Exclusive: Armistead Maupin on His Recent Memoir, Rock Hudson and the Return of ‘Tales of the City’
Les Mots à la Bouche was packed last Thursday in Paris. Around 50 people — mostly men, and mostly over 35 — were forming a line inside the oldest LGBT bookshop in the French capital, and a few were waiting outside when Armistead Maupin arrived for the signing of his latest book, Logical Family, published last October in the United States and just this month in France.
It was a hot day in Paris, and the employees of the bookshop were giving out glasses of water — or wine — for fear of someone passing out. Sat next to the shop’s LGBT magazine section, the author of the celebrated Tales of the City took the time to say a word to each one of his admirers and posed for a picture or two before signing their books.
Many told Armistead Maupin how important his books and his characters were during their teenage or early adult years. They never forgot Anna Madrigal, that wonderful, weed-smoking trans woman and landlady of 28 Barbary Lane, or the sweet Michael Tolliver and his unforgettable “Letter to mama” which encouraged so many young — and not so young — gay men to come out to their parents.
Two days earlier, I had met Armistead Maupin at his French publisher’s office in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris for a lengthy and candid interview. We spoke about his families (both logical and biological), outing Rock Hudson, the forthcoming Tales of The City adaptation on Netflix and, of course, San Francisco.
HORNET: Is it hard to write a memoir when you usually write fiction?
ARMISTEAD MAUPIN: I wrote it almost exactly the way I would write a novel. It has the same elements. I work with suspense, humor, pathos — all the same things I use in Tales of City. I’ve always told my own stories that way.
In a review of your book, The New York Times wishes you had analyzed more the racism you grew up with.
Children believe what they’re told by their family. That’s a simple explanation for me. I was raised by a racist father. My mother wasn’t really racist; she just tried to keep peace in the family and agree with my father as much as possible. I had to get out into the world and meet other people. Sleep with other people. That was very important. That was the most important thing — to go to the bathhouse and end up in the arms of someone else, often of a different race, and realize there was no difference when it comes to the human heart or anything else.
I felt that I needed to cover that a little bit, because no one ever knew it about me. They all assumed I was a born a civilized human being and a liberal, but I wasn’t. I was in a family that was very proud of its role in defending slavery.
Was this book a way to make peace with your father?
Well, no, because my father died 10 years ago. I did make peace with him in a novel, and I took my husband to meet him before he died. That moment was when I made peace. And he, in his own way, put his blessing on our relationship. I didn’t want to go. Christopher, my husband, said, “You have to go.” I had been hurt too many times and seen him not change his mind too many times.
How did you become a gay rights activist? Did you have an epiphany?
San Francisco was my epiphany. Straight people in San Francisco were more comfortable with my homosexuality than I was. And I had a chance to become an entirely different person, to start a new life. As a result, I examined not just my own gayness and self-acceptance but the prejudices I had been taught as a child. None of them made any sense once I accepted that I was OK.
You mention Harvey Milk a couple times in your books but quite succinctly. Did you two get along? [Our conversation took place on Harvey Milk Day, May 22.]
We were friends. I just didn’t feel the need to write about him because he’s been written about so much. He’s almost been over-mythologized.
You think he’s too much of an icon now?
Well, he deserved to be. But he was only on the scene for three of four years. His murder brought an end to it all. My friend Cleve Jones, who was his right-hand man, just wrote a book about his experience with Harvey Milk. [It’s called When We Rise, and you can find it here] Randy Shilts wrote a book [The Mayor of Castro Street], and there’s been a movie. Most gay people know who he is already. I did think it was strangely appropriate that my parents were in town on the day we marched in protest of his murder.
You outed Rock Hudson a couple of months before he died of AIDS. Looking back, how do you feel about it now?
The same way I felt about it then, that it was the right thing to do. I had lost so many friends to AIDS. And these were people who were not hiding, who were noble in their openness about being sick and who stood up against bigotry. And I knew that Rock needed help because he was surrounded by old-fashioned idiots, people in the industry whose income depended on keeping the lie alive. It was quite clear that Rock wasn’t going to lie much longer, and I wanted him to feel the love of the community. And he felt that.
