Gay Tales from San Francisco

It’s nice living near San Francisco, but sometimes the SF presence is overpowering. The city becomes so full of itself that it seems to pulse and glow in the northwest sky above my home in Palo Alto. The latest world shaking event to be hyped is the “highly anticipated” revival of Armistead Maupin’s chronicle of SF during the gay 70’s.

Tales of the City began life as a newspaper serial in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976 when the legendary Pulitzer winner Herb Caen ruled at the paper. Caen’s column, Bagdad-by-the-Bay was the accepted definition of life in the city. As a regular Chronicle reader, I read Caen’s column daily; often the gossip made no sense to me, but it was entertaining and I thought it typical of SF. Into this environment popped Maupin’s column with a vastly different view of life in the city, and it opened eyes. The new view became an immediate success.

Just as Herb Caen published his columns in book form, so did Maupin, but ironically, it is Maupin’s view of the city that has persevered. Thus, the novel Tales of the City was born, and it has evolved into a much-loved series of novels that follow the characters of the first novel as they live and love and die. It has become the story of life in the city as seen through the lens of a gay person.

The series was the inspiration for the successful PBS series in 1993, and viewers saw the characters and experienced life in the city as interpreted by the great Masterpiece Theater performers. By the time that series ended, Tales was truly a part of San Francisco folklore.

Tales has now been adapted for the stage as a musical. American Conservatory Theater has brought to the musical to the Geary Theater in downtown San Francisco. In preparation, in case I get the opportunity to go to the musical, I downloaded the new edition of the original Tales from Amazon’s Kindle store—it is a fascinating read. What a collection of weird and wonderful characters! Bravo, Armistead Maupin.

Tales of the City (1978) is the introductory novel in a series of 8 novels set in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. The first 4 of these books were serialized in The Chronicle prior to publication as novels.

Chapter 1 of the Tales appeared in The Chronicle on May 24, 1976 and introduces the character destined to become an icon for the series:

Mary Ann Singleton was 25 years old when she saw San Francisco for the first time.
She came to the city alone for an eight-day vacation. On the fifth night, she drank three Irish coffees at the Buena Vista, realized that her Mood Ring was blue and decided to phone her mother in Cleveland.

“Hi, Mom, it’s me.”
“Oh, darling. Your daddy and I were just talking about you. There was this crazy man on ‘McMillan and Wife’ who was strangling all these nice young secretaries, and I just couldn’t help thinking …”
“Mom …”
“I know, it’s just your silly old mother, worrying herself sick over nothing. But you never can tell about those things. I mean, look at that poor Patty Hearst, locked up in that closet with those awful … ”
“Mom, this is long distance.”

Mary Ann tells her mother the news: it is goodbye Cleveland, she is moving to San Francisco. The next day Mary Ann meets Anna Madrigal and takes up residence in 28 Barbary Lane, an apartment building that has become the most famous fictional place in the city. Anna is the perfect landlord; she grows her own marijuana, rolls cigarettes for her tenants and cooks  Alice B. Toklas brownies. This is an eye-opening experience for Mary Ann from Cleveland.

Maupin writes like a Chronicle columnist of the 70s; he has a direct, clear voice that uses the names of real people like Patty Hearst, great-grand daughter of the founder of the Hearst Newspapers. Patty was a local girl who wielded an M1 rifle during the robbery of the Hibernia Bank in the Sunset District of SF. Ironically, Patty went to school with the daughter of the bank owner. The incident and her name were familiar to all Chronicle readers.

Maupin also wrote about real places in SF; the Buena Vista, a bar and café, near the terminus of the Hyde Street Trolley, was and is a popular place where San Franciscans and tourists met for spiked coffee until the wee hours of the day or night. Even the TV programs mentioned were those popular in SF; in fact, everything about the column was appealing to San Franciscans and they loved it.

Maupin, an openly gay San Franciscan, opens the novel with an epilog from Oscar Wilde:

It is an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco.

The full quote is from The Picture of Dorian Grey:

“Scotland Yard still insists that the man in the grey ulster who left for Paris by the midnight train on the ninth of November was poor Basil, and the French police declare that Basil never arrived in Paris at all. I suppose in about a fortnight we shall be told that he has been seen in San Francisco. It is an odd thing, but every one who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world.”

The quote is apt; most of the characters in Tales are hiding something.

Tales is more than a collection of newspaper columns; it is a novel. The characters evolve, change and adapt to circumstances. As the plot unfolds the reader will discover, along with the residents of Barbary Lane, a mystery and possibly a murder (or was it an accident?).

I enjoyed reading the novel and look forward to the success of the musical adaptation that is now playing at the American Conservatory Theater on Geary St in downtown San Francisco.

Day 55: Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin (1978, Kindle version 2011).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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