Step into Armistead Maupin’s house, and you will be greeted by a strapping young gardener, a wave of marijuana smoke, and the most gracious host in the world. When he isn’t flitting from protests to orgies, Maupin is a natural storyteller, and San Francisco is his favorite subject. Pull up a chair and prepare to be swept away on a wave of wit, gossip, and the most outrageous sexual anecdotes you’ve ever heard.
His house seems like a scene out of his legendary Tales of the City, and that’s no accident: Every moment of his groundbreaking series was drawn, one way or another, from Maupin’s remarkable life, from a middle-class upbringing in North Carolina to a stint in the navy during Vietnam. Maupin landed in San Francisco just in time to chronicle the gay rights revolution that was sweeping the city and the country as a whole, and from the moment his Tales were first serialized, that city was never the same.
This is an intimate biography, written by Maupin’s longtime friend, Patrick Gale. From his fling with Rock Hudson to the darkest days of the AIDS crisis, Maupin saw it all—and lived to tell the tale.
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About the Author
Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight. He spent his infancy at Wandsworth Prison, which his father governed, then grew up in Winchester, before attending Oxford University. He now lives on a farm near Land’s End. One of the United Kingdom’s best-loved novelists, his recent works include A Perfectly Good Man, The Whole Day Through, and the Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller Notes from an Exhibition. His latest novel, A Place Called Winter, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Prize, the Walter Scott Prize, and the Independent Booksellers’ Novel of the Year award. To find out more about Patrick and his work, visit www.galewarning.org.
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By Patrick Gale
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 Patrick Gale
All rights reserved.
Big Armistead and Diana
Armistead Jones Maupin Jr sprang upon an unsuspecting world at Doctors Hospital in Washington DC. The year being 1944, his father was a skipper on a minesweeper at the time, so gathered the news by semaphore and didn't actually see his son for almost two years. Armistead has always loved the idea of his arrival being announced, South Pacific style, by a hunky young sailor waving white flags and has seized on the image as the perfect metaphor for the difficulty this particular father and son would always have in communicating directly. 'It's like "I'm waving! Do you read me? Basic emotion! Basic emotion!"'
Armistead was brought home to 511 Cameron Street in Alexandria, Virginia, the house where the Scottish Rite, the official Masonic ritual of America, was established. His mother lived there with her own widowed mother and assorted siblings until his father returned from the war.
The three adults would be Armistead's greatest influences. Armistead Sr – or Big Armistead as he was called to differentiate him from his son – was a fiery lawyer of aristocratic Southern stock, intensely proud of his antecedents. His wife, Diana Jane Barton, was of English stock, a kind-hearted beauty who eventually established a chapter of the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Her British-born mother, Marguerite Smith Barton, a former women's suffragist who had married a Victorian patriarch thirty years her senior, was a charmingly eccentric widow infatuated with theosophy and palm-reading. Both women found in amateur theatricals the time-honoured relief for those hemmed in by the demands of respectability.
Armistead swiftly became known as Teddy. Officially this was just another way to distinguish him from his old man, but the choice bothered his father, Armistead recalls, because his mother had once had a boyfriend named Ted. For his part, Armistead called his parents Mummie and Daddy, in the English fashion, then – when other boys teased him for this – Mither and Pap.
His paternal grandmother, Mary Armistead Maupin, who later came to live with the family, was known as Mimi. The granddaughter of a confederate general, Mimi was Armistead's living link with his Southern roots. 'She was this sweet twinkly-eyed little thing who laughed a lot and told great stories about Sherman's army, and as a girl she had actually ridden on Jefferson Davis's casket when it passed through town.'
When Armistead Sr left the Navy, the family settled where the Maupin roots lay, in Raleigh, North Carolina. 312 Forest Road was a white frame duplex in an old neighbourhood. His first best friend was the girl next door, Kathy Austin, who took enormous pleasure in dressing him in her doll's clothes, Armistead being a fully co-operative stooge. Later he asked his parents for a doll's house, not for the feminine pleasure of dolls but as a stage setting for the little plays he would put on. He also fashioned theatres from cardboard boxes from the Piggly Wiggly, making puppets and learning to sew them costumes, with reassuring crudity.
