ALTA Q&A

London’s Newest Queen

Alta editor and publisher Will Hearst (left) and writer Armistead Maupin enjoy pints of ale at Comptons of Soho, a London pub.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER
Alta editor and publisher Will Hearst (left) and writer Armistead Maupin enjoy pints of ale at Comptons of Soho, a London pub.
A recent London transplant, Tales of the City writer Armistead Maupin tells Will Hearst why he left his beloved San Francisco, what his next big book might be, and how much he likes his new surroundings (spoiler: a lot).

It was in May 1976 that Mary Ann Singleton, who had arrived in San Francisco as a tourist from Cleveland, decided she would make the city her new home. So began the initial installment of Armistead Maupin’s beloved Tales of the City. Serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle and later the San Francisco Examiner, Maupin’s column grew into nine novels, a groundbreaking television miniseries that showed two gay men kissing, a musical, a radio show, and numerous related projects. In the process, Tales catapulted the writer, a 32-year-old North Carolina transplant when he started the series, to global fame—and made him an icon of San Francisco’s Castro district.

Last year, Netflix rebooted the Tales of the City mini-series, with stars Laura Linney (Mary Ann) and Olympia Dukakis (landlady Anna Madrigal) reprising their roles and new characters joining the production to update the story. Alta was honored to sponsor the show’s premiere at the Castro Theatre. However, just two months later, Maupin and his husband, photographer Chris Turner, moved into their London home—the day after Netflix launched the revamped miniseries.

Alta editor and publisher Will Hearst visited Maupin at his new house, toured his Clapham neighborhood, and, naturally, traded pints at a local pub. Along the way, they considered how the Castro—and all of San Francisco—has changed, shared tales about Tales, and discussed what’s needed for Maupin to call London home.

HEARST: You are the iconic San Franciscan, so why did you move to London? What changed?

MAUPIN: Well, it would be a mistake to assume that we were fleeing Trump, because first of all, it’s not possible to flee that man. He’s a danger to the entire globe. So that wasn’t part of the decision. And if it had been, the joke would have been on us—because we’ve traded one narcissistic blond ass monkey for another.

Our reasons were friendship and culture. We were so lucky. Our friends Ian McKellen and Graham Norton put us up in their homes until we could find a place to rent. Lord Michael Cashman helped us get visas. I knew Michael years ago when he was the first person to kiss a man on the telly on EastEnders, and he went on to this amazing career in the European Parliament. He now sits in the [U.K.’s] House of Lords. And he’s a great, progressive, kind, sweet man.

HEARST: So you must’ve planned this for a while?

MAUPIN: I would never have done it if not for my husband, Chris. He lived here in the early ’90s, when he was modeling in Europe. My own cultural references are English—Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Crisp, Christopher Isherwood, even Jan Struther, who wrote Mrs. Miniver, one of the greatest things to ever appear in a newspaper. They’re all literary figures whom I’ve revered, so I could have seen this coming.

HEARST: You and Isherwood were friends. He’s a literary influence as well?

MAUPIN: Because of the clarity of his writing. You could hear his voice. It’s so wonderful for me. He’s been gone for, what, 34 years, and I can still take down a volume of his diaries and listen to his voice.

HEARST: In your memoir, Logical Family, even in the first chapters, about your childhood, I can hear your voice. The wonderful diction and storytelling, putting scenes together. It’s a page-turner, even though it’s a memoir.

MAUPIN: I can’t stop doing that. I realized I was going to apply the same techniques I use in fiction to nonfiction, and I promised that I would not embellish the story—or jewel the elephant, as I used to call it. I’m not sure I did that entirely, but I’m not sure any memoir truly can.

HEARST: I suspect San Francisco has changed since Tales. Of course, you changed the city in some ways. There’s a sensibility here we didn’t always have—which could be traced to your work, to the people that you were writing for and writing about. In some ways, you must feel some satisfaction, to feel like: we won.

MAUPIN: Absolutely.

HEARST: So are you abandoning the territory that you conquered?

MAUPIN: I love San Francisco with all my heart, and it’s the core of everything I’ve ever written. But I wanted a new adventure, and maybe I’m having sort of a late-life crisis, and Chris is having his mid- at the same time. We wanted to take on something new, and we wake up every morning just amazed that we live here in this little house in Clapham. We can hop on the Tube and get to any place.

HEARST: And if your interest is culture and art and life and people, since London has about 10 times as many people, then you have 10 times as many poets and 10 times as many everything.

