I thought I knew Armistead Maupin’s story: Southern boy who hid his homosexuality from his family, particularly his conservative father, until he went to San Francisco and ended up writing a daily column for that city’s major newspaper. There, he eventually became an author and a major voice in the LGBT community. His “Tales of the City” became a series of best-selling books and a successful TV miniseries.
I read the books, watched the miniseries in the ’90s and read interviews with him through the years. So yes, I thought I knew Maupin’s story. Then I read “Logical Family,” the memoir that brings him back to Raleigh this week for a reading at Quail Ridge Books, and learned how little I really knew.
Lesson 1. I knew Maupin came from a prominent Raleigh family, his father a lawyer and founding partner at Maupin Taylor. What I didn’t realize was how deep those roots went. Maupin’s family were members of Christ Church on Capitol Square since before the Civil War, and his father took great pride in ancestors who fought for the South, painting “Save your Confederate Money! The South Will Rise Again” above the porch of his kids’ playhouse. He also walked his family out of Christ Church one Sunday when the reverend sermonized that it was time for black families to come down from the balcony and to be offered communion at the rail.
Lesson 2. Maupin was not a teenage rebel. As a youth, he never stood up to his dad, or Pap as he called him, over something like the church walkout. Or his dad’s conservative values. And, as was the norm in those years, he kept his sexual orientation hidden. He writes: “There were mornings when I woke up thinking, Tonight I’ll tell them. After supper, maybe, or after Gunsmoke. ... But I never found the nerve. (Had I done so, I would no doubt have other stories to tell you now, ones about homoerotic slide shows with electroshock devices that attached, ever so correctively, to my genitals.)”
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Lesson 3. Maupin was a Jesse Helms conservative. As a student at Carolina, he defended segregated restaurants, saying that free enterprise allowed them to run their businesses as they saw fit. (He notes the irony that many businesses who refuse to bake for gay weddings now use similar arguments.) After graduating from Carolina, he ended up working for WRAL, hired by their commentator and future Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, another family friend. Of his college-age self, Maupin writes: “So who was this Armistead Maupin Jr.? It’s easy enough to say that he was still angling for the love of his father, because, obviously, he was. But he was twenty years old and out in the world, and he should have known better. I have a hard time liking him now.”
Maupin points out that he would later condemn Helms, a rabid opponent of gay and lesbian rights, on the steps of the state Capitol during Raleigh’s first Gay Pride March.
Lesson 4. As a gay man serving in the Navy in Vietnam, he was a recipient of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” long before that became a sanctioned military policy.
But the biggest takeaway here is more reminder than lesson: It’s that Maupin is a gifted story teller. His memoir packs much into 289 pages. It is a breezy read, humorous and poignant by turns. I enjoyed the early Raleigh years for a peek into the city decades before I came to know it – but still populated with names I recognized. (At 6, Maupin’s co-star in backyard plays was Freddy Fletcher, whose dad Fred was then an announcer at WRAL Radio; the park named after him would come later.)
Maupin is really at his best when talking about his beloved Mummie and his maternal grandmother. The former was a gentle woman who didn’t talk about distressing subjects. The latter was an English woman who had her own secrets, had a penchant for reading palms and, as he writes, was “the first person who had taken me as is.”
If there’s a fault to the book, it is that at times, it is too breezy. He writes of losing dear friends to AIDS, the murders of two other friends, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk (Google it), and the treatment of gays during that period, but he never dwells on any one friendship, one death, one outrage for too long.
We are, however, treated to a lot of name dropping – Rock Hudson, Laura Linney, Robin Williams, Chris Isherwood, and even Tennessee Williams. He met them all and considered many close friends – and no, he did not have relations with them all. He tells a lot, but he does not tell all.
By Armistead Maupin
Harper, 304 pages
7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6, Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, North Hills, Raleigh.