Uncle Tom's Cabin first saw light as a monthly serial in the abolitionist monthly The National Era. So when the first installment of Tales of the City appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in the summer of 1976, we expected a book, but we didn't expect the series of eight books (and counting) that Armistead Maupin is STILL writing about his only-in-San-Francisco cast of characters. In fact, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, although Maupin is leaving Sam Francisco for Santa Fe, he will be writing a ninth book on the characters.
For this, I reread the first two books, Tales of the City (1978) and More Tales of the City (1980), to investigate what makes them classics, and what made them fodder for a PBS miniseries and, even more recently, a musical, which we saw as a 40th/3rd anniversary present. It was fun: Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters and Jeff Whitty who write the book for Avenue Q collaborated on it.
The history behind this is simple. As Maupin's home page says
Maupin worked as a reporter for a newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina, before being assigned to the San Francisco bureau of the Associated Press in 1971. In 1976 he launched his groundbreaking Tales of the City serial in the San Francisco Chronicle.Not obviously groundbreaking initially. The first roughly 150 episodes of the serial were collected into a book and published in 1978. The action takes place in and around San Francisco, where some of the main characters life in a house at 28 Barbary Lane (actually the cul-de-sac Macondray Street, which runs between Union and Green off Leavenworth). Who wouldn't want to live on the downslope of Russian Hill after all?
The characters are archetypal: Mary Ann Singleton, the main character of the first book, has arrived on vacation from Cleveland and decides to stay. She meets Anna Madrigal, the wise philosophical landlady, and rents an apartment from her. There she meets Mona Ramsey, a copywriter at Halcyon Advertising, who helps her find a job as the secretary to Edgar Halcyon, the head of the agency.
The other tenant is Brian Hawkins, a waiter at the major single's bar Perry's (still in existence) on Union Street. Brian was an activist civil rights lawyer back east, but he burned out on the practice and moved to a city where hetero men were in demand, taking a job that would give him time to pursue the women of the city at relative leisure. Even in 1975, Maupin was changing orientations here, since the era before AIDS saw hundreds (it's unquantifiable but this is my best guess) of gay men come to San Francisco for the sexual liberty and take whatever job they could get, graduate degrees notwithstanding. Yes, taxi drivers with doctorates and bartenders with advanced degrees and language skills that might have endeared them to the State Department (rest in peace, Reid). Brian is a relatively minor character, however, so enough of that.
We also, about a third of the way into the book, meet Michael Tolliver, also from elsewhere (Orlando), the gay central character of the rest of the books, mostly. Apparently the series wasn't supposed to scream gay in 1975, but by 1977, it certainly does. Michael meets a doctor, the gynecologist Jon Fielding, at roller disco (it's the 70s) and then loses him when Dr. Fielding, along with some of his A-Gay friends, sees Michael on stage in a wet underwear contest at the End Up. There's a good amount about "A-Gays" in the first two books, but we'll cover that later. Also about Jon Fielding -- it gave any gay doctor from San Francisco who vaguely fit the fictional character's description to say he was the "real" Jon Fielding, as many did between 1978 and 1980.
Michael is a fairly groundbreaking character for 1975 and 1976, but the real groundbreaking character is Mrs. Madrigal, who we learn about halfway through the book is a post-op transsexual. What else happens in Tales? Edgar Halcyon's daughter DeDe is married to Beauchamp Day, Edgar's top account executive, and although Wikipedia describes him as "bisexual" the circumstances of the book are more "closeted gay." I say this because DeDe is so starved for affection she manages to get pregnant by Lionel, the Chinese deliveryman for the grocery store near their condo on Telegraph Hill (also because if you've seen the TV adaptation and you're a gay man you'll never forget Thomas Gibson -yes, from Dharma and Greg - as Beauchamp at the baths). Edgar is diagnosed with cancer and dies but not until he strikes up a friendship with Mrs. Madrigal, and Mona becomes reacquainted with a fashion model she met at the ad agency, D'Orothea Wilson, who has become famous as a black model even though her parents are white. There's also a plot about a detective who is investigating Mrs. Madrigal who "disappears" at the end of the book, leaving only his clip-on tie in Mary Ann's hand. Oh, yes. Michael's parents come up from Orlando for a visit, Hallowe'en weekend. They're in denial at this point.
