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COLUMN ONE

Silvering bard by the bay

For 30 years, Armistead Maupin has led readers on a tour of his life as a gay man. Now he looks at aging and revisits his dream of community.

June 15, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — IT started out as a gag, a literary riff on aging gays and lesbians who flock to retirement homes built just for them. Armistead Maupin toyed with the idea when he began writing "Tales of the City" back in the 1970s, and his imagination ran wild: No one would be allowed to wear golf clothes; Broadway sing-alongs were mandatory. With the right accessories, you could be 50 and fabulous.

Thirty years later, those punch lines are giving way to plumb lines. And the dream that Maupin wrote about -- a nurturing seniors community in the Bay Area for people of all sexual persuasions -- is becoming a reality. This fall, the Barbary Lane Communities for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender seniors will open on Lake Merritt in Oakland. The fully renovated Art Deco building, taking its name from Maupin's fictional community set in San Francisco's Russian Hill, will offer 46 units renting for $3,295 to $4,295 per month. It is one of the first urban retirement communities catering to such a middle-income clientele -- and the only one known to draw its name from a series of bestselling books.

"I think I'd want to move in," said Maupin, 63, only half seriously. With nearly 4 million copies of his novels in print -- and a new book, "Michael Tolliver Lives," just out -- he can easily afford to grow old in his rustic Parnassus Heights home, high above San Francisco Bay. The handsome man with silver hair and a thick gray mustache is one of America's most successful, openly gay authors.

But at this stage of his life, Maupin is also haunted by questions of death, aging and community: How will other, less affluent gay and lesbian seniors find safe harbor in a culture that remains hostile to them? When they look for senior housing, will they be forced back into the closet they fled years ago? A growing awareness of these problems persuaded Maupin to give his blessing to backers of Barbary Lane Communities when they asked him two years ago for permission to use the name. And those same concerns color his new novel, which follows six previous installments of "Tales of the City."

In "Michael Tolliver Lives," the gay and straight characters who once crowded into the baths South of Market or gathered for "singles nights" at the Marina Safeway are now deep into their 50s. They've survived the scourge of AIDS but are frightened by the first rumblings of mortality. Although they talk a good game about sex, food and pop culture, their youth has vanished, like a cloud of fine Colombian.

"I'VE always written about the moment," said Maupin, whose career took off in 1976, when his pioneering daily serial about sexually liberated men and women began appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle. "And it was clear that, just as I have taken people on a guided tour of my hedonistic youth, I would have to do the same thing now with my contented seniority.... Everybody who gets older thinks about dying and deterioration, the permanence of love and all those haunting questions. It was time for me to get down to the nitty gritty."

If early critical buzz is any indication, Maupin's new novel may once again reach a large audience. He is a brand name in a gay literary market that is growing but still struggling for mainstream success. Laura Miller, Salon's fiction editor, wrote that his earlier San Francisco stories are "perhaps the most sublime piece of popular literature America has ever produced." Although some critics have sniffed that his writing trends more toward breezy pop than literary heft, there is no doubting his nationwide appeal; three versions of his San Francisco stories have been broadcast on PBS and Showtime.

MAUPIN reached this plateau because he was one of the first authors to invent a world where quirky, thoroughly likable characters of all sexual persuasions interact happily with one another. "I was able to be revolutionary by worming my way into people's hearts, not their pants," he said. Long before "Will & Grace," "Six Feet Under" and "Sex and the City," Maupin was telling yarns about an urban village where everyone gets along and knows the details of each other's lives.

"He put the gay boy, the straight girl, the lesbian woman and the straight man into one colorful setting," said Charles Flowers, executive director of the Lambda Literary Foundation. "When he began writing, there was a lot of cultural separatism, with gays on one side of the street and straights on the other. But Maupin crossed over and just wrote great popular fiction. That's how you build an audience."

As in his earlier books, "Michael Tolliver Lives" echoes themes from Maupin's own life: Like his main character, he has wrestled with the reluctance of family members to acknowledge -- and celebrate -- his lifestyle. Like Tolliver, who is frustrated by his family's lingering bias against gay men and women, Maupin struggled to win respect and unconditional love from the members of his own family.

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