MAUPIN: San Francisco is hurting for poets these days, because no one can afford to live there. It just simply got too expensive. We pay a little bit more here than we did in the Castro. But we’ve got three floors, and Chris has his own office and I have mine, and we can invite out-of-town guests to stay. And you will have guests if you live in London. Everybody wants to come here. And after people get beyond saying, “Why are you leaving San Francisco?,” they say, “Oh, I want to do that. I’ve always wanted to do that.”

HEARST: San Francisco recently conducted a survey gauging residents’ feelings about the city. A large percentage of people said they were likely to leave within the next few years.

MAUPIN: Yes, I know so many people who feel that way.

HEARST: I suppose a lot of tech workers who have moved into the Mission are also moving into the Castro. They’re changing the neighborhood flavor: the shops, restaurants, and bookstores.

MAUPIN: Their conversations are so boring to overhear in a café. It’s ruined eavesdropping forever.

HEARST: A friend of mine lives on the street where you and Chris did, a street that had once been inhabited almost entirely by gay couples. He now says, little by little, baby strollers are appearing. The older people whose wealth is in their house are selling out and moving to Palm Springs.

MAUPIN: Yeah, the graying of the Castro has resulted in a new population in Palm Springs. When I see videos of rooms full of old gay men in Palm Springs, I think, “Well, it’s just kind of a retirement center, isn’t it?” Still, it’s a great place in many ways. At certain times of the year, the warmth is so appreciated. And the pools are everywhere, and clothing-optional places. And I do like being around gay folks, naked or otherwise. Even at my age, I enjoy what they call a safe space.

HEARST: And in London?

MAUPIN: We like Comptons, in Soho, because there’s conversation to be enjoyed. It’s not like a traditional gay bar. It’s more like a living room.

 

Maupin (center) with the cast of the original Tales of the City miniseries, which aired in 1994 on PBS.GETTY IMAGES
Maupin (center) with the cast of the original Tales of the City miniseries, which aired in 1994 on PBS.
Actor Murray Bartlett joined original miniseries cast member Laura Linney in last year’s version of the show, which streamed on Netflix.NETFLIX
Actor Murray Bartlett joined original miniseries cast member Laura Linney in last year’s version of the show, which streamed on Netflix.

BINGE READING

HEARST: You have a wonderful eye for details. In a phrase, you note something that someone is wearing, and the reader fills out the character. It’s like Japanese painting. It’s just one or two brushstrokes.

MAUPIN: Thank you for that. I want to get that review at some point [laughs]. It’s what I tried to do in the newspaper, because I had very little time to set up a scene. I needed to drive home a few identifying factors and then let the readers just take off in their own heads.

HEARST: Your dialogue is very quick. It’s like theatrical dialogue where you can follow the story by the characters talking to each other. It reminded me a little bit of Elmore Leonard. It’s the way people actually speak. Each character has a slightly different voice, and you don’t really need “he said” and “she said.” I also see parallels between Dickens and you. Both of you wrote serials, have some affinity for London, and both of you had a cast of characters that became sort of your children.

MAUPIN: And concerns about social issues.

HEARST: You said somewhere that you only wrote about 400 words a day when doing the Tales of the City column, which is not a lot, but you still had that newspaper deadline beating down on you.

MAUPIN: No, it was 800 words a day. I think I resorted to dialogue sometimes because I can do that quicker.

HEARST: Still, it was episodic. You were ahead of Netflix. The two-hour movie is not the form it once was. People are turning to your form, where the story takes place over 12 episodes, not over two hours.

MAUPIN: Yeah. Tales had binge reading going for it before it had a name.

HEARST: Did you write ahead of the story and then release your columns one at a time?

MAUPIN: Heavens, no. You obviously weren’t seeing me do it. It was frantic when I was writing for the Examiner. I’d get in my Volkswagen and try to deliver my copy across town. I’d always meet the deadline. At the Chronicle, though, my editor Ruth Miller was very frustrated with me. Sometimes she’d come over to my desk, put her finger down, and say, “Write!” And I got a big laugh by going over to her desk and saying, “Don’t you ever say that to me again.”

HEARST: There’s a story of an editor making a chart to count how many gay characters and how many straight.

MAUPIN: That was managing editor Gordon Pates. The chart said “Homosexual” and “Heterosexual” in two columns.

HEARST: And this was an affirmative action program to make sure there were not too many homosexuals?