It's good social history of the era, and More Tales has even more, but now we get topical. The topical material in Tales consists mostly of society women commenting that at least they don't have the tsuris Catherine Hearst is enduring. In More Tales we have Anita Bryant. You'd think that Tales would take care of the bulk of expository material a series like this undoubtedly needs, but no, there's an absolute humdinger about Mona's relationship to Mrs. Madrigal which involves the Blue Moon Brothel in Winnemucca, Nevada (since I don't want to go on forever, Mrs. Madrigal is Mona's father). There's another subplot in which a group of parishioners at Grace Cathedral (Episcopal, at the top of Nob Hill) confuse transubstantiation with cannibalism,a third plot involving Betty Ramsey, Brian, and exhibitionism, and a fourth, involving the ethnicity of DeDe's twins. Maupin is having fun here.
But this doesn't explain fully why material from More Tales made it into the Tales of the City musical, and that has to do with the fact that in this series, Michael becomes the main character of the book (even despite his bout with Guillain-Barré syndrome). First, as an hors d'ouevre, Maupin has at the A-Gays. For those of you for whom the term is unfamiliar, Maupin explains what part a guest list that is composed of A List, B List, A-Gay list and B-Gay list has in the cocktail chatter at an A-Gay event:
A list people could talk about the arts, politics and the suede walls in the master bedroom.This again is tangential, because one of the main events in More Tales contributes one of the central songs. I'll let Maupin set the scene:
B listers could talk about the arts, politics, the suede walls in the master bedroom, and the people on the A List.
The A-Gays could talk about whoever was tooting coke in the bathroom.
The B-Gays, being largely decorative, were not expected to talk.
The day after the Chronicle ran the story about Anita Bryant organizing her anti-gay campaign, I had Michael Tolliver's mother write him a letter saying that she had joined the Save Our Children campaign without knowing that her own son was gay. And as fate would have it, I had already established Michael as the son of Florida orange growers.The letter Michael writes back sets to music reasonably well. I'm not giving you the whole thing, but
Being gay has taught me tolerance, compassion and humility. It has shown me the limitless possibilities of living. It has given me people whose passion and kindness and sensitivity have provided a constant source of strength.That's why this is one of the classics of post-Stonewall literature. 1976. Michael and Jon get back together (Guillain-Barré as a deus ex machina of sorts). Even better, Beauchamp Day, on his way to the hospital where DeDe has just given birth to twins to divorce her, is incinerated in a solo car crash in the Broadway Tunnel.
It has brought me into the family of man, Mama, and I like it here. I like it.
There's not much else I can say, except I'm the same Michael you've always known. You just know me better now.
Oh, yes, Topical. DeDe and D'or, at the end of the book, have taken the twins someplace less confusing than San Francisco -- Jonestown. Don't worry, they survive, and that's one of the plotlines in Further Tales.
Really, the Tales of the City series captures the era better than our understanding of the Castro clone. If you've seen the television adaptations, you'll be as familiar with this as you would have been had you read the book, as they were very well done. It's interesting that Mary Ann, as played by Laura Linney, was a star-making role, but none of the male characters had the same impact on the actors who played them. Since Maupin is still writing about these characters, these two books and the other six Tales of the City books could make great summer reading.
So happy end of the Pride season, and share your memories of this -- in whatever form(s) you encountered Tales in the comments! I might not be awake yet when this publishes, but I'll be monitoring it while I have my morning coffee. I'll also have some errands to run between noon and 4 PM Eastern but I'll be back as soon as I can.
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|Sun (hiatus)||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|Bi-Monthly Sun||Midnight||Reading Ramblings||don mikulecky|
|MON||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||Susan from 29|
|Mon||11:00 PM||My Favorite Books/Authors||edrie, MichiganChet|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||LGBT Literature||Texdude50, Dave in Northridge|
|Tue||10:00 PM||Contemporary Fiction Views||bookgirl|
|Wed||8:00 PM||Bookflurries Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|alternate Thu||11:00 PM||Audiobooks Club||SoCaliana|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||Diana in NoVa|
|SAT (fourth each month)||11:00 AM||Windy City Bookworm||Chitown Kev|
|Sat||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|
7:32 AM PT: Running errands earlier than I thought. I should be back by 2:30-3 PM Eastern. Thanks, DKOMA.