Armistead Maupin’s political correctness is as steadfast as his fashion sense: For a decade, he has worn the same style of handmade peasant shirt, which he owns in four colors. Yet here he is in New York entertaining people by reading a passage from his new novel, Maybe the Moon, in which a hapless dwarf gets her butt sniffed by a dog on Rodeo Drive. The sweet Southern comfort of his voice hypnotizes the crowd of black-clad bohemians, who hoot and chortle over the dwarf’s plight. Maupin keeps them laughing until he breaks their hearts.
This is vintage Maupin, who has made his name writing fiction as strange as life itself. His million-selling, six-volume ”Tales of the City” series enthralled readers from Iowa to the U.K. by detailing the wildly intersecting orbits of a variety of fictional San Franciscans — pot-smoking landladies and lesbian debutantes, naive Midwestern transplants and greedy television priests. Maupin never excludes anyone. And now, with Maybe the Moon, he is refracting Hollywood through the prism of Cadence Roth, an actress who is five inches shorter than a yardstick. The irony of her career is that her brightest and darkest moments came at once: She appeared in the second-biggest movie of all time — hidden in a mechanized rubber suit. Based on Maupin’s 12-year friendship with 31-inch-tall Tamara De Treaux, who was sweating inside the E.T. costume when the alien waved goodbye to Elliott, Maybe the Moon not only tweaks Steven Spielberg but also serves as a parable of Hollywood. ”Even though she had made a Hollywood myth, kids were freaked out by Tammy on the street,” Maupin says of his friend. ”She was only made acceptable by her rubber suit. And the point is, we’re all wearing rubber suits.”
Actually, Maupin, 48, shed his costume long ago. In 1967, working as a reporter at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C., he was the protégé of ultraconservative Jesse Helms, an executive of the station before his election to the Senate. Next Maupin was a Navy volunteer in Vietnam and in 1971 accepted an award from President Nixon for building housing for disabled South Vietnamese veterans. Everything changed later that year when he moved to San Francisco as an AP reporter and acknowledged what he had known since the age of 13: He is gay.
Soon after, Maupin began mirroring the diversity of life through the ”Tales” series, which started in 1976 as a daily fiction column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Readers clamored to see their lives reflected in print. They dried out rain-wet papers in the microwave and staked out newsstands in the small hours, eager for the paper’s earliest edition. Finally, in 1978, Harper & Row began publishing the series as books. Six novels later, Maupin had become established as an open-minded observer of the literary territory somewhere between Erma Bombeck and Charles Dickens. By the time the ”Tales” series ended two years ago with the best-seller Sure of You, Maupin had a following as loyal as Trekkies.
Those fans are now flocking to his Maybe the Moon readings. Maupin first took on Hollywood in ”Tales of the City”: Long before his friend Rock Hudson was forced out of the closet by AIDS, Maupin had urged the heartthrob to come out. Hudson refused, and Maupin eventually described the elaborate ruse of Hudson’s life in ”Tales,” disguising him only as ___ ___. Now, with Maybe the Moon, Maupin spares no barb. His book is a deft and often hilarious skewering of a whole breed of power players, especially those who cower in closets. ”It’s far more interesting to comment on a general mind-set than on a particular person,” Maupin says.
Still, he was inspired by one particular life — that of his friend De Treaux, one of three people who took turns inside the E.T. suit. ”Initially, Spielberg didn’t want to destroy the illusion of E.T.,” Maupin says. ”So he forbade any of the little people to talk to the press. And when the tabloids called Tammy and she talked, that was it.” In 1990 she died at 31 of heart failure, after almost a decade of being ignored by Hollywood.
Maupin saw De Treaux’s story as a metaphor for the industry’s treatment of gay talent. ”Invisibility is killing us,” he says during a somber moment. He looks over at his lover of seven years, Terry Anderson, 33, who is HIV-positive. As Maupin’s business partner, Anderson has a feistiness that often prompts him to say what the quieter Maupin expresses best in his writing. But as the two sit in their New York hotel room, Maupin flares: ”Hollywood is a hypocritical town. They raise half a million at a gay-and-lesbian fund-raiser for AIDS, and they’re all patting each other on the back. But really, wearing a red ribbon to an AIDS benefit is the best way to get laid whether you’re gay or straight.” The men exchange a look, both surprised at which one is venting the vitriol. ”Hey,” Maupin says, laughing, ”stereo radical. I like it.”
He has earned his bitterness. For a decade, Hollywood courted him for the rights to ”Tales of the City.” In 1979, he dined with a writer at Warner Bros. who praised his book from the aperitif to the hazelnut torte before mentioning one little change: You know that gay gynecologist? We want to make him a serial killer. ”This was way before Basic Instinct,” Maupin notes. Then, in the 1980s, he was wooed by CBS executives who also served up compliments but then also suggested a teensy change — excising the gay characters.
Maupin held out for a happier ending. Next spring the British producers of My Beautiful Laundrette will start shooting a ”Tales” TV series — gay characters and all — with thirtysomething writer Richard Kramer in charge of the teleplays. ”There’s no Hollywood money involved,” Maupin says. ”So at least we know it won’t end up looking like Melrose Place.” So far, the major U.S. networks have passed on it, and a gay executive at a PBS affiliate turned it down as ”too quirky.”
Maupin argues that his work is not quirky; it’s representative. That is his subtext as he presses himself through a grueling 22-city book tour, which he recently interrupted by canceling his reading at a Denver bookstore. Colorado’s voters had just passed an antigay amendment, and he said he could not ”participate in the commerce of a state that had officially relegated me to subhuman status.”
Elsewhere, his admirers are out thanking him. Early in the tour, a woman told him that her brother had been buried with his beloved copy of Sure of You. In Manhattan, a white-haired man thanked Maupin for finally giving him the courage to come out. And a man no taller than four feet approached, praising Maupin for writing a book about a dwarf. ”But,” he said, ”if you write about short people again, we gay short people have our own issues.”
”I’ll keep that in mind,” Maupin says. And he will. Anderson calls him a magpie, storing away shiny objects for the stories he has yet to tell. ”Jesse Helms thought I was the hope of the future,” Maupin is fond of saying. ”And he was right.”