MAUPIN: I’m not sure how affirmative it was. He was definitely trying to keep me under control. [Tales character] Michael started out as just a guy who met Mary Ann at the grocery store. I think it’s kind of interesting, because it shows the climate then in San Francisco. [Pates] figured that the gay population of San Francisco was no more than 30 percent, so it was reasonable to require me to keep to that quota. Of course, I completely queered it by making Frannie Halcyon a Hillsborough [a wealthy suburb of San Francisco] matron. And a wee bit of a drinker.

HEARST: Imagine that.

MAUPIN: I wrote an episode in which she went to a very drunken ladies’ lunch and returned home to Russian Hill and passed out in her herb garden. She woke up to find her Great Dane humping her leg. I made them put the dog in the heterosexual column.

HEARST: [Laughs] I see.

MAUPIN: I think you can get a sense of the way I had fun.

HEARST: And then, as it caught on, as so often happens, the talent becomes more powerful in the equation. Because there are readers and people who are angry if the column doesn’t appear.

MAUPIN: That’s right. I didn’t know I had that power until one of the women in the people department of the Chronicle took me into a room and showed me three industrial-size garbage cans that were full of letters from people who were indignant that Tales had stopped. We were on a two-week break, but they knew what they had. And success gave me more freedom.

HEARST: You seldom have a villain in your work. You have people who are not very good people, but they tend to be minor characters.

MAUPIN: I suppose. There’s bad behavior. There aren’t bad people. I don’t think a character comes alive until you can see how they’re thinking and what’s driving them. That was most perfectly illustrated for me when I wrote Significant Others.

In that one, I had this clash between the Bohemian Grove and a women’s music festival [nearby on the Russian River]. Bohemian member Booter Manigault falls asleep drunk in a canoe and drifts down into the women’s music festival. They tie him up in a tent because they know that he’s a member of the Reagan administration, but then he’s rescued by his Asian grandson. There’s a really tough old dyke. And he starts talking to her in her van when she’s rescuing him, and he discovers that she’s a Reaganite too, which puzzles him. So he says, “If you feel that way, what are you doing here in this radical feminist place?” And she says, “That’s easy. Pussy.”

I like to take what you think will be two diametrically opposed people, then give them some sort of unexpected understanding—it is my favorite thing to do.

Armistead Maupin near London Bridge. The author is happily settling into life in England after leaving San Francisco. CHRISTOPHER TURNER
Armistead Maupin near London Bridge. The author is happily settling into life in England after leaving San Francisco.
FATHER AND SON

HEARST: Your books create a picture of a young Armistead Maupin moving to San Francisco. Many of your characters are people who come to San Francisco as one person and then, as they interact with their peers, with the city and its culture and its liberation, they discover another person they will become.

MAUPIN: That’s exactly what happened. I feel that the city rescued me in that regard. It allowed me to feel who I really was. When I arrived in San Francisco, I was still hanging a picture of my Confederate general grandfather on the wall of the ad agency where I worked. And I had a picture of me and Nixon at my little house, a little red “pentshack” on Russian Hill.

It took a while before I could really absorb who I was and how I was being betrayed by my own family back in North Carolina who were still avid supporters of [Senator] Jesse Helms, and they remained that way even after I had become well-known. As my father remarked to me, “Well, you might be a fag, but at least you’re a famous fag.”

HEARST: There’s fatherly love.

MAUPIN: [Laughs] It’s fatherly love and with the tinge of humor that he always had.

HEARST: But your mother was a very sympathetic person and may have sensed something before you came out to her.

MAUPIN: She did, and she suffered because, like many mothers, she was protective of me and felt that coming out would be the worst thing I could do. I get a kick out of telling audiences how frightened she was about my coming out. She said, “You might be happy now that you’re young and randy.” She actually used that term. It was so embarrassing. “But what is it going to be like when you’re old?” And at that point, I open my arms to the thousand people who have paid to come see this old man, and it always gets a laugh. And I always wish that Mother could be there at the moment to see how unfounded her fears had been.

HEARST: Your character Michael writes a coming-out letter to his mother. You knew your parents would be reading the column.

MAUPIN: Yeah. I also alerted them that Newsweek magazine was going to do a story on Anita Bryant and that I was going to be in that story described as a homosexual journalist. Their response was to go horseback riding in the mountains of North Carolina so they could wait until [the issue] was off the stands. You couldn’t get away with that today. It’d be up on Twitter in a minute.

HEARST: I see on your Instagram page posts from people in small towns who have come across your work. They write messages that say, “Thank you, you made me feel OK.” That must be enormously rewarding. It happens over and over.

MAUPIN: Yes, and in the autograph lines during my British public appearance tour, invariably there was someone who said, “You saved my life.” Or “You made life bearable for a young kid in a small Scottish village.” That’s the single thing I’m proudest of.

