Tales of the City

28 Barbary Lane Victorian house san francisco

Picture it: San Francisco, 1976. Big hair and hedonism, disco dancefloors and decadence.


Armistead Maupin chronicled life in San Francisco in the 1970s in his newspaper column, and then in a series of captivating novels centered around the bohemian homestead of 28 Barbary Lane, high on Russian Hill.

It’s the home of one of the most fascinating and ingenious characters in modern fiction, garden-variety landlady Mrs. Madrigal, the enigmatic Earth Mother who views the world from a unique perspective, embodying both yin and yang. Whether she’s wafting around in a kimono and a cloud of smoke, or out-facing an adversary with the steely gaze of a gunslinger, she shines like a beacon as the disposessed are washed up at the gates of number 28.

Four years ago, one of my best friends gave me the complete set of novels, which became an instant addiction. Maupin was describing a golden age in the first three novels, which are rich, warm and humorous, humanitarian like Dickens, with a dark undercurrent straight from classic Hitchcock. The first great mystery in Tales of the City is Anna Madrigal herself. The name’s an anagram: a key to the door of her secret past…

Arguably the pivotal quote from the entire series is where Mrs. Madrigal refers to the logical family, as opposed to the biological, and here we see how gay people, rejected by their families, adapt in the face of homophobia. This forms the firm foundation on which the wonderful world of Barbary Lane is built. Maupin has talked about emotional reactions from fans at book signings and as strange as it sounds, it highlights the serious lack of positive depictions of gay people in popular culture, and how he threw us all a line. No one was writing about aspirational happy characters, and there were consequently no real gay role models.

He also deals with subjects like racism, and religious zeal with wit and ingenuity, and then he stands back and lets the bigots have it with both barrels. Maupin was the last American serviceman to leave Vietnam and the first mainstream author to write about Aids, as a major character dies in one of the early novels before the advent of drug therapy.

Maupin captures the natural rhythms of speech and observes human behaviour so acutely that he adds a whole dimension of realism that few authors can achieve, one of the reasons for his phenomenal success and the enduring love for his characters over the years.

On May 26th it will be 36 years since the first Tales of the City column appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle and more than a quarter century later, we have e-books, three epic TV mini series and a musical. Stay tuned for more about the Tales of the City series…

Golden gate Bridge san Francisco

Check out my trip to San Francisco


Armistead Maupin on Facebook

Here’s an update for you: we’ve been visited by the man himself! Scroll down to comments…

Categories: Random, Vibe Monitor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 46 Comments

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46 thoughts on “Tales of the City

  1. I remember our neighbour gave me these to read when I was in high school, I think it might be time to dust them off and bring them out again, thanks for the memory kick!

    • Hi, thanks for dropping by! They are great books to revisit, like going back in time 🙂

  2. Wow, thanks for the reminder–I’m going to see if they’re available in audio. Great review!

  3. Bernadette, I think Maupin reads his own audio books, and I know the whole series just appeared as e-books.

  4. These sound so good I’m going to have to read them now (also going to SF pretty soon so perfect timing)!

    • I envy you so much! It’s a fantastic place, and never enough time to do everything. Have fun!

      • It’s one of those places I’ve always wanted to visit but just never did (since places like England and Ireland had to come first of course)! I’ll take some pictures for you. 🙂

      • I think it’s fair to say San Francisco has become a grand obsession of mine. You’ll have the best time – can’t wait to see your pictures!

  5. Stan

    I just recently read “Maryann in Autumn”, and it ws great to revisit all of the characters again. I highly recommend it.

  6. mik

    They say you can never go back…………..but it sure would be nice…especially in today’s world.

    • Hi, Mik, thanks for dropping by. There’s still a ghost of that old hippy magic hanging around the place, if you visit the Haight and the Castro. An atmosphere I’ve never experienced anywhere else…

  7. I might be categorized as a voracious reader, but of everything I have ever read, nothing has had the emotional impact upon me as have the “Tales of the City” books. I don’t often re-read books, but I have read all the books at least six or seven times, maybe more (I’ve lost track). Each of them is every bit as fresh and timeless as the first time I read them; I get caught up in them and can’t put them down, all over again. I’m almost embarrassed to reveal that some years back, I had the opportunity to move to San Francisco, and in my deliberations about whether or not to do so, “Tales of the City” proved to be the deciding factor. I had to live in the city of Mrs. Madrigal, Mouse and Mary Ann. And even though it didn’t work out so great (I lost my job in the wake of the 2001 Interest bust and had to move away), I am so grateful I had the experience of living in that beautiful and magical city.

    • John, I would do the same as you – move to San Francisco in a flash! I made a pilgrimage to the famous wooden steps (more of that later) and it was one of the happiest vacations of my life. Had a ball in the Castro, too… I think I read the whole series twice, and the DVDs so many times I can do a mean Mother Mucca impersonation. “Well spank mah butt an’ call me darlin’!”

