CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Chronicle‘s society editor was Pat Steger, not Pat Montandon. Montandon wrote a society column for the Examiner.
When Armistead Maupin took two weeks off around the holidays in 1977 to have “a small nervous breakdown,” the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle got “two garbage cans of letters” from readers wondering where Tales of the City had gone.
“They didn’t show me,” Maupin tells SF Weekly. “Somebody in the People Department said, ‘I want to show you something, but don’t tell them I showed you.’ ”
First off, if you’re wondering what the “People Department” was, it was the less overtly sexist successor to the Women’s Department, although it still consisted of an all-female staff plus Maupin plus another gay reporter, Randy Shilts, who would go on to write the history of the early AIDS years, And the Band Played On. While the cigar-chomping newspapermen on the other side of the filing cabinets likely rolled their eyes at such fluff, sitting there was a great place for Maupin to get material. He sat next to the society editor, Pat
Montandon Steger, overhearing her phone calls.
One of the Chronicle’s other worries was that readers might mistake the serialized adventures of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane for actual news. When Maupin wrote about one character’s escape from Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in Guyana, the Chronicle got calls from desperate people inquiring about other survivors. It was almost like a real-life version of the mostly apocryphal panic surrounding Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, Maupin says.
The act of concealing Maupin’s fan mail was a power play by the paper’s management, who didn’t want him to become aware of his growing stature because they didn’t want him to ask for more money. (Maupin says he was earning a “starting reporter’s” salary, and although he can’t remember the exact figure, he was glad to have it after five years of freelance hustle.) He wasn’t in it for the money, anyway.
“I had power, and that’s all I cared about,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t going to get rich off it. I had the power to say, as I did, ‘If you make me take out that chapter, I’m leaving.’ ”
“That chapter” refers to the section that ultimately became one of the most celebrated passages in the entirety of Tales of the City: when protagonist Michael Tolliver comes out to his parents in a letter after they supported Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign to roll back LGBT rights in South Florida. It’s the nucleus of Maupin’s idea of a “logical family,” as in the people who love and understand you more than your biological family ever could.
“I did a response to the election in Miami,” Maupin says. “The Anita Bryant referendum, where Michael Tolliver said, ‘When I came out of the closet, I nailed the door shut. This isn’t the last you’ve heard from me!’ ”
Maupin’s bosses were afraid such a cri de coeur “would sound too firebrand and offend what they always referred to as ‘The People in the Sunset,’ ” he adds. “That’s where they thought the bigots lived. There were no bigots when it came to Tales of the City; people loved it. They were into the story, they were into the characters. One woman wrote in and said, ‘I’m nothing but a little old housewife in Moraga with little macho of my own, but if you kill Michael Tolliver, I’ll never subscribe to the Chronicle again.’ ”
Well, Michael Tolliver lived, and 40 years on, Tales of the City’s stature has grown. 2014’s Days of Anna Madrigal is the ninth and final book in the series, but Netflix is in the early stages of production of a new miniseries that picks up where Days left off. The wise landlady who taped joints to her tenants’ doors is well into her 90s now, and the 86-year-old Olympia Dukakis is set to reprise the role she first took on in the original 1993 PBS Tales of the City miniseries.
Maupin has an executive producer credit on the project, and while filming has not begun, PBS debuts Jennifer M. Kroot’s documentary The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin on Jan. 1. It’s a candid glance at the author’s life that shies away from virtually nothing, be it his romps with then-closeted actor Rock Hudson, the dating site (Daddyhunt) on which he met his younger husband, or his youthful indiscretion as a protege of sorts of homophobic North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms.
It’s certainly startling to see archival footage of Helms as a young man reading an editorial on a local North Carolina TV station, knowing he would become one of the nation’s biggest morality cops at a time when sick people needed antiretroviral meds more than they needed brimstone. After Tales, the writer and the senator never spoke again.
“I condemned him on the steps of the Capitol, but I didn’t have direct contact with him,” Maupin says. “I knew he wouldn’t want it because I was an embarrassment in that he was friends with my father and remained friends with my father throughout all that horrendous talk during the AIDS crisis.
“I missed him by half an hour during my father’s funeral,” he adds.
There’s a notable moment of tension in Untold Tales when it comes to Maupin’s practice of outing closeted gay people, most famously Hudson. His friends Sir Ian McKellen and Kate Bornstein take opposing sides — pro and con, respectively — and the ethics of the matter are certainly tricky. (There is more agreement among LGBT people that it’s acceptable to out legislators who vote against LGBT rights.) While admitting that “the criticism hurt,” Maupin remains undaunted.
“I haven’t budged an inch on that,” he says. “It wasn’t called ‘outing’ when I was doing it. That was a term made up by a closeted editor at Time magazine who was panicked that people might, in the face of all that terror and death, actually start to tell the truth about who was gay. The ones who were doing it, myself included, were the ones who felt no shame about being gay and didn’t want to participate in any system that promulgated the notion that it was shameful.”
A showdown was inevitable even before Hudson became ill with AIDS, Maupin adds, as the rising number of people living openly ceased to participate in covering up other people’s self-protective lies. But, as McKellen observes and Maupin seconds, there isn’t anyone who came out who wasn’t happy about it.
While Untold Tales has the whiff of a valedictory around it, Maupin says he has another book in him, at least.
“I don’t know what it’ll be,” he says. “For a while, I thought it would be autobiographical again, but I don’t like the pressure of that. At heart, I’m a storyteller, so I think it will be some form of that. Not a continuation of Tales — or another continuation of Tales, I should say. People don’t believe me anymore.”
Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, Monday, Jan. 1 on PBS and Tuesday, Jan. 2 on streaming services