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Armistead of the Desert

Nina Martin | January 21, 2014 | Story

When Armistead Maupin announced that he was leaving San Francisco in 2012, it felt as if a piece of the city’s soul had splintered off into the New Mexican desert. After all, most of what we think we remember about the city in the 1970s we owe to him (the rest was lost in a disco haze). His Tales of the City novels pushed the closet door wide open on all kinds of taboo subjects and made prejudices seem laugh-out-loud, squirm-in-your-seat ridiculous, enchanting fans and critics and freaking out the right wing. “I knew I was getting away with something,” Maupin says with a laugh (he says most things with a laugh) on the phone from the home in Santa Fe he shares with his husband, Christopher Turner. But just because Maupin has moved to a little adobe doesn’t mean that he’s abandoned San Francisco. On January 21st, his ninth and final installment of the series, The Days of Anna Madrigal, arrives. Saying goodbye is hard, but we all have to do it—though, as Maupin reminds us, endings are often less final than we fear.

San Francisco: So is this truly the last Tales of the City?
Armistead Maupin: Yes, it truly is.

How does it feel to have arrived at this point after 35-plus years of living with—and sometimes dying with—these characters?
There are times when it does feel quite momentous. To announce an end is pretty final. Of course, I’ve been known to lie before, or at least to change my mind. But I’ll be 70 in May. The years I have ahead of me, I want to be trying something different. Not different from writing, but different. I’m giving myself some space to let those things percolate.

Tales is obviously about the city, but you don’t live here anymore. and in the last novel, there’s a wistfulness that seems to be about losing San Francisco. why did you and your husband decide to leave?
It started out with wanting a backyard for the dog [their labradoodle, Philo]. Then it got really out of hand—we ended up with 15 acres full of coyotes. That’s kind of the joke answer, but it’s also true. We wanted a little more greenery, a little more nature; we were feeling the strictures of the city. There were also economic considerations, as there are for anybody in an artistic profession in the Bay Area these days. The royalties weren’t coming in as strongly as they had in the past.

So much of the conversation around san francisco these days is “oh my god, this place is changing so much.” how do you feel when you come back?
Around the time that the series began, I was living in the Duck House [a 1930s stucco house on Alta Street with a mural of ducks]. The legend was that Eleanor Roosevelt had stayed there at one time with a lady friend, and I loved having those vibes around. That’s my early memory of San Francisco—the joy of being able to live in those gardens, of being able to walk down to Caffe Malvina’s for coffee. Some people still have that experience, and they’re prepared to pay a lot for it. I still love the city better than any place on earth. But it does feel different. We considered various suburban solutions—one day we found a lovely place in the Oakland Hills. But then getting back to the city that night took two hours, and I thought, “You’re kidding yourself if you think it will still be a San Francisco life.”

Maybe the bigger change is that 35 years ago San Francisco was very much outside mainstream American culture. Things that were once weird—gay marriage, transgender people, pot everywhere—are now normalized. does it seem strange, the way the world has caught up with you—and for that matter, with San Francisco?
It’s just that San Francisco turned out to be right, every step of the way, about politics, about culture, about all kinds of things that used to be considered off the deep end. That’s because the city is a place where people are allowed to be adventurous. It’s still that way, I think, regardless of how it may have changed economically. I have no doubt that the techie who’s just bought a $10 million pied-à-terre in the Mission has all the same thrills that I had when I moved there.

Let’s talk about that. You arrived here in 1971 as a reporter for the Associated Press, after a stint in the navy. and you were a die-hard Republican, correct? Before Vietnam, you even worked at Jesse Helms’s right-wing TV station in North Carolina. did you know you were gay by then?
I did know that I was gay. And yes, my politics were pretty conservative. I had embraced that as a teenager, partly as a way of pleasing my family. When I dragged guys home from Polk Street to my little place on Russian Hill, some of them were quite horrified to see a photo of me shaking hands with Richard Nixon. But soon after I arrived here, I started to put my flimsy conservative politics against the kind hearts and generous spirits in San Francisco and began to change. Once I’d forgiven myself, everybody else got a pass.

A few years after quitting your AP job, you started Tales of the City, which ran in the Chronicle for nine years. rereading the books now, they seem prescient about so many things, from antigay politics in Florida in 1977 to the rise of transgender culture. How much of that was serendipity versus good reporting?
If you throw yourself into the fray the way I did, you’re bound to collide with the world tremendously interesting ways. Really, for me the only battle was with the editors, who were constantly trying to tell me that I had gone too far, offending “the people in the Sunset,” as they called them—the mythical people who wouldn’t be able to handle the growing gay population of Tales.