      • Mark, that’s hilarious. I have mixed opinions about the miniseries: Didn’t care for the first one, liked the second, thought the third was pretty good — but one of the best things about them was the casting of Mother Mucca! That old gal looked EXACTLY as I had pictured her, and made a huge impression with relatively little screen time. All a great part of the Tales magic. 🙂

      • Jackie Burroughs, rest her soul, played a blinder with Mother Mucca. I love the way the plots were changed to accommodate her. Pure comedy and pathos, brilliantly written.

  8. thank you for such a lovely page

  9. Paulene Connelly

    I only discovered Armistead Maupin a couple of years ago through radio I learned about Tales and have read them all and his other books I loved them all He brought San Francisco to life for me so much so that my husband and I are visiting there next year I think he is wonderful he seems so down to earth so many people have so much respect for him his books are timeless in fact I think he should be Sir Armistead Maupin

  10. Armistead Maupin

    Your analysis warms my heart more than you can know, Mark. The illustration is magical — and the site in general is a wonder to behold. I’m not surprised you’re winning awards. Big hugs to you — and to Manchester.

    PS — Yeah, you may have had a little something to do with the next book. I do listen to these things.

    • Hi, Armistead! It’s a real pleasure to hear from you and thanks for your kind words about my blog.

      I guess this post came from the heart and I’ve been rewriting it for months so I could get it right. The illustration is made up of lots of screen caps from the More Tales DVD, and I wanted to do Victoria Paul’s wonderful set some justice – Barbary Lane is an iconic place for so many people.

      Give my love to Olympia at the Lammies, her performance as Mrs. Madrigal was definitive! Much love to you, and I wish you every success with the new book.

  11. The books were smuggled to me from Australia in the intellectual and homophobic wasteland of apartheid South Africa. They istilled hope and pride in me, and a wondrous awe that there was indeed a place in the world for me – my own ‘logical’ family.

    • It’s good to hear how these books change people’s lives. Like you, I think the Tales series helped me find some pride and identity. Can’t wait for the new one!

  12. Wayne

    I was astonished to find “Tales of the City” when I subscribed to the SF Chronicle in 1977. I cut each installment out of the paper to save them, then bought every compilation when they were published. It’s so heartwarming to see this wonderful series is still finding readers.

    • Tales was ahead of it’s time, and I read that the editors at the Chronicle lost a censorship battle in the face of Armistead’s popularity as a writer. I mean, who wants to read about icky gay people, right? 😉 I hope you kept the cuttings!

  13. Stevo

    I remember the serial from the 90s! caused a stir! What was the anagram i can’t work it out?

    • I was careful to avoid spoilers in my post, so you could always read the first two books, Tales of the City and More Tales of the City. You’ll love ’em!

  14. Mark,

    So thrilled to have come across your marvellous blog, and only because you visited mine first! You will have seen that I share your “grand obsession” about San Francisco and the “Tales of the City” books too! Love the analysis and beautiful illustrations and look forward to reading more!

    • Hi Tony, your blog is a goldmine! You have some great pictures, too so I’ll be exploring. Looks like you had a great time in SF, and we’re definitely on the same page. Thanks for dropping by.

  15. I love the Tales of the City series. I just re-read them all on Kindle.

    • Hi Yvonne. Isn’t it great that you can download them like that? I guess the audience is going to get a whole lot bigger 🙂

  16. Cheers for that – I couldn’t agree more! The Tales series is both timeless and yet a perfectly depicted snap shot of such specific time. Great blog too – loads to read.

    • Hi there, Nicky. Glad you like the blog, and good luck with your writing – email me an update (button on the home page) I’d love to read it.

      • Thanks Mark. I’m still such a wide-eyed baby about blogging, so not only is your site great to read, but it’s helping me work it all out a bit too. I will keep the faith and upload as regularly as possible.

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  18. purpleowltree1234

    It’s Beautiful when people break down stigmas and barriers to others seeing the humanity in people and situtions which are outside their experience. And also when anyone with any foot in outsider land finds acceptance and respect and dignity. I’ll hAve to read these books! 😉 Love from Rach

    • That’s a lovely comment, Rach. I wish everyone thought the way you do 🙂

  19. Beautiful blog, very easy on the eye. I must return tomorrow.

  20. That’s good of you to say so. I really appreciate your feedback 😀

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  22. I lived in The City ’78-’82 and I agree, Mr. Maupin captured it perfectly.

    RPRT Photo

    • You’re so lucky to have been there at that time! I wish I had, except for the big hair, of course…

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  24. Yes, I read every piece when it came out. I hear he is a marvelous man. A friend of mine spent a magical hour or so with him recently.

    • Hi Carla, I met him briefly too. I went to a book signing and he has quite a presence: when he smiles at you, it’s almost like he’s looking inside you. Someone else mentioned this, an extraordinary man.

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