Armistead Maupin takes new trip down Barbary Lane
Unlike his friend Nora Ephron, Armistead Maupin doesn't feel bad about his neck. Sure, it's a little creaky -- a touch of arthritis -- but he looks on the bright side. "I wake up in the morning with the loveliest guy in the world, with incredibly geezery aches and pains," Maupin says with a laugh.
His point is, he wakes up. And he does so -- with his husband, Christopher Turner, a Web site entrepreneur -- in a cozy aerie, tucked in the woods above Parnassus Avenue at the top of a zigzag of brick steps.
The house has a spectacular view of the city, as does Maupin, creator of the beloved "Tales of the City" series.
Started in 1976 as a newspaper serial following the adventures of the various eccentrics living at 28 Barbary Lane (a stand-in for Russian Hill's Macondray Lane), "Tales" ran for years in The Chronicle, spawning six books and three television miniseries.
After 18 years, Maupin has returned to Barbary Lane with a new book -- "Michael Tolliver Lives," out Tuesday from HarperCollins -- which is another love song to Maupin's adopted home.
Tuesday, the city returns the compliment; Mayor Gavin Newsom has declared June 12 "Michael Tolliver Day in San Francisco."
Unlike its predecessors, the new book is written from the point of view of Tolliver, the sweet male Southern belle.
"I was nervous that people following the series might be thrown off by a first-person novel that has all the characters treated equally," says Maupin, settling into a deep champagne-colored couch and looking very Brooks Brothers in a green gingham shirt and crisp khakis. But as the book took shape, he couldn't resist giving preferential treatment to some of the characters.
"They started auditioning for me, begging for a place in the chorus line," he says. These folks are still kicking, despite the devastation of AIDS and advancing age, and therein lies the theme of Maupin's newest "Tale."
"I wanted to illuminate the process of growing older as a gay man, and make it easier for people who think life is over," he says. "Gay men who are growing old are incredibly lucky to be here."
Maupin's life hasn't been untouched by AIDS; like so many, he lost a loved one. The optimistic outlook he has today has been hard won.
"But if I'd known that 63 was going to feel this good, I would have been a lot more cheerful along the way," says Maupin. He and Turner, who is 27 years younger, were married this year in Vancouver, British Columbia; Turner runs a Web site for gay men over 40 who are searching for younger partners.
"Age is the last closet you come out of in the gay world," he says, and that's more than just a snappy coinage.
"There are such gloomy visions of gay men aging. But if you worship beauty above all else, if you worship sex above all else, you're in trouble. If you're not working on your heart every second, you are going to have a very sad old age."
The walls of Turner and Maupin's terraced Arts and Crafts cottage are lined with paintings, photographs and mementos.
A photo-portrait of Maupin by David Hockney hangs in the tin-lined stairwell. Facing it is a sultry watercolor of Turner by Don Bachardy, partner of author Christopher Isherwood (a mentor of Maupin's). Nearby is a pencil sketch of Ian McKellen as Gandalf, a self-portrait the actor left as a gift on his last visit.
Among the treasures displayed on a beautifully figured oak table by the front window is a gilt-edged edition of "Mademoiselle de Maupin." French writer Theophile Gautier's 1835 novel is the story of a woman seeking truth and beauty through cross-dressing. The character is one of the inspirations for Anna Madrigal, the transsexual landlady in "Tales of the City" who was played on film by Olympia Dukakis.
Also holding places of honor in Maupin's home are the sepia portraits of his maternal grandmother. She was an English suffragist, theosophist, palm reader and actress who moved to Asheville, N.C., during the First World War. One photograph shows her wide-eyed and in character as "The Madwoman of Chaillot," a satirical French play from the 1940s. Maupin saw her perform when he was a boy, and still recalls the moment she took the stage in that role at the Raleigh Little Theatre, rising through a trapdoor in a curtain of dry ice.
She would often read his palm and ask what he wanted to be when he grew up. "A lawyer, like Daddy," he would say, and she would close his palm tenderly, with a look that said "probably not."
When he last visited her, at a convalescent home in Virginia, "Tales of the City" had just been published. At 95, she was dressed up as always, but she didn't know him. On an impulse, he reached out his palm. "Teddy," she said, using his family nickname, "you're in your 30s now."
Through "Tales of the City," Maupin became an activist.
"We've had a revolution over the years, and I'm really happy to have been part of it," he says. "My whole career has been motivated by my determination that people shouldn't have to be in the closet. I'd spent time there myself."
Some newer fans of "Tales of the City" may not know how far he has come. Growing up in a prominent North Carolina family, Maupin was an "adamant young conservative." He began writing while in college, with a column in the Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that was "part Art Buchwald, part William F. Buckley."
After serving in the Navy, Maupin returned from Vietnam a vocal supporter of the war. Through his father -- whose law firm ran the Congressional Club, a fundraising arm of the conservative right -- he went to work for North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms. "It's my so-called dark secret. I was Helms' golden boy," he says. "I think I've done enough to atone." In a twist Maupin relishes, Helms later condemned the film of "Tales of the City" on the Senate floor.
But looking back, "being a conservative and in the closet go hand-in-hand, because it's easier if you insist everyone else keep the lid on," he says. "The Rev. Ted Haggard is no rare exception." Haggard, a Christian-right preacher, was outed last year by his longtime male escort.
A move to California helped spur Maupin's self-acceptance -- but not right away.
"I was moving to San Francisco to work at Associated Press when I got a call that the president wanted to see me three days hence," he says mischievously.
Helms had recommended him to President Richard Nixon ("a terrified little man") as a potential counter to John Kerry, the charismatic member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War whose 1971 speech -- "how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" -- electrified Congress.
"It's bitterly ironic to me now," Maupin says, "because in the last election Kerry was nowhere near left enough for me."
When he finally did report for his AP job in San Francisco, his editors -- intentionally, he thinks -- sent him to cover a peace march downtown. "That's when I saw my first public nudity," he says fondly.
His own coming out was gradual, and San Francisco, he believes, made all the difference. "It opened my heart," he says. "It let me examine my own bigotry. And it let me have a good time doing it."
Maupin has more than returned the favor. After all, in his seven Dickensian "Tales" -- inspired by his own adventures and those of his friends -- the real protagonist is the city by the bay.