His theatrical bent was encouraged when Diana went for an audition at the Raleigh Little Theatre for the part of Medea. The company couldn't take her this time but they said they could 'use the kid' for the non-speaking part of one of Jason's murdered sons. So he made his theatrical debut aged six, despite giggling fits when his friend Nat Robb had to lie on top of him. 'That backstage to me was a place of tremendous mystery and wonder. It was built on a hillside and you descended through dressing rooms until you got to the green room which opened out onto a garden. So the whole thing was sort of labyrinthine and spooky. I had dreams about it for years. I still do. I learned at a very early age that I could take refuge in that kind of fantasy.'
The family rented at first but once Armistead Sr had joined the law firm in which he would rise to be head partner, they began to build the house where Armistead Sr still lives, a rambling ranch house in a woody dell with a creek below it. Armistead remembers his father's repeated attempts to dam the creek in the hope of creating a lake. Whenever a big storm broke, the waters would swell and begin to burst holes in the dam, leaving Armistead Sr raging about the place, tearing out pieces of the basement storeroom in his futile attempts to shore up his handiwork. 'We all thought it was funny and kind of sweet in a Zorba-like way. And I helped him with the dam. That was one of the things, one of the few things we had, that really bonded us. I loved to hang out with him in the garden where he was constantly building rock walls and working on that dam. He had a very strong aesthetic sense when it came to the garden.'
Diana supplied her firstborn with a brother and sister, four and five years younger, called Tony and Jane. They were duly corralled into his impromptu circus acts, theatre shows and woodland fantasies, forming a part of what he remembers as an idyllic childhood. The only black spots were the three or four times he was sent off to summer camp. 'I found it completely agonizing because I was forced into an all-boy fascist society in which I excelled at nothing. And I missed my family terribly.'
Then there was the recurring thundercloud of his father's anger. 'His rages could be sudden and frightening and completely inexplicable until I got older and learned what he'd been through himself.' Diana would smooth things over after these explosions, becoming what Armistead describes as his father's 'official apologist'. 'She spent a great deal of time saying, 'Your father really loves you. I know it doesn't always seem so but he really does. You have to understand that about him.' Which Armistead learned to do. 'There was a song from The King and I, the one where the long-suffering head wife sings about the King and says, "He may not always do what you would have him do, but now and then he'll do something wonderful." I applied that to my father. That was the way I explained him to myself.'
God was ever present but unobtrusive; Armistead was raised what he calls a social Episcopalian. 'We went once a week and we'd go for Christmas Eve but the only religious instruction my mother ever gave me was when periodically she would turn to me in church and say, 'Look reverent!' because she was aware that other people were watching. Even the pew we sat in was a matter of social status. It had belonged to our family for years. It was the Maupin pew. And years later, when our churchgoing began to fall off because no one in the family had a drop of spiritual blood, other people started using the pew, and I can remember my father rounding us all up in the house in a fit of desperation and saying, 'If we don't get down there in the next fifteen goddammed minutes, that housepainter and his wife are going to take the goddammed pew!'
Episcopalians in the early Sixties, whatever their political colour, would scorn religious fundamentalists as white trash types who didn't see the fun of gambling and drink. Armistead Sr had inherited the family's tradition of cavalierly Rabelaisian attitudes and, for all his social pride, had a horror of priggishness. He was fond of talking to his boys about poontang – the Southern corruption of putain once used to denote a black whore but later applied to pussy in general. He also liked to rouse them of a morning with a cry of 'Reveille! Reveille! All hands heave to and trice up. Drop your cocks and grab your socks!' a speech he would occasionally enhance by delivering it with a tee shirt hanging off his morning glory.
A girlfriend of Armistead's nicknamed his parents John Wayne and Auntie Mame. Armistead Sr may not have joined in the fun at the Raleigh Little Theatre, but it's surely no accident that in every anecdote, the man has an audience. 'He demands to be the centre of attention,' Armistead admits, 'And he's probably not the only member of the family who turned out that way ...' Armistead Sr's views were extreme to the point of theatricality and he took pride in taking public stands. Armistead liked to see his father as a vivid Southern lawyer with a sense of justice, a man in the Atticus Finch mould, as he seemed when he made the front page of the newspaper by defending the right of neighbourhood dogs to roam unleashed. 'He was my hero, and I mimicked his conservative politics until I began to be bothered by his racism. He would rant about "niggers" and Jews and fairies and anyone else who was different. He still does – just doesn't include fairies, of course, when I'm around. Sometimes I think he does it just to get a reaction. I never saw him be anything but gracious to strangers.'