Not just the gay community; 35,000 people wrote the hospital and said they loved him and they were proud of him and that they didn’t care if he was gay. And that was a revelation to him, before he died. I knew that I would catch shit about it. It wasn’t easy, because I was completely misunderstood. I’m not sorry I did it. Today he’s regarded as a hero because we have had that information about him.
People even think he came out.
Yes, they do. I wondered of course how he felt about it, because I was no longer in touch with him. When Sarah Davidson, his biographer, came to see me, she said, “I want you to know that Rock said you’re the first person I should talk to.” So I know that he knew I had good intentions and that I could handle it the right way. I didn’t want it to be a scandal, and that’s where it was headed. The tabloids tried to make a scandal out of it.
It’s interesting to note that Randy Shilts — who later came out officially against the act of outing — was the journalist who called me to ask if I would talk about Rock being gay. He knew that it was what needed to be done. The story was there; it was floating in the air. Rock’s homosexuality was not a secret anywhere. Maybe for the housewife in Kansas, but the industry and journalists and everyone knew that Rock lived with a man, that he was gay, that he was a nice man.
But it was a very hard time in my life, I don’t want to minimize that. The old man that ran the flower stand on Castro Street would wag his finger at me, and actual gay activists were saying “Why would you say that about someone?” We were supposed to keep up the shame. And I had arrived at a point in my life where I just didn’t have the patience anymore.
Do you think Hollywood is still putting pressure on actors and actresses to stay in the closet?
Yes, it’s still doing that. It’s better, because young actors are seeing the advantage of starting an honest life. You get to take your husband to the Oscars, you know! There’s a whole production now on Broadway of Boys in the Band with famous out-of-the-closet actors, and they’re celebrated for that. I’ve wanted to see that day come for a long time.
You talk about Christopher Isherwood, author of A Single Man and Goodbye to Berlin
He was a wonderful example of someone who handled his homosexuality in a very matter-of-fact way. When he appeared on the cover of The Advocate with his partner Don Bachardy, his friends — director James Bridges and his partner Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen in the old Superman television show — told them, “You’ve destroyed your writing career.” That was the attitude 40 years ago.
In your book you say you told Christopher Isherwood he was the gay grandfather of literature. Do you feel you carry that torch now?
I’m one of them! There are plenty who carry that torch, like Edmund White, Andrew Holleran. I would insult people if I don’t name them all. Isn’t that interesting that we now want to be known as that? I’m proud of that. It’s the single thing that makes me feel I’ve accomplished something in my life: People of all ages approach me and say that I changed their lives because I changed their minds about themselves. That’s where my activism lies. Make no mistake, it was intended as activism from the very beginning. It was the one thing I could offer.
Anna Madrigal is perhaps your most famous character. Were there many examples of trans women in fiction when you started writing about her?
No. There was Myra Breckinridge [a book by Gore Vidal, later a 1970 film]. Not a very pleasant example. I suppose Orlando. But no. Transgender people, if they were depicted at all, were depicted as monsters or clowns or killers. What was radical about Anna is that she was just a nice woman.
And we had to wait 40 years to have another character like that with Maura in Transparent.
Now that has another complicated thing happening because the cisgender actor who was playing her has been accused of harassment against transgender women. It’s not that complicated, because at the end it boils down to being a civilized person and not inflicting your own sexuality on someone else.
That makes me really sad, because it was a revolutionary moment when that character was created. Now it’s a little bit old-fashioned, because we’re hiring transgender people to play transgender people. Daniela Vega who won the Oscar for A Fantastic Woman is a character in the new Tales of the City, coming out on Netflix next year.
Our producer and director Alan Poul who has been a pioneer himself for many years saw her and realized this was about to happen and had a meeting with her three days before the Oscars. He said, “We want you in Tales of the City” and she said, “I want to be in it.” We’ve put out a casting call for a Hispanic transgender man, no experience required, to play the role of Jake. So things are changing in that regard in Hollywood, very rapidly. And Hollywood sees the way to make money out of it. That’s the reason things are changing.
I always wanted an openly gay actor for the role of Michael in the miniseries, and I thought we had one, but we didn’t. He [the first Michael] wasn’t openly gay. Ellen Page is playing Shawna and has been openly gay for some time now. You end up with a better performance, I think, if the person has some experience of that life. And you can advance the career of someone who has been brave enough to do that.
