Tales of the City: A Novel

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Father Figures: On Armistead Maupin’s ‘Logical Family’


Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City  broke ground in perhaps the most satisfying way: sexually brazen and politically stealthy, with a healthy dose of humor.  His recent memoir, Logical Family, tells the tale of Maupin’s youth, and many of the personal stories behind his beloved Tales.  As Maupin remembers, fiction hadn’t run in a daily newspaper for more than 100 years when in 1974, the San Francisco Chronicle hired him for weekday installments of a series on avatars of local types, scheduled to run indefinitely.  Maupin was a young journalist new to fiction, but he greeted the challenge.  The saga quickly won plenty of fans, neutralizing the requisite scolding subscribers.  Average readers soon became attached enough to the characters to sympathize with their loves, losses, and personal awakenings.  The column also became a conduit to process collective hardships like AIDS, the killings of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and anti-gay initiatives.  The Tales ran for more than 10 years and took on a life of their own—collected in books, adapted for TV, sometimes even set to music—and Maupin became an icon of queer storytelling.  He continued the series through subsequent novels; the ninth and purportedly final volume came out in 2014.  A documentary, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, supplements the release of his memoir.

Roughly, the memoir covers Maupin’s childhood in the South, service in the military, move to San Francisco, and life as an author.  Substantively, it dwells on certain motifs: his parents and grandparents, Southern culture, various late 20th-century gay touchstones and the Tales series itself.  It does not dwell in specificity on the concept of chosen or “logical” family, which disappointed me—especially after a clarion call in the prologue:
Some children…grow up another species entirely, lone gazelles lost among the buffalo herd of our closest kin.  Sooner or later though, no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us.  We have to, if we are to live without squandering our lives.
By the book’s end, it seems Maupin is referring simply to his own experience coming out, letting go of his parents’ expectations, and embracing life as a gay man.  I’m aware it wasn’t easy, however pleasurable–and Maupin delights in relating that pleasure.  People of my generation tend to take for granted the comparative ease of living queer now.  But perhaps because of this, those of us yet to reach middle age often lack a template for a more robust kind of “logical family:” what it looks like to live, love, struggle, and age together without traditional family ties.  Within the community, some will say that marriage rights have obviated this need.  It’s easier than ever for diverse couples to marry, parent, share property, execute medical directives, and take part in mainstream rituals of all kinds.  Indeed, Maupin himself is married.

Others believe that assimilation co-opted a vibrant liberationist movement whose members invented their own lives.  Maupin first produced the term “logical family” for the characters in his Tales: Anna the witchy landlady and her brood of tenants on Barbary Lane, the fictional home in the stories.  Mary Ann Singleton, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, Mona Ramsey, and others weren’t only lovers or friends; they were family.  The places they’d come from weren’t ever home.  Their blood relations couldn’t accept who they were.  Society around them didn’t offer suitable options for life as an independent woman, a Southern gay man, or elderly single person.  For many of us, it still doesn’t.  Yet early on in the stories, Mona and Mouse shared their fear that one would pair off and opt out of a shared life.  These tensions, between romance and loyalty and between blood and true affinity, run through the series, but Maupin leaves them sadly unexamined when discussing his own life.

There are moments in which Maupin’s alienation growing up feels familiar, and others that feel quite foreign to me.  We both came from conservative families, but mine was the religious kind, while his had been Confederate gentry.  In my case, gender compliance would never feel like a viable option, however drastic the maternal enforcement.  Maupin was more tenacious in his filial pursuit; throughout his memoir, he invokes a desire for his “un-Reconstructed” lawyer father’s approval.  He cites this desire as spurring pro-segregation editorials in his college paper, his work for Jesse Helms soon after, his brief stint in law school, volunteer Navy enlistment and subsequent deployment to Vietnam.  After collecting groovy adventures in his cushy officer’s post, he volunteered again: this time for a group of young vets returning to build houses, a Nixonian PR stunt to counter Vietnam Veterans Against the War.  Maupin proudly posed for a photo with Richard Nixon, and displayed it on the wall of his new home until noting how it disturbed his conquests.

Those conquests took place in San Francisco, where he moved shortly after Vietnam to take a job with the Associated Press.  In between though, he spent a brief stint at the naval base in Charleston.  This part of his story is the most interesting to me, when he was, as he eloquently puts it, “no longer one thing and not quite the other…in transition, foolish and floundering.”  It was where at 26, he had sex for the first time, having known he was gay all his life.  He wouldn’t come out until moving to San Francisco, at which point he became somewhat militant about requiring others to do so.  But it was in Charleston that he began to envision a life he could live outside his parents’ world.  Up to that point, his main sense of one came from a few “fairy godmothers” who could dig his artistic, sensitive soul.  They seem to have been very good ones, in fact; I found myself feeling envious, not having had those guides myself.  One was his free-spirited, suffragist grandma, who became his main model for Anna Madrigal.

