.Remembering ‘The Serial’ writer, Cyra McFadden

In November 1975, Cyra McFadden’s “The Serial,” a weekly satirical column capturing Marin’s self-indulgent ’70s, premiered on the pages of the Pacific Sun. “The Serialquickly gained popularity, spawning a best-selling book and an underappreciated film.

McFadden focused “The Serial” on the idiosyncratic lives of a fictional middle-class Mill Valley family, leaving no ’70s trend unturned. Deft descriptions of open marriage, consciousness-raising groups, communal living, primal screaming, macrame, Fetzer Cabernet Sauvignon, orgies, Werner Erhard’s est training, bonsai, hot tubs, permissive parenting, cults and oh so much more delighted Marin readers. Others, who didn’t get the joke, took offense.

McFadden died last month on her houseboat in Sausalito at age 86. The celebrated author is survived by her daughter, Caroline McFadden, also a member of Sausalito’s houseboat community.

music in the park san jose
music in the park san jose

Almost 50 years later, “The Serial” holds up as the quintessential ’70s story, replete with far-out lingo and, of course, McFadden’s “Marvelous Marin” family, the Holroyds, who live in a tract house in the flatlands of Mill Valley’s Sutton Manor, just off 101, and aspire to move “uphill” like their more successful friends. And that’s not all they dream about.

The hedonistic adventures of middle-aged Kate and Harvey Holroyd play out in fern bars, restaurants and living rooms throughout the county. While the couple tries to get over each other’s hang-ups, their relationship soon goes on the rocks, and Harvey hops onto a waterbed with the young grocery store cashier.

“It resonated,” said Natalie Snoyman, a librarian and archivist at the Mill Valley Library. “‘The Serial’ became this really sharp, but funny critique of the broader societal trends of the ’70s, including the New Age fad and the whole self-help movement that Cyra McFadden was observing in the county at the time.”

McFadden wasn’t the first to write “The Serial” for the Pacific Sun. That distinction belongs to Armistead Maupin, who was just beginning his writing career when he penned the feature in 1974 for the short-lived San Francisco edition of the alt-weekly newspaper. Steve McNamara, the owner of the Pacific Sun from 1966 to 2004, filled me in on the magnificent history of “The Serial” in the hands of Maupin and McFadden.

“The first installment appeared in the issue of Aug. 1 to 7, 1974, and Mary Ann Singleton was looking to be picked up in the frozen food section of the Marina Safeway,” McNamara said. “It was an immediate hit.”

The Pacific Sun ran five of Maupin’s tales before the San Francisco office closed. Although Maupin was eager to try a Marin version, McNamara and his editor, Don Stanley, reluctantly declined the offer when the talented young writer said that he wasn’t very familiar with Marin.

“Well, it wouldn’t work because the charm of this production really is based a lot on local knowledge,” McNamara said.

Stanley and McNamara needn’t have worried about Maupin. Two years later, his charm and local knowledge landed him a regular column in the San Francisco Chronicle, where the original version of “The Serial” took the title “Tales of the City,” launching 10 books, a PBS miniseries and a Netflix revival.

In the meantime, the Pacific Sun’s publisher and editor were on the hunt to replicate “The Serial” in Marin, but couldn’t find a suitable writer. McFadden had previously written serious reviews for the paper’s “Literary Quarterly,” although the content didn’t showcase her proficiency for parody.

“Then we received unsolicited, through the mail slot, a review of a French restaurant located somewhere in Mill Valley that was populated by motorcycle gangs—with the French food as seen by the bikers,” McNamara said. “It was very funny, clearly a send-up of the more proper, well, pretentious sorts of food reviews that were common.”

The writer of that mock review was McFadden, who had the chops to take on “The Serial,” Marin style. It took some convincing by Stanley until McFadden finally agreed.

Pacific Sun art director Tom Cervanek’s stylized illustrations of Marin’s hip crowd with flowing hair and en vogue clothes complemented the clever prose McFadden put out week after week. And most readers were digging it, really staying in touch with their feelings for the Holroyd family. After all, who in Marin couldn’t get into rapping about Japanese hot tubs versus saunas?

Apparently, Emily Woodward of San Anselmo was one who couldn’t. She found “The Serial” insulting with its overabundance of cliches and “preposterous plot,” according to her letter to the editor about the fourth installment.

Despite Woodward, Marin’s love affair with the saga continued. By September 1976, the 30th installment ran. However, the following month, a notice appeared in the paper saying that “The Serial” was on vacation.

“The last chapter is, unfortunately, a little bit sour,” McNamara explained. “Cyra has this big success on her hands, and she engages a very effective New York publicist who negotiates a wonderful contract for her. The problem is at that time, copyright law was such that the ownership of a work of literature, if you will, belonged to whoever had first published it and had run a little copyright plug. The Pacific Sun Publishing Company owned the rights to ‘The Serial.’”

McNamara and McFadden had a somewhat tense lunch meeting, eventually agreeing that the paper would give the writer the copyright in exchange for 10-15% of the book sales and movie revenue. The issue placed a permanent wedge in their relationship.

McFadden wrote 22 more chapters for the book, The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County, published in 1977 by Alfred A. Knopf. It contained a unique spiral-bound cover and Cervanek’s illustrations—and soon hit the New York Times’ best seller list.

Along with the national acclaim came criticism. In 1978, NBC ran a documentary, I Want it All Now, featuring an interview with McFadden and depicting Marin in an unfavorable light. Although NBC was later censured by the National News Council for inaccuracies, some in the county were unhappy with the attention.

In an oral history recorded with McFadden by the Mill Valley Historical Society, she discusses the book’s reception and how it impacted her personally. She received angry letters and late night phone calls. People threw eggs at her Mill Valley tract house.

McFadden soon fled from Marin. In 1985, she began writing a regular column for the San Francisco Examiner. The following year, she published a second book, Rain and Shine: A Family Memoir, detailing her youth on the rodeo circuit with her father, as well as other family relationships. The book was a finalist for the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction.

Finally, in the late ’90s, McFadden returned to live in the county that she satirized so well, settling on a Sausalito houseboat. While she felt nervous about the move, all had quieted.

“I had achieved enough local, or rather, national notice that I was now sort of the fair-haired daughter of Marin, and it turned out everybody liked the book,” McFadden said. “Everybody said, ‘Oh, I loved that book. I thought it was wonderful. I felt so bad for you with all those letters to the paper.’ And I thought, ‘You’re sure you didn’t write one?’ Because all of a sudden, I had nothing but fans, which was very nice.”

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

1 COMMENT

  1. Great Story, Nikki. Takes me back to those hot tubbing days 🙂

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