That’s funny, because one of the first columns was about Mary ann singleton, a San Francisco newcomer cruising for guys at the Marina safeway.
People mistakenly talk about the books as being about gay life in the ’70s. But what was radical about Tales was that gay life was folded into the entire mix. Still, one editor actually created a chart with columns labeled “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” and every time a new character was introduced, it went into the appropriate column, the idea being that at no time should the gay population of Tales rise above 30 percent. Then, in one story, I had a Great Dane in Hillsborough hump his mistress. I suggested that he be put in the heterosexual column—that killed the chart.

Talk about the character of Anna Madrigal. if anyone seems to be both forward-looking and yet an artifact of a long-lost era, it’s the transgender landlady with the heart of gold.
The Chronicle had forbidden me from exposing Anna’s transgender nature during the first series—they really thought that people would run screaming into the woods. Then I got a letter from a fan that said, “I know what Anna’s dark secret is because her name is an anagram,” and she had written out “a man and a girl.” I had to manually move the letters around to prove to myself that it was true. I had never intended for Anna’s name to be an anagram! In the new book, there’s an additional joke making it clear that she never intended it to be an anagram, either.

A few years after the series began to garner attention, AIDS hit. What was it like to find yourself—the writer of this comic series—suddenly in the middle of this terrible plague?
I lost one of my dearest friends to AIDS, specifically pneumocystis pneumonia, in 1982. He was one of the first thousand people. I remember sitting in the Duck House, and someone came in and said, “This is what Daniel’s got.” He had a copy of New York magazine with a big headline, “The Gay Plague.” And then the bottom just fell out. There were ghosts walking the streets of the city, people who didn’t look like they should be alive, and this pervading fear was that we were all about to die. So I had a choice to make. I didn’t see how I could possibly continue with the story without making AIDS part of it, because it was integral to our lives.

Was it harder to write as the plague progressed?
I eased into it. I began with an offscreen death [of Michael Tolliver’s lover, the doctor Jon Fielding]. The readers were really mad at me. But I figured that it was a way to begin, to show the grief of the survivors. And then later on, it became inevitable that Michael would have to be HIV-positive because almost everyone I knew was HIV-positive. That was the main reason I stopped writing the serial when I did [in 1989], because I didn’t want the HIV-positive guy to die. Then came the drug cocktails [which turned AIDS into a chronic condition], and I wasn’t done with the story after all. With Michael Tolliver Lives [2007], I wanted to celebrate a generation of survivors.

In the period from 1989 to the mid-2000s, you wrote other books, but you also spent a lot of time on the Tales miniseries, which ran on PBS almost exactly 20 years ago and was incredibly controversial.
The American Family Association, a preposterously evil group, sent copies of the film to every member of Congress. Well, not the entire film, just the portions that showed women’s bare breasts. And they made a list of all the bad words in the show, which included things like “queen” and “queer.” The show was condemned; in some places, it didn’t air. To make matters worse, PBS chickened out of Season 2 [Showtime stepped in and produced a third season as well]. Despite all that, though, it was the most popular drama series that PBS had done for years. I remember someone telling me that the baths in San Francisco were completely empty when the show aired—for someone to pass up sex for your drama was quite a compliment.

Olympia Dukakis, who played Anna Madrigal, has been quoted as talking about another Tales of the City TV series. is there one in the works?
Well, she wishes. I sent her the new book, and she called back very teary and said that she thought it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done and then immediately said, “And what about the movie?” We would both like that to happen. But, as the article says, there are no plans.

I was really happy to see how the book ended. Nothing gets tied up in a bow, yet it somehow feels resolved.
At one point I have Anna say to Brian [Hawkins, another main character], “There’s no tidying up to be done. Everything’s been said that needs to be said. It’s all free time from here on out.” That was me talking to myself.

OK, so you may be done with Anna and Michael and Mary Ann, but are you really done with San Francisco?
Not even slightly. I would be heartbroken. And in fact, the finality with which my departure to Santa Fe was treated felt more like my death than a move to a new house. It’s very tempting to write those “end of an era” stories, but I know that my connection to San Francisco hasn’t ended.

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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