LOGICAL FAMILY: A Memoir. By Armistead Maupin. Harper. 304 pages. $27.95.
What do Charleston artist Elizabeth O’Neill Verner and one of America’s most popular gay writers have in common? Readers of Armistead Maupin’s new memoir “Logical Family” will find that out, and have a fun, insightful and often moving experience in the process.
Born in Raleigh, N.C., to conservative Southern parents (his father honored segregation and the Confederacy), Maupin grew up as an insider and an alienated outsider simultaneously. It was the women of his family who encouraged his sensitive artistic side, while the men demanded repression and conventionality — something similar to Pat Conroy’s experience growing up, though without the terror and violence Conroy described so vividly.
Maupin writes with great finesse of how he wanted to be part of a hallowed tradition, even as his gay sexuality and yearnings took him into the terrain of heresy. How he solved those issues, and managed to entertain millions of Americans and to cross paths, Forrest Gump-like, with an astonishing number of American icons is the core of this story. He tells it well, with humor and pathos, and with a seemingly inborn narrative drive that distinguishes his every word.
His brother went to The Citadel, but Maupin went to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and got one of his first jobs through a family friend, Jesse Helms. A stint in the Navy brought him to Charleston, where he knew he had to hide his sexuality; it was the U.S. Armed Forces after all, and the 1960s. In Vietnam, he gave up a job of ennui to try to engage the enemy, and celebrity, eventually ending up in a photo session at the White House with President Richard Nixon.
In Charleston again, not quite as deep in the closet, Maupin worked as a reporter for this newspaper, then called The News and Courier, and rented an apartment in the historic district that just happened to be above the studio of artist Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, with whom he became friends. (Full disclosure: Though he mentions me in his text, and in Chapel Hill we were both friends of Bill Geer, we have never met.)
Charleston readers will enjoy his description of how the city did its best to seduce him, luring him, if not out of the closet, then at least into self-admission of his true sexual attraction; he shares tales of the Battery and drunk married men familiar to other out and closeted men of Maupin’s generation. (Readers wanting a tad more of this might consult Patrick Gale’s 1999 biography “Armistead Maupin.”)
Maupin’s most important stories in town focused on the loss of Spanish moss, the Salley Chitlin Strut Festival, debunking a local plantation’s claim to have been used in the film “Gone with the Wind,” and witnessing the beginnings of a story that would have a major impact on his own writing. No spoiler alert; this reviewer will not reveal that tidbit here.
Charleston may have opened some doors for the author, but it could not hold him (though he later used the city somewhat in his bewitching novel “The Night Listener”). Employment by the Associated Press took him to San Francisco, and it was that city that confirmed his destiny.
It’s hard to overstate the impact his “Tales of the City” series, first published in the San Francisco Chronicle before being collected into book form, had on popular culture. Long before “Will and Grace,” Maupin’s books took stories of gay and straight friends into America’s heartland; and into the hearts of millions of readers who snapped up his books as they were published.
They became a television series, and normalized LGBTQ culture long before we had such acronyms. Maupin was visibly gay as the AIDS crisis escalated and became the obsession and target of hate from his erstwhile mentor Jesse Helms. AIDS took the lives of many of Maupin’s friends, including one profiled in the book, Rock Hudson.
While the volume takes its title from a pun (stressing a logical family of friends instead of a biological one), Maupin nevertheless circles back home, ending with a grace note regarding his parents. Many readers may feel a kinship with this warm and vibrant storyteller, and one hopes that his biological family still claims him and is proud of what he has done.
Reviewer Harlan Greene is a writer and historian in Charleston.