Hearst (left) and Maupin stroll along Old Compton Street in London.CHRISTOPHER TURNER
Hearst (left) and Maupin stroll along Old Compton Street in London.
THE GREAT ENGLISH NOVEL

HEARST: Are you at work on anything?

MAUPIN: I’ve contracted for a novel that goes back in time to the point in which Mrs. Madrigal’s daughter, Mona Ramsey, ends up with a stately home in England. At the end of Babycakes, she marries a queer British lord so he can get a green card and move to San Francisco. Then she takes over his manor house and becomes a sort of landlady, much like her mother.

A lot of people complained about the fact that I killed her off with cancer a decade or so later without ever explaining what happened to her. So there’s a big blank there where I can write an English-village novel—which I’ve always wanted to do. It’s called Mona of the Manor.

HEARST: I also detect that aging has become more a part of the stories you’re telling. There’s a sense that all of us are seeing the finiteness of life, and it’s become more of a theme in your work.

MAUPIN: Well, at the very beginning, I realized that I was on a ride and that I was going to have to tell the truth wherever it took me. When AIDS came into the picture, I had to figure out how to put that nightmare into what was basically a comedic work. And fortunately—not fortunately, but as it happened, I knew so many people with AIDS that were using humor to get themselves through. We have to have it in times of crisis.

HEARST: You describe one of your characters with the phrase “He has survived the plague.” That phrase haunted me, because it describes such an intensely tragic moment. I think of that quilt stretching across the whole National Mall. So many died. Don’t those who lived through it bear a scar?

MAUPIN: It’s something every one of us lives with, whether we are HIV positive or not. It made a horrible dent on our lives in a way that cannot really be completely fixed. One of the reasons that I want to go back to 1988 [for Mona of the Manor] is because that was the time when Margaret Thatcher, in the midst of their AIDS crisis here, launched this barbaric antigay campaign called Clause 28. It prohibited [local] funds from being spent on any art [and education] that “promoted” homosexuality and what she called “pretended family relationships.” It was a true outrage. And she didn’t get away with it. It was repealed, but it drove Ian McKellen out of the closet. He came out just to speak against it.

He had been, for all intents and purposes, openly gay—I mean, with his friends. But he felt that he had to be that way with the world. No one has done it as well as he has since. No one. And he was driven by the pain we felt, by the loss of our friends.

We knew what we had at that point. We knew we had families, because we were coming together when biological families were betraying their own children by refusing to see them, throwing them out of the house. Clause 28 for them here was the same thing that Anita Bryant was for us a decade earlier.

HEARST: The AIDS crisis was like a meteor that destroyed a whole people. It led in some ways to a wider recognition that if so many people all around the world were being affected, then the idea that there’s an “us” and a “them” is ridiculous.

MAUPIN: Well, I am officially the person who outed Rock Hudson. He was a friend of mine. [Journalist] Randy Shilts came to me when everyone knew that Rock had AIDS and said, “Would you say that he is gay?” And I said yes with some trepidation, because I knew I would get vilified by some people.

HEARST: Did you?

MAUPIN: The old queen who ran the flower shop on Castro Street clicked his tongue at me when I was going by. He was of that school where you don’t rat on your friends about being gay. Well, I was long past the idea that it was something you could rat on someone about. And I knew that if this big dreamboat male actor was suffering from this terrible thing, then it would change the way people thought about the epidemic. And it did. Rock had been surrounded by people who wanted to make money off of him and therefore kept him locked in the closet. He was flabbergasted when 30,000 letters of support arrived at the hospital. In the end, I think, he understood what I had done for him, because he sent his biographer to talk to me.

HEARST: Do you think people’s attitudes about other people’s sexuality have changed?

MAUPIN: Well, it’s still the most loaded topic ever, and it depends on where you are, of course. I’m seeing the movement spread globally now, and that makes me happy. I know a kid in Uganda, where the tabloids publish pictures of gay activists and where people come and kill them. He has bravery like I can’t imagine. You see his page on Facebook. There he is, proud, leading a tiny little march somewhere because he knows it’s what has to be done. So, yes, there’s enormous progress in that gay people everywhere are claiming their own dignity. And fighting back.

HEARST: There’s a scene in Tales where Michael and Brian get mugged, beaten up. Brian is actually more injured than Michael, and Michael says—

MAUPIN: “He’s not gay, he’s not gay!”