Ultimately, what Maupin cultivates for himself is a network of friends and occasional lovers, orbiting his married domestic life.  The “logical” father figure he does eventually invoke is Christopher Isherwood, whom he met at an Oscars party for Saturday Night Fever.  In my experience, it’s rare for established authors to engage so meaningfully with up-and-coming ones, however kindred.  As have their respective books, Maupin’s life has had a very different texture from Isherwood’s.  The latter was a dedicated seeker who almost became a Buddhist monk.  His stories are sometimes melancholy and occasionally jaded, but always feel generous in their appeal to a deeper meaning.  Maupin’s fiction remains highly accessible, but his personal angst feels uniquely American, perhaps rooted in his biological family’s Confederate history.  But Brit-turned-Angeleno Isherwood historicized their friendship and “tribe” by summoning Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, E.M. Forster, and W. Somerset Maugham (he had known Forster in England).  Maupin makes a point of encouraging others to be mentors too—though there may be another dimension in these men’s case.  As Maupin is now, Isherwood was partnered with a much younger artist, 18 at the start.  The Untold Tales reveals that Maupin found his on “daddyhunt.com;” the younger man founded the site.

The other person Maupin cites as “logical family” is Laura Linney, who played Mary Ann in PBS’s Tales of the City miniseries in 1993 and 1994.  Linney later rode with Maupin when he marshalled San Francisco’s Pride Parade, and eventually used “Armistead” as her child’s middle name.  Having been young for the miniseries when it came out, I hadn’t known it was a target of the Republican push to cut public arts funding.  Watching the series today it feels quaint in its re-creation of 1970s California, but a happy antidote at a time when TV’s main event was the O.J. Simpson case.  In a filmed interview, Olympia Dukakis is refreshingly candid about her initial cluelessness being cast as (spoiler!) trans woman Anna.  She immersed herself deeply enough to create a timeless, magical role—just one indication of why cast and crew were so heartbroken when PBS canceled the second book/season in 1996.  The show had been an overwhelming ratings success and a major critical hit too, like a grown-up, soapier Sesame Street.  Indeed, it won the coveted Peabody Award.  Linney believes if it hadn’t been for the American Family Association’s campaign in Congress, the audience who saw the first gay kiss on TV would’ve gone on to see one of the two men later survive HIV.

The memoir’s emotional heart is that of the Tales, the “Letter to Mama.”  In it Mouse comes out to his parents, and thus the author came out to his.  The text, which ran in the Chronicle in 1977, is reprinted here as an epilogue; in the documentary participants including Maupin, Ian McKellen, Linney, and Dukakis read it aloud in moving composite.  Perhaps Logical Family’s biggest surprise is the longevity and depth of Maupin’s hunger for his parents’ approval—not satiated when his folks joined him at Harvey Milk’s vigil and smoked a joint with his gay friends (as his mother was dying of breast cancer, no less).  It seems he wanted his father to personally confront Jesse Helms about his cruel response to AIDS, and his father failed in this respect.  But the younger Maupin closes the book with his father’s deathbed blessing on his union to his husband, at which point the famous author was 60.

If I have one technical complaint about the book, it’s that for such a reliably linear storyteller, Maupin seems heedless of derailing his own story repeatedly.  Once he reaches the point of his first collection’s release, the timeline he keeps in the memoir breaks down too much to preserve the episodic narrative.  Lest this worry potential readers though, know that Maupin rewards with color commentary on sex with Rock Hudson about midway through.  If one phrase carries on from the memoir, let it be “lost boner rodeo.”

The author expresses some dissatisfaction with the San Francisco of today, though just how much might depend on his mood.  In the memoir, he’s unmistakably angry about what the tech sector has done to push out artists and most anyone else who isn’t rich.  In the film though, he professes not to mind about things like “the Google bus” when friends didn’t live to see it at all.  Surely both can be valid, both a sense of thankfulness and a desire to protect the place from pillage.  To the extent that the city has constituted a family home, shouldn’t elders seek to guard it for their younger counterparts?  Other Untold Tales interviewees include fellow San Francisco literati Kate Bornstein, Amy Tan, and Margaret Cho (Cho’s parents ran a Castro bookstore), but they all discuss the city in its past tense.  No one I know can afford to live near it now, neither my transplant queer artist friends, nor my Bay-bred evangelical cousins.   

In the most recent Tales, Maupin had Michael, Mary Ann, and Anna at Burning Man and on Twitter, but these felt more like concessions to the present than a real reckoning with it.

Rumor has it that Maupin, Linney, and Dukakis have agreed to a Tales revival for Netflix, with Michael Cunningham as lead writer.  My hope is that given such an opportunity to reach a younger audience, Cunningham will push the series beyond a legacy act to show what logical family might mean today for the characters’ wider communities: how to move on from past battles while holding onto their lessons, and fashion something new, both adaptable and lasting.

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