Logical Family: a memoir review: Armistead Maupin’s long journey
Armistead Maupin wrote an anthem for doomed youth while celebrating diversity
Armistead Maupin: the author of Tales of the City gave a voice to all manner of outsiders. Photograph: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty
Logical Family: A Memoir
More than 40 years ago, Armistead Maupin created a character, who prefigured one of the biggest social developments of today – the adding of the “T” to “LGB”. Anna Madrigal, the transgender landlady in Tales of the City, was only one of the carnally adventurous characters who gave a voice to all manner of outsiders, but she paved the way for acceptance of ambiguous gender identity.
So what sort of genius dreamed her up – what philosophy, depth of plot, height of insight? The truth is her backstory was created on the run when, up against a deadline to produce 800 words a day for Tales of the City, and a managing editor at the San Francisco Chronicle demanding to know the “secret” hinted at in despatches, Maupin ventured: “She used to be a man.” Once the astounded managing editor got his head around that, he advised Maupin to keep it to himself as they would lose readers before they got the fictitious column off the ground.
The author learned his first great lesson in the literary instalment business: he kept the readers guessing for a year, building tension around the 20th century’s greatest literary trans character after Myra Breckinridge.
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- ‘Do you have to be a lady to write a fine story?’
- ‘When I opened my bookshop, a lot of people told me I was foolish’
From such humble origins are great cosmic paradoxes created.
Like Dickens’ portrayals of the gin palaces in Sketches by Boz, or Tolstoy’s meditation on unhappy marriage in Anna Karenina, Maupin’s hymn to sexual fluidity was unveiled in regular instalment in the popular press. Ironically, only Tolstoy sometimes missed deadlines.
Gay rights movement
Tales of the City hit the west coast like a hurricane in the 1970s. There was a time lag in crossing the Atlantic, but when it did we woke to the reality of bisexuality, blended families and, above all, to the gay rights movement.
If Tales added greatly to the gaiety of nations, it was also an anthem for doomed youth. As the Aids plague shadowed our luminous Fab Vinnies, we lived with a permanent low-level anxiety about gay friends. Maupin’s recalling of the surprisingly happy warrior Rock Hudson reading, pre-publication, the first instalment of Tales of the City to an impromptu gathering, also reads as a chronicle of a tragic death foretold.
Tales was a celebration of diversity and difference. It would be natural to assume it sprang from the American fulcrum of free speech and first amendment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Talc-scented intolerance was bred in his cradle.
“There was a land of cavaliers and cotton fields. Look for it in books,” sang Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind. The legacy of the cotton field is everywhere in this book. North Carolina, with the “nastiest public toilets in the land – back then it was black people, now it’s trans”, was bigoted and prejudiced. And, until his mid-20s, so was Maupin. But a confederacy childhood of magnolia blossom and that southern “mendacity” immortalised by Tennessee Williams is the potent mix which can form an artist. Its paradoxes provide another tale of another city – equally compelling and relevant today.
Maupin’s “Grandpa Branch” had died defending slavery, yet his widow billeted General Sherman, whose scorched-earth policy defeated the Confederacy (his mother later presented him with Sherman’s bed as a gesture of acceptance of his sexuality). Over the children’s playhouse porch, his father hung the legend: “Save Your Confederate Money. The South Will Rise Again.” He was racist and homophobic, and gay-shaming senator Jesse Helms worked out of his office. Yet the scene where Maupin, eschewing the family law firm, dashes his father’s dream, is one of surprising paternal tenderness. “Oh hell son, I don’t blame you. It is boring. I just thought you’d liven up the office.”
Vietnam was his decompression chamber – even in that rough-hewn fellowship of men, he was used by Nixon, Haldeman and Erlichman in a geeky PR exercise; San Francisco his spiritual home. Having turned his back on his genealogy, “that bone dry roster of long gone planters and generals”, he revelled in the camaraderie of queers, Christopher Isherwood, Sir Ian McKellen. Harvey Milk.
One passage in the book describes an orgy as “A conversation of spirits, a silent glider flight into the possibility of everything.” San Francisco by any other name.
Unlike some, Maupin didn’t wait “until his mother died” to come out, doing so to his parents in the now iconic “Dear Mama” letter in Tales. It paid. His account of their turning up at Harvey Milk’s memorial service is redemptive and heartbreaking. But then they surely knew: homosexuality saved their son and gave the world a great gift.
Anne Harris is a former editor of the Sunday Independent