Diana was not really an Auntie Mame. She lacked the freedom of spirit. For all that she cultivated a fey, theatrical side, she grew more and more like her husband politically, 'Less because she believed in it, I think, than because she loved him. They did everything together. When I was in college they even started riding to hounds together. It was a drag hunt – one where they chased just the scent of a fox – but every now and then they'd flush out a real one and my mother would be bereft for weeks. She hated causing pain to anything or anyone.' Armistead adored her and refers to her as 'the Caretaker'. Throughout his childhood she had people in her life the family nicknamed her Refugees. These were usually European women who had married Southerners in the fond hope of a gracious, antebellum lifestyle only to find themselves shackled to some redneck in a rustic shack. Diana gave them emotional support and friendship in return for a taste, however ersatz, of European sophistication. Something of an outsider in the South, Diana retained an accent that was neither English nor Southern but vaguely Greer Garson. 'She remained, to all intents and purposes, a little English girl who'd grown up in the mountains of North Carolina with very odd English parents.'
Until he was twelve, Armistead attended Ravenscroft, the Episcopal parochial school in downtown Raleigh. It consisted of a small chapel, a school building and a Quonset hut where most of the classes were held. He recalls a female art teacher who tied boys to a lavatory as a punishment but has no other grim memories of it. 'It was just school. I went to school with the same thirty people for the first six grades. I knew them very well. I knew that the girls in that class were going to make their debut when they arrived at the age of eighteen. My parents loved the fact that I was there because I was being educated with members of my own class.' One teacher used to hand out a picture postcard to each pupil and make them write three paragraphs describing what they saw. She constantly singled Armistead out as the best at this exercise, which was his first awareness that he was clever with words. Left-handed and hopelessly unathletic, he routinely found himself picked after the girls when teams were being formed for sports. (A bittersweet torture, aged thirteen, was when he played the kidnapped son in a Raleigh Little Theatre production of Joseph Hayes' The Desperate Hours. Being roughed up and abducted by hunky, grown-up men was a delight. Having to make an entrance tossing a football while believably delivering the line: 'We've got a big game today and we're going to murder 'em,' was quite another matter ...) Happily his father was no sportsman either and hated guns: (for reasons that would become clear later) so Armistead's family never made him feel inadequate in this regard or expected him to go on hunting trips.
Ravenscroft had its camp side. In the final year, the sixth grade, pupils were encouraged to dance with each other during the morning break. Desks would be cleared away and boys and girls would change into Bermuda shorts – the new fashion rage – and for half an hour do the Bop to records. His ally at these times was the tomboy of his year, although she grew impatient with his bopping on one occasion and humiliated him by picking him bodily off the ground and dropping him on the dance floor. (Six years later, striving for heterosexuality, he disastrously groped her in his Volkswagen in the parking lot of the Carolina Country Club, an event that was rehashed to great hilarity in the late Eighties when the two were reunited as gay activists. 'It was the worst night of her life, too.')
At thirteen, Armistead faced the grim prospect of entering the public school system. Josephus Daniels Junior High School was still white – segregation remained in force – and predominantly middle class, but the social mix was far wider and he was no longer cozily surrounded by Episcopalians. The pressure on boys and girls to date from the moment they entered the seventh grade was enormous. Armistead had learned to wank that summer at Camp Hemlock and had found he was far more aroused by the sight of his stud-muffin counsellor – 'His name, for the record, was Tollie Barbour' – than by the girls at the neighbouring camp.
But he consoled himself with the thought that he just hadn't met the right girl yet. 'I knew my father hadn't married my mother until he was twenty-six, so I told myself I had some time to work this thing out. I had an idealized girlfriend who was going to look a little bit like Grace Kelly and a little bit like Kim Novak. Of course no-one in the world looked a little bit like either of them so it was a pretty safe bet. And I was constantly inventing aristocratic names for our children-to-be. I became very good at the art of camouflage. I learned to pay attention to girls in a rude way in the presence of boys.'
