Twenty years after he launched Tales of the City, the bestselling bard of Barbary Street is ready to tell his own story.
When Armistead Maupin decided to leave San Francisco in 2012 and move with his husband and labradoodle to Santa Fe, it made the newspapers. The move was “nothing I’m taking lightly,” Maupin announced at the time, before setting out on what he called his “Madrigal Mystery Tour” to the Southwest.
Eighteen months later, when Maupin decided to leave Santa Fe and move with his husband and labradoodle to San Francisco, his journey made the papers once again. Santa Fe was nice, Maupin explained, “We absolutely adore the wild nature of our home in the desert.” But it was “not enough.” San Francisco beckoned home the man who, more than any other writer in the past 38 years, had captured the radical magic of the Golden City.
Maupin’s Tales of the City first appeared as a daily column on May 24, 1976, in the San Francisco Chronicle. (Original headline: “She’s 25, Single and Mad for S.F.”) Centered largely around a fictional apartment complex at 28 Barbary Lane, it has followed, through nine novels, three television serials, and multiple radio adaptations, a cast of misfits who have become cultural touchstones in their own right. Mary Ann Singleton, for example, encapsulated the wide-eyed naiveté of a country bumpkin (from Cleveland) thrust into the big smoke. Meanwhile, Anna Madrigal, her pot-smoking landlady, came out as trans the same year Bruce Jenner was winning gold medals in the Olympics.
“A central core of Tales of the City is the notion that anybody can be what anybody wants to be,” Maupin explains. “It’s that simple.”
This “simple” liberal vision of San Francisco is so adored that real estate agents have, much to Maupin’s ire, sometimes used it to sell property—ie., “a real Tales of the City charmer.” Indeed, for many years it was almost impossible to imagine the city without Tales overlaying it like a fanciful map, defining (whether accurately or not) entire neighborhoods and their inhabitants.
All of which makes the first half of Logical Family, Maupin’s brand new memoir, a rather bracing read. The man responsible for creating D’orothea Wilson, a black lesbian model who also happens to be secretly white, turns out to have a complicated past. To put it mildly.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a decent person, a kind person,” Maupin says. “Yet I supported things, way back in my teen years, like segregation.” Writing the memoir was a kind of reckoning with old ghosts: “It was very hard to look at what a selfish, narrow little twit I had been.”
Logical Family begins in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Maupin makes no attempt to disguise the casual racism he encountered as a child, particularly from his “unreconstructed” father. In one early incident, Maupin shows his friends a sleigh bed in his grandmother’s room, and tells them it was made “by slaves in our family,” because that’s how his father phrases it. Maupin writes, “I had copied his language because I thought it made us sound genteel but compassionate.” And, also, he admits, because he was seeking his father’s approval through imitation.
This makes for confronting reading, but that’s Maupin’s intention. “One of the reasons for the book,” he says, “is I get so tired of standing up in public gatherings where everybody in the room thinks they know me very well, and hearing them groan and sigh when they hear about my past. I want to be very clear about it. And I think I’m the activist fag that I am today because I grew up in that repressive atmosphere.”
Later, Maupin goes to serve in Vietnam. He calls himself a Goldwater Republican. He describes strangers he’s picked up for the night spotting a framed photograph of him shaking hands with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office, and reacting with “looks of revulsion and mild panic, as if they had just realized they had been picked up by Jeffrey Dahmer.” (When Nixon resigns, he hides the photo.)
But the cumulative effect of confessing his conservatism is to emphasize how important San Francisco was to his personal transformation—a transformation, in fact, that was experienced by many gay servicemen who encountered its atmosphere of “general, universal compassion” while processing through Fort Mason, and then realized that life could be different. The book then becomes a love letter: “I would finally get to meet myself in San Francisco.” Mary Ann Singleton, wide-eyed and clueless, turns out to be more than a little autobiographical.
Jump a few years ahead, and Maupin is friends with Harvey Milk, and, by offering to help write a memoir, encouraging Rock Hudson to out himself. He is using his popular daily column to respond directly to Anita Bryant, who opposed gay rights through her repugnant “Save Our Children” campaign. (Maupin considers that column, titled “Letter to Mama,” the best thing he has ever written.)
San Francisco has changed, of course, since Maupin first arrived and since Tales was first commissioned by an open-minded editor. So have national attitudes towards LGBTQ people, though not always for the better. Of Anna Madrigal, Maupin says: “I introduced this character 40-fucking-years ago.” At the time, he received no blowback from readers who had never encountered a transgender person before. “Nothing like the raging transphobia we are seeing today.”
He adds, “If we allow rights to be denied to our trans brothers and sisters, we’re not being faithful to the notion of freedom as I see it.”
The title, Logical Family, first appeared in Michael Tolliver Lives, the seventh book in the Tales book series. It describes the surrogate families that many of us—gay and straight—end up creating when our biological families prove unsatisfactory. “We spend years trying to be accepted by them,” Maupin says, “and then we realize we’ve been wasting our time, and we want to create families that love and understand us, and appreciate us for who we are.”
That is what Tales of the City is really about.