Armistead Maupin Reflects on What’s Changed Since He First Wrote ‘Tales of the City’

Tales of the City Armistead Maupin
Showtime Networks Inc./Photofest

A biographer of Christopher Isherwood once remarked that the legendary writer’s friends seemed to grow younger and younger the older he became. There was a detectable whiff of contempt in this observation, and it irked the hell out of me, since I had been one of those younger friends, one of the lucky souls who, in the late 1970s, found ourselves around Isherwood’s dinner table in his little house above Santa Monica Canyon. Sure, some of us were young, but every age of queer was represented. (Isherwood, for the record, identified himself as queer long before the term gained its cultural acceptance in Hollywood. “You must call yourself that too,” he once told me with a sly grin. “It embarrasses our enemies.”)

What I found around that table was more than rich, mirthful conversation — about books, about movies, about sex — but a satisfying sense of intergenerational connection. 

Just by sharing our stories we could discern where we were heading and where we had been. There was time travel involved, too, since Isherwood had known Somerset Maugham and E.M. Forster and had once even hidden from Garbo when she showed up unannounced at his apartment. We felt part of a sort of queer genealogy that reached into another century. For me, a Southerner raised on stodgy reverence for my Confederate ancestors, it offered a heritage that finally spoke to the truth to my own experience. Much later in life, I would coin the phrase “logical family” to describe the pleasing alternative I had found to my insufficient biological one.

My life’s work, the multivolume “Tales of the City” series, would revolve around a group of San Franciscans — some queer, some not — who find logical family with each other under the loving eye of their transgender landlady. It’s no accident that the trappings of that tale — the landlady, the apartment house, the straight ingénue who befriends a young gay man — can all be found in Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories.” (I had recently seen “Cabaret,” the movie based on that book, and it had worked its magic on me. Isherwood’s Sally Bowles was, in her own way, a sort of literary big sister to my intelligent naif Mary Ann Singleton.)

“Tales of the City” has so far endured for 43 years — first as a daily newspaper serial, then as a series of novels and a trio of television miniseries in the ’90s and beyond; its newest incarnation, a Netflix limited series, arrives this month. It hasn’t courted controversy but has attracted it nonetheless. In the ’70s, the very presence of LGBT characters, however tamely depicted, was all it took to enrage some readers of a “family newspaper” who claimed to be praying for my soul on a daily basis. The first miniseries, which aired on PBS in 1993, drew the ire of the right-wing American Family Assn. for giving American broadcast television audiences their first experience of a romantic kiss between men. The new Netflix series, the first truly global exposure of “Tales,” is likely to cause a fuss in places where people think gay people should be imprisoned or stoned to death for loving whom they love. Through the prism of this story, which many have now come to regard as warm and fuzzy, it’s been heartening for me to see how much the world has changed — and disturbing to realize how much it has not. Oppressive theocratic forces, whether in Ukraine or Uganda or the good old USA, are still hell-bent on controlling the way people love and define themselves. And over the years this has lent a certain missionary zeal to the project that has made the cast and crew of “Tales,” queer and non-queer alike, into fierce culture warriors, and — let me just say it — part of my logical family. I’m thinking especially of Laura Linney, a staunch gay ally from the very beginning, who, along with Olympia Dukakis, fought the good fight for LGBT rights long before it was fashionable.

Alan Poul, the producer who expertly guided “Tales” through a quarter century of triumphs and setbacks, knew that we needed to bring our story to younger audiences, not just the generation that had revered the previous miniseries. (As a writer, I know I have readers of all ages, but people who can name all the Kardashians tend to draw a blank about 28 Barbary Lane.) What we needed was a fresh crop of tenants at that old apartment house with a fresh crop of romantic dilemmas. I had already created three such characters in recent books, the twentysomething pansexual Shawna Hawkins, Michael Tolliver’s younger husband, Ben, and a lovelorn gay trans man named Jake, but we needed more if we were to keep things interesting. Our showrunner Lauren Morelli, who cut her teeth on “Orange Is the New Black,” assembled a writers’ room of such intoxicating diversity that storylines sprang into bloom like wildflowers after a rain. For the most part, I just stood back and watched in wonder. She had promised to maintain the DNA of “Tales,” and that’s just what she did.

And here’s the beauty part: All those bright young Barbarians could interact with the returning cast, as daughters and friends and sometimes even as lovers, thereby creating the sort of intergenerational dialogue that I had learned to treasure all those years ago at Isherwood’s house. The best moments in this new “Tales” are when that happens. Wisdom can go both ways when both sides are listening. 

Writer Armistead Maupin is best known for his “Tales of the City” stories set in San Francisco, which began as a daily newspaper column 43 years ago, were adapted into three TV miniseries in the 1990s, and now appear in their newest incarnation as a Netflix limited series that debuted June 7.