What is your role in the upcoming Tales of the City adaptation ?
I’m an executive producer, which means I have a say. I’m very happy where we’re going right now. That’s happening with a lot of LGBT people as well. Lauren Morelli, who wrote Orange Is the New Black, is our showrunner. She was a straight woman with a husband when she started that show, and then she met Samira Wiley. [Watch Hornet interview both women on the GLAAD Media Awards red carpet here!] That would probably turn me straight if I met her, too!
Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney both reprise their roles on the upcoming series.
Olympia is a cisgender woman. There may be people who criticize that, but I will defend that to the end because that was a revolutionary act when she played that role 25 years ago. And Laura is the best LGBT ally I’ve ever met. She puts me to shame as an activist. She shows up and supports people, loves her friends.
Will it be based solely on the latest Tales of the City books, or will it be broader than that?
There will be elements of it because the characters are there. But the story starts now. Laura said, “Out motto should be ‘Don’t do the math!’” Because first of all, Tales of the City was 40 years ago. We play with that timeline. But the characters are all true to their original nature, except for the ones that have changed race. Ben [Michael Tolliver’s partner] was white in Tales of the City; he’s now an African-American, with my full permission.
We wanted to really represent the variety of life in San Francisco and in the world. And we’re doing it at 28 Barbary Lane. The stories were far too white in the beginning because I was far too white. I didn’t have any reference point. I was afraid to write characters of another race because I thought I might not get it right. It might sound artificial coming from a white guy.
Tales of the City was important for gay men of my generation. Do you now have new readers in their 20s or younger?
I do. I hear from them. Not as many as I’d like, but I think Netflix is going to make a difference in that regard. There are always people who need to be reached, who need to feel that way about themselves. The culture has changed, so you can go and see a film that does that. I imagine a whole generation of young queers were changed when Brokeback Mountain came along.
Tales of the City actually reached 12 or 13-year-old queers when it was in the newspapers in 1976 because their parents read the paper and they started looking at this thing. They would take it and hide it the way that I did with Lady Chatterley’s Lover when I was a child. I was able to reach them even then, especially then. Because there weren’t joyful sympathetic views of gay life anywhere at that time.
I read that Quentin Crisp once said that you “invented San Francisco,” which is a very Quentin Crisp thing to say.
[Laughs] It is! He was probably joking a little bit, but it looks very good on a book jacket! I adored him. We were so different in so many ways. Quentin Crisp was very old-fashioned when it came to gay rights, because he’s always been his own one-man band. But he was an absolute delight to be around, because everything that came out of his mouth was perfect witticisms.
He and I were on the very first RSVP cruise, the gay cruise, in the late ’80s, and we ran into each other at the library because it was the one place where you could sort of hide and have a comfortable chair. And I brought him a photograph taken by a famous photographer named George Dureau and I asked him if he would sign it for me. And he says, “Oh, yes, let’s go do that right now,” and he stood up. And I said, “We don’t have to do it now. You can do it in the morning,” and he replied, “Oh no, I might be dead in the morning!” I know what he means now. [Laughs]
How do you feel about San Francisco today?
It’s heartbreaking. It’s full of privileged billionaires. Some of them are nice people, but they’re not interesting people. If you hear them talking in a café, they’re talking about one thing: the tech industry. And so you don’t have the joy of having struggling bohemians around you as you once did. It’s not the same place.
Do you think it’s erasing our gay history?
I don’t think it’s erasing gay history. I think it’s erasing a very rich history of San Francisco in its own way. And the division between rich and poor is so dramatic. The middle class has rapidly disappeared. People like me are moving to Palm Springs or somewhere else where they actually can afford to live.
I will never be able to afford a house in San Francisco. I invented a very nice house in San Francisco, but I couldn’t live in that place today, as humble as it was. And that means the homeless are sleeping in doorways right down the street from where I live. It’s the saddest thing in the world. There are nights when you can hear the insanity in the air. I’ve tried not to be negative about it because I’m often treated like Mr. San Francisco, so I always have to say what a glorious place it is. And it is. It still is. But it’s disappearing.
The long-awaited Armistead Maupin memoir Logical Family is available now.
Featured image by Xavier Héraud