Meanwhile he began to have sex dreams about men, especially older ones such as the gas station attendants he would eyeball around Raleigh, or the barber whose thigh would occasionally brush against Armistead's hand as he leaned in to clip his hair. He managed to justify these to himself, 'Because it was just about sex; it was the sort of diddling that all boys did and it was okay.' The dreams only caused him panic when kissing entered their scenarios. 'I knew something was seriously wrong because there was a romantic element attached to it. It wasn't just messing around; it was romance of the kind that you had with girls, and that scared the hell out of me. I'd read somewhere that homosexuality was a mental illness, so I tried to work up the nerve to tell my parents before it was too late to fix me. But the thought of doing that was too frightening.'
I'm the luckiest gay man I know in that fate allowed me a gay adolescence synchronized with my biological one. It's the rarity of this that lies behind Armistead's activism on behalf of gay youth movements; he believes one of the continuing tragedies of gay culture is that most of us are still working through our emotional adolescence at the age of thirty.
Giggling at the memory, we exchange horror stories of growing up gay in strait-laced provincial towns. I recall hanging around in W H Smiths plucking up courage to snatch a copy of Playgirl and glancing through it with hot cheeks while standing safely under Motorsport and Railway Modeller. Armistead remembers walking into a news-stand in a seedy Raleigh hotel in 1965 – he was 21 – and spotting a magazine called Demigod. 'And on the cover was a man – I'm sure he would look quite ordinary today – sitting up in bed, bare chested, with a yellow satin sheet pulled up to his waist. And the very fact of the intentional homoeroticism of that imagery just made me go nuts. I could barely glance at it and I certainly wouldn't have looked inside it. I just looked at the cover and thought "Oh. My. God." It was a very hot, steamy day and I remember going back to my car and turning on the radio and 'Walk on the Wild Side' was playing. Oh but it seems so quaint now!'
Hard to remember, now that it's so prevalent, but the fetishizing of the male body which our cultures do in general now is still a recent phenomenon. Playgirl aside, my main erotic outlets as a child were reproductions of pictures by Botticelli and Leonardo in a couple of treasured Phaidon hardbacks. Armistead had to make do with Ronald Reagan and the desexed, knitting pattern idols of the late Fifties, Rock Hudson being a notable exception. I admit to having spent hours as a young boy leafing through old Good Housekeeping copies in search of the occasional man in a towel advertising a shower cubicle. 'Yeah,' Armistead admits, 'I used to think to myself as an early teenager: "I must be really sick. I'm looking at men's chests. Men's chests aren't supposed to be sexy. Only women's chests are supposed to be sexy."' A culture that was defined by straight, white males didn't even part with the information.'
Ironically, it was Armistead's parents who encouraged his fantasy life by giving him a copy of a novel by Allen Drury called Advise and Consent which they felt to be a highly moral good read. This is a conservative political thriller in which the young senator hero is blackmailed about a 'homosexual episode' in his past. The episode, described with preposterous coyness to modern eyes, involves his discreetly picking up another man on a beach in Honolulu during World War II. 'He's looking across at this man and realizing that "there was a similar hunger in his eyes" or some such phraseology and moments later they get up and walk to the hotel. That was the extent of the homoeroticism in the novel and the rest of it was left up to your imagination. It was the most powerfully affirming thing I had ever read. It was wonderful just to have the acknowledgement that such a moment could occur.' A few years later Armistead would see the film version of Advise and Consent and be completely horrified by its depiction of a gay night-club. 'It seemed so sleazy and awful to me, and it struck terror in my heart because I thought that's where I was headed. And after I came out and became an activist I thought of that scene as a homophobic distortion until I looked at it again for The Celluloid Closet and realized it was really rather tame. It was my fear I'd remembered, not the scene itself.'
Excerpted from Armistead Maupin by Patrick Gale. Copyright © 1999 Patrick Gale. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Big Armistead and Diana,
In the Navy,
Nixon and Co.,
The front page,
A hot apartment,
Crappy little jobs,
Nights at the opera,
Tales of the City,
Come out, come out, wherever you are,
Rock and the hard place,
Fighting the beast together,
Steve and Harvey,
Big Armistead and Diana, two,
The first Mrs Madrigal?,
Serial serial killer,
Of cat pee and Betty Windsor,
So long, Barbary Lane,
Bali Ha'i she calls you,
Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Cadence Roth,
Christopher and his kind,
Tales on tv,
The celluloid closet,
About the Author,