HEARST: Exactly. Michael feels he should have been the one who was injured more severely. “They were really after me.” That tableau of people like Michael feeling that they don’t deserve something better. It’s terrible.

MAUPIN: I was very proud of that scene, and they were attacked at the Moscone Playground. Which was named after—

HEARST: I see the hand of Armistead the writer in that little detail. [San Francisco mayor George Moscone was assassinated along with Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978.]

MAUPIN: Well, it’s fun when you leave little Easter eggs in there.

Maupin (left) describes the similarities—and differences—of San Francisco and London for him and his husband. “We wake up every morning just amazed that we live here,” he says to Hearst of their new city.CHRISTOPHER TURNER
Maupin (left) describes the similarities—and differences—of San Francisco and London for him and his husband. “We wake up every morning just amazed that we live here,” he says to Hearst of their new city.
FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS

HEARST: But what about your life today? You said before that you like to be in the company of gay people.

MAUPIN: We have some good places here, like where we launched the Netflix series. It’s a club called the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, which is a tiny Victorian saloon that has survived because there was a recent campaign to save it. It’s a historic place in London’s gay life.

Anyway, I went to the screening thinking, “Oh, this is going to be terrible. They’re going to show an hour of the series. And everybody’s going to be drunk and not listening to it.” And they might’ve been drunk, but you could have heard a pin drop. They laughed at all the right places, and they cried, too.

That evening, I met this big-bearded gent with a nose ring who, when he was a young blond stud at the same bar, had welcomed Freddie Mercury and Princess Diana. She was in disguise, of course. But he remembers the night that she came in.

HEARST: So then London is a safe space, like what we were talking about.

MAUPIN: London is like San Francisco in that way. Our next-door neighbors, lovely couple, late middle age. The guy came over and introduced himself and said he was a fan of my books and then told me that his son has an illness that requires him to smoke marijuana and that he will sometimes do it in the garden and he didn’t want me to be alarmed. I laughed and said, “How well have you read my books?”

HEARST: I have a sense that there are more transgender people in your later work.

MAUPIN: Well, I introduced the trans character 10 years ago because I’d started to meet a few of them, and a friend of mine talked about picking up a trans man at the Lone Star Saloon. It occurred to me that to be a trans man and lack the one thing that most men are looking for when they go into a gay bar is an act of supreme bravery. I wrote a scene where that happens with Michael, and how they negotiate sex. My publisher, HarperCollins, wanted to take it out. “This is going to make people uncomfortable,” they said. I said, “Good, I’ve been looking for some new things.”

That character, Jake, the trans man, is in the new Netflix miniseries. They put out a casting call for Hispanic trans men, and I thought, “Good luck with that.” They got swamped. A thousand people wanted the role and sent in résumés.

HEARST: Well, that says something.

MAUPIN: It tells you people are finally getting to realize their lives. It’s not like they hadn’t always been there. There were trans people in the Old West, too, in both directions. There are cultures today that are much more comfortable with that than we are. Chris and I went to Tahiti, and a trans woman demonstrated how to tie the sarongs that we were buying.

HEARST: In Polynesia, too, there’s a familiarity with trans people. It’s not something new or modern. It’s just the way it is.

MAUPIN: And the story about San Francisco is that it’s always been this heavily male environment. I was so exhilarated when I first came out that I was coming out to cab drivers and anybody who would listen. My dear friend Peggy Knickerbocker, she said to me, “Half the town is gay. Get over yourself.”

HEARST: You don’t complain much about the changes in the Castro or the leather district in SoMa. All that’s left are markers on the sidewalk, like gravestones. Massive and ugly live-work complexes have replaced the leather bars and sex clubs.

MAUPIN: Changes are happening everywhere. As an old gay man, I don’t want to be one of those people who’s being grumpy, reminiscing all the time. I don’t want to say, “Oh, you young people today with your Grindr and your apps and you’ve got it so easy. In my day, I used to walk 12 miles through the snow just to suck a cock.”

This neighborhood, where we are now, used to be a place where cab drivers wouldn’t come. Now they call it Nappy Valley because there are so many yummy mummies with their kids in strollers. I’ll tell you what, I don’t mind it. I like it very much. I can hear their voices out the bedroom window in the morning. “Mummy, mummy.” There’s nothing more beguiling than an English child saying “mummy.” It’s like living in Mary Poppins Land.

HEARST: I get the feeling you’ll stay in London for a long period. I mean, is this home now?

MAUPIN: Yes, I think it’s home.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Alta editor and publisher Will Hearst interviewed David Talbot, author of  Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke for altaonline.com.

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