood was both a mentor and literary model for Mr. Maupin. There is an Ian McKellen doodle of Merlin offered as a houseguest’s thanks. There is a view from his office of the deep blue bay. The vista is probably less distracting, though, than a drawing above the writer’s desk of a recumbent bearded man in sexual congress with a lion.

Once the logo for a local gay bar, the drawing was a gift Mr. Maupin kept rolled up in a closet (“What if my parents came?” he said) until one day he decided on impulse to frame and hang it. As it happens, the day he drove the nail into the wall was the same one when he met his future husband, who looks eerily — make that precisely — like the man in the frame. This may not signify much, but it does help explain why Mr. Maupin has “nothing but good to report” of reaching the age where he is eligible for senior discounts.

The reasons are numerous, not the least of them that he has created such memorable characters as Anna Madrigal, the doyenne of the fictional Barbary Lane who is perhaps the first Buddha-wise, pot-smoking, transgender heroine in American literature. Madrigal is also alive as his new novel opens, superannuated and living in reduced quarters but tended to by a group of young transgender people who revere her.

The San Francisco that Mr. Maupin once knew and depicted may no longer be at the vanguard of social experimentation (a historical outline in one local guide gives equal importance to the Great Earthquake and to 1969, the year when “gays become predominant in the Tenderloin District, Folsom Street and the Castro.”) Still, more than most places, the city remains open to difference and what used to be known as “otherness,” a place that a substantial population of female-to-male transsexuals known as “transmen” call home. San Francisco may look staid, but it has always made room for both eccentricity and contradiction, Mr. Maupin suggested as he motored through North Beach, which is not, of course, a beach and Washington Square, which is not a square.

A statue there of Benjamin Franklin was erected in 1878 by a temperance-minded dentist presumably unaware that Franklin was “a lush,” as Mr. Maupin remarked. It was placed atop a time capsule dug up a century later and repositioned, this time above artifacts that included a record by the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils, a copy of “Tales of the City” and a bottle of sinful Beaujolais.

Close to there stands the Lyric Theater, where the renegade performance troupe the Cockettes first performed its drag extravaganza “Pearls Over Shanghai,” a wild success. Not too distant as the crow flies are the bathhouses where Mr. Maupin discovered the plural and democratic and antic nature of desire, and also bars like the first gay establishment he ever entered (the Cloud Nine, now repurposed and renamed the Tonic). “I felt I was striking a blow for freedom,” Mr. Maupin said of his various conquests in those days, rolling past the rooftop “pentshack” on Russian Hill where he took partners, who may have been nonplussed to see a photograph of the onetime campus conservative (and Vietnam veteran) shaking hands with Richard Nixon.

San Francisco radicalized Mr. Maupin, who masked his politics behind a disarmingly affable writing style. When he calls the Castro district — now a gift-shop ghetto — “Gayberry,” he does so with affection. After all, the mainstreaming of gayness is a process in which “Tales of the City” played its part.

Could anyone have anticipated that what began modestly as a newspaper serial would one day become an international franchise ? Could anyone, for that matter, have imagined that a John Waters movie starring a drag diva who ached to be a real movie star would one day turn up again as a box office hit, “Hairspray,” starring a real movie star who apparently loves being in drag?

The culture turned out to a lot more flexible than anyone ever thought, Mr. Maupin said. Attitudes and mores that 35 years ago seemed loopy, flaky or else “wacky, godless, treasonous,” as he recently wrote, have moved steadily, inexorably toward the center.

“It gives you some idea of how much time has passed,” Mr. Maupin said as we drove past a redwood tree planted as a sapling to commemorate the day in 1978 when Dan White, a disturbed bigot, assassinated Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to the Board of Supervisors, and George Moscone, the mayor. Things grow fast in this climate. Today that tree must stand 40 feet tall.

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