Windy City Media Group Frontpage News

THE VOICE OF CHICAGO'S GAY, LESBIAN, BI, TRANS AND QUEER COMMUNITY SINCE 1985

home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2021-12-08
DOWNLOAD ISSUE
Donate

Sponsor


  WINDY CITY TIMES

Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward...
BOOK REVIEW Extended for the Online Edition of Windy City Times
by Owen Keehnen
2010-09-29

This article shared 4130 times since Wed Sep 29, 2010
facebook twitter google +1 reddit email


by Justin Spring $32.50; Farrar Straus and Giroux; 496 pages

Justin Spring's new biography of Samuel Steward, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade' ( Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2010 ) is a smart, juicy and absolutely riveting read. It's quite simply the gay history book of the year not only for the fascinating central figure of Steward and Spring's painstaking research, but also for its expert use of Steward's life as a means of revealing the larger reality of gay life in the pre-Stonewall era.

Steward has never been given his due in the annals of gay literature and with good reason. He never really fulfilled his early literary promise. He's been seen as a curio, a character, and a good storyteller who met and befriended a lot of famous people. Indeed it may have been his proximity to these giants that eclipsed his own fame. However, Spring's new biography may change all that, revealing that Steward's incredible contribution may have been his forthright documentation of gay sexual behavior in an era typically associated with guilt, repression, and silence. Upon reading Secret Historian, it's clear that even if Steward wasn't the most prolific or consistent of his contemporaries, he may well have been the most book-worthy.

Born in Woodfield, Ohio, in 1909, Steward was raised in a boarding house by his three spinster aunts. His mother died when he was very young and his father was a drug addicted Sunday school teacher unable to properly care for Steward or his sister. In puberty Steward started giving blow jobs to the boys of Woodfield as well as a few tenants at the rooming house. He felt no guilt or shame for his deeds and, in fact, considered it honorable to bring pleasure to so many. An avid reader, it was around this time that Steward stole a copy of Havelock Ellis' Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion from the library. Reading about "inverts," Steward recognized himself, accepted it and decided to go from there.

After high school Steward moved to Columbus where he attended Ohio State University. This is also where, in the mid 1920s, Steward began his meticulously recorded Stud File, a card detailing his every sexual encounter—the man's name and description, the date, the specifics of the encounter, and what sort of sex occurred—oral, anal, mutual masturbation, etc. Steward painstakingly kept his Stud File until well into his 60s.

An extremely promising student, Steward loved literature almost as well as he loved extracurricular activities. These included falling in with a "bohemian crowd," drinking, and reading renegade poetry. His most sensational experience during his university days was blowing silent screen legend Rudolph Valentino in his hotel room when 'The Great Lover' came through town promoting his latest film.

Upon graduation Steward began teaching at Carroll College in Helena Montana. With few sexual distractions, Steward managed to write the well received though somewhat scandalous novel of bohemian life 'Angels on the Bough' ( 1937 ) . He then transferred to The State College of Washington where at the end of the year he was dismissed due to the questionable content of Angels on the Bough, specifically his sympathetic portrait of a woman of easy virtue.

Always a determined autograph collector and correspondent, Steward had been in contact for a few years with Gertrude Stein as well as several other literary figures. With a relatively successful book under his belt the young scholar set sail for Europe. He visited with Stein and Alice B. Toklas who both took a maternal shine to the young, slight, and utterly charming Steward. They called him 'Sammy' and would remain close to him their entire lives. On his European tour Steward also lunched with Thomas Mann who he said "radiated genius." He visited ( and blew ) Alfred Lord Douglas. However, Oscar Wilde's rosy cheeked youth was no longer rosy or youthful and a bit of a pretentious bore, but by blowing him Steward reportedly felt a "spiritual" connection to Wilde. In Switzerland, at the urging of Gertrude and Alice, he met Thornton Wilder—author of Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The two began an odd nine year relationship of recurring trysts, but Wilder was anything but comfortable with his sexuality.

Upon his return Steward moved to Chicago and began teaching at Loyola where a daunting work load was placed on the young literature professor. Despite the academic strain Steward still managed to have plenty of sex. This section of the book is especially fun for Chicagoans with entertaining facts like that Steward lived at 5441 N. Kenmore as well as 4915 N. Glenwood. There are tales of his tricking in the alleys of the Loop and cruising Navy Pier. He hooked up at Bughouse Square, the gay bars on Clark Street, in Uptown, and in Humboldt Park. Due to great firsthand data ( like the Stud File and Steward's blow-by-blow journaling ) Spring does a wonderful job of revealing the hitherto shadowy sexual underworld of Chicago circa 1940s-1950s.

It was during this time that Steward's drinking grew problematic. After fortifying himself he'd routinely head out the door in search of sex. Steward loved picking up rough trade and men in uniform. Oftentimes he succeeded, but sometimes his attempts came with dire repercussions. He was beaten up repeatedly and several times was hospitalized with severe injuries. After a long stretch at Loyola, Steward moved to DePaul where he relished a less demanding curriculum. It was here that he eventually got sober, but alcohol wasn't his only addiction.

Sex was the centerpiece of Steward's life. He was voracious for it. He sought it out and even orchestrated monthly orgies in his apartment. On his wall, he painted murals of a male couple fucking. Boldly ignoring the era's stiff penalties for possessing pornographic material, especially gay porn, Steward soon accumulated an extensive erotica collection which included books, magazines, letters, numerous drawings, Polaroids and even original photos by his friend, George Platt Lynes.

It was the embracing of his gayness, the defiance of obscenity laws, the ignoring of social mores and that amazing Stud File which made Steward such an intriguing subject to Dr. Alfred Kinsey. The two first met in 1948 when Steward contacted him after reading Kinsey's groundbreaking work, 'Sexual Response in the Human Male'. Up until this time, most people had no idea homosexuality existed or of it did that it was only done in Paris and New York. Prior to this, gay sex had occurred mostly under a cloak of invisibility. Kinsey's work shocked the nation. It was filled with "disturbing" statistics regarding the percentage of males who were homosexual, who had homosexual tendencies, who had engaged in homosexual behavior at some point in their life, etc. Rather than ushering in an era of acceptance, the study created suspicion about who was in the dreaded 10 percent. This fear of "the other" and atmosphere of distrust fed directly into the McCarthy era's persecution of gays.

Though Steward's relationship with Kinsey was non-sexual, it was one of the deepest Steward knew. Kinsey was a good natured and non-judgmental father figure who recognized the importance of Steward's documentation of his sexual escapades, giving value to Steward's obsessive/compulsive behavior. Over the next few years ( until Kinsey's death in 1956 ) Steward was an unofficial collaborator with Kinsey and The Institute for Sex Research—sending data, descriptions of encounters, and even filming sex parties for use at the Institute.

After 20 years Steward grew tired of academia. He wanted to meet and have sex with men in the armed forces, street punks, burly blue collar workers, cops, and assorted rough trade—so he became tattoo artist Phil Sparrow. With his quick mind and determination to excel, Steward was soon one of the top skin artists in Chicago. He opened Phil's Tattoo Joynt on the 1000 block of South State Street amidst the derelict flop houses and dark bars. In this new career he oftentimes got the sex he wanted from sailors and street punks who came into the shop—usually performing a quick blowjob behind the drawn curtain of his tattoo booth.

In the early 1960s Steward met and befriended Chicago legend Chuck Renslow, at the time editor and publisher of Tomorrow's Man, owner of the Triumph Gym and director of various physique contests. Renslow's partner during this period was dancer/choreographer Dom Orejudos, who became legendary erotic artist Etienne. Steward began spending a great deal of time with the couple and became obsessed with being dominated by Renslow. However, at 20 years his junior, Renslow had little interest in Steward.

In 1964, being at an impasse with Renslow, disliking the cold and dealing with a change in Illinois law which made it illegal to tattoo anyone under 21, Steward relocated to a rough section of Oakland, Calif. Here he bought a bungalow and opened a storefront business he christened The Anchor Tattoo Shop. From 1967-1971 he became better known as "Doc," the official tattoo artist of the Hell's Angels. Increasing violence in his neighborhood began to frighten the sixtysomething Steward. After the shopkeeper next door was killed in an armed robbery, dying on the street while Steward held his hand, Steward decided to close up shop and quit the tattoo business after 15 years.

During this time Steward had also been writing some porn. When it came to material, his extensive journaling and Stud File came in handy. In rapid succession he wrote several erotic novels under the pseudonym Phil Andros ( Greek for "Man" "Love" ) . The Phil Andros novels were the supposed memoirs of an intelligent, hopelessly hunky, and well-hung hustler. Steward enjoyed writing them, but after completing the fifth Andros book he decided it was time to turn his attention to more serious literary pursuits.

Eager to chronicle some of his past Steward wrote a memoir which was slim and a bit too coy, especially given the breadth and nature of his experience. However, Steward was not one to kiss and tell, not yet anyway. The resulting memoir, Chapters from an Autobiography ( 1981 ) was released with minimal fanfare.

Next Steward released a compilation of the letters between himself, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas called Dear Sammy ( 1984 ) . It was a pleasurable project for him and helped, as Alice had asked him to, "keep Gertrude's memory green." The book was fairly well received though a favorite anecdote in 'Secret Historian' came after Steward read an unfavorable review of the book by New York Times reviewer James Atlas. Annoyed, Steward promptly called Atlas and blew an air horn into the telephone.

Still wishing to write about the two women, Steward inserted them into a fictional setting. What followed were two not-very-good detective novels ( Murder is Murder is Murder in 1985 and four years later The Caravaggio Shawl ) featuring Gertrude and Alice as crime solvers. In 1989 Steward also released Parisian Lives, a rendering of an earlier book about the scandal of queer contemporary Francis Rose who supposedly unknowingly bedded his own son and made him his lover. Steward finished 'Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos' the following year which was a sliver of his massive confessional studies on tattooing, the tattooed, and the sexual aspects of the art. In 1991 he produced an undistinguished volume about another of his favorite demographics 'Understanding the Male Hustler'.

In his final years Steward became a recluse. Addicted to barbiturates he hid in his bungalow with his beloved dachshunds. He inherited the first from his landlady when she died and soon swore he'd never felt love like he did with Fritz. After the dog died, he adopted two more. Unfortunately they were never housebroken. So Steward spent his final years amidst the dog shit and piss as well as towers of papers and photos, his collections of clocks and erotica, science fiction paperbacks, videos, and assorted clutter. Fearing intruders he nailed his windows shut and booby-trapped his windows with gunfire. He died alone in his home on 12-31-1993, a dismal end to an incredible life.

Secret Historian contains so many great anecdotes with such diverse characters as Andre Gide ( who gave Steward use of his Arab boy and circular bed for a night ) , Jean Cocteau, Christopher Isherwood, Tom of Finland, and a pre-fame Rock Hudson ( they traded blow jobs in a stopped elevator at Marshall Field's on State St. ) There are anecdotes about John Preston, Manson family member Bobby Beausoleil, Jean Genet, Hollywood Babylon author and filmmaker Kenneth Anger, Tennessee Williams ( whom him met cruising in Rome ) , Ed Hardy, James Purdy and Chicago tattooing legend Cliff Raven, to name a few.

Given his life story, it's difficult to see Samuel Steward outside so many modern labels—as a recovered alcoholic, sex addict, starfucker, pill popper, hoarder, obsessive/compulsive, depressive, masochist... Steward probably was all of those things, but Spring wisely avoids putting any easy labels on his subject. Steward's bravery and complexity deserve more and what Spring has created is a loving and sympathetic tribute to an amazing individual.

At a time when homosexuality was "the love that dare not speak its name," Samuel Steward spoke it, wrote about it and filed it. He even painted it on the walls! Steward had the guts to live and love as he wished amidst almost overwhelming adversity. Secret Historian is an unforgettable hero's tale, and one with infinite rewards.


This article shared 4130 times since Wed Sep 29, 2010
facebook twitter google +1 reddit email

  ARTICLES YOU MIGHT LIKE

Gay News

THEATER 'Mary Rose' running through Feb. 12 2022-01-10
- Black Button Eyes (BBE) Productions is concluding its 2021-22 season with the world-premiere musical Mary Rose, featuring book and lyrics by Producing Artistic Director Ed Rutherford, music and lyrics by Jeff Bouthiette, direction by Ed Rutherford ...


Gay News

ATTRACTIONS 'Dr. Seuss' extended through Jan. 23 2022-01-05
- The Dr. Seuss Experience—the immersive spectacle that gives guests of all ages the opportunity to journey through nine different Dr. Seuss books—will now take place on Saturdays and Sundays through Sunday, Jan. 23. The attraction is ...


Gay News

Actor, poet, arts activist Jerrie Johnson talks new Amazon show 'Harlem,' other work 2021-12-20
- Jerrie Johnson's mission to book a series regular role six months after finishing graduate school came to fruition when they (Johnson uses they/them pronouns) were cast as Tye, a lesbian dating app creator/CEO (who uses she/her ...


Gay News

COVID U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker test positive 2021-12-20
- U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker separately revealed they have tested positive for COVID. Fully vaccinated (including getting a booster shot), the 72-year old Massachusetts progressive declared on social ...


Gay News

NATIONAL New Jersey, Audre Lorde, LGBTQ book, youth items 2021-12-19
- In the face of growing anxiety over the Supreme Court's conservative bent, state lawmakers in New Jersey are moving to pass marriage-equality legislation, Gay City News reported. According to Garden State Equality, the New Jersey Assembly's ...


Gay News

Author/feminist bell hooks dies at 69 2021-12-15
- Acclaimed author and activist bell hooks died Dec. 15 at age 69. The writer (real name: Gloria Jean Watkins) was born in 1952 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, per NBC News. Her first published work, a book of ...


Gay News

Leading groups join call for LGBTQ-inclusive books, books on race, racism 2021-12-13
--From a GLAAD press release - GLAAD joins over 600 groups and individuals in a powerful statement of support against efforts to ban LGBTQ-inclusive books and books about race and racism. The statement, created by the National Coalition Against Censorship, is the ...


Gay News

Author Anne Rice dies at 80 2021-12-12
- Writer Anne Rice, whose Interview With The Vampire sold more than 150 million copies, died at age 80 on Dec. 11, according to media reports. Her son Christopher Rice, an out gay man who is also ...


Gay News

U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids reaches marginalized communities with children's book 2021-12-07
- U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids' children's book, Sharice's Big Voice, tells the story of how an Indigenous lesbian mixed martial artist and lawyer became the first LGBTQ+ representative of Kansas. "My hope is that when children or ...


Gay News

Hell in a Handbag Productions to present Christmas Dearest Nov. 27-Dec. 31 2021-12-03
--From a press release - CHICAGO (December 2, 2021) — Hell in a Handbag Productions is pleased to continue its 20th anniversary season with the return of one of its most popular holiday musicals: Christmas Dearest, featuring book and lyrics by ...


Gay News

Five Worth Finding: World AIDS Day, 'Benedetta,' books, wine in a can 2021-11-26
- —World AIDS Day event at Belmont Harbor: —The Chicago Parks Foundation will hold a World AIDS Day event on Dec. 1, 9-10:30 a.m., at the Belmont Harbor Yacht Club. Antonio King, LGBTQ health and outreach liaison ...


Gay News

Designer and entrepreneur Kiki Bryant discusses future of 'Lollipop Lola' 2021-11-26
- On Jan. 21, 2021, Kiki Bryant set a $2,000 fundraising goal on Kiva.org to launch a children's doll based on her original book character, Lollipop Lola. The goal was met that same day. "That was a ...


Gay News

Missouri district returning LGBTQ+ books to high school libraries 2021-11-23
- In Missouri, the North Kansas City School district said it would return two books exploring LGBTQ+ themes to its high school libraries following public outcry, The Hill noted. The district announced its plans to reshelve All ...


Gay News

Downers Grove parents complain about LGBTQ books 2021-11-16
- Continuing a battle that's been taking place in several other states, parents in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove say they want publications they call "pornography" removed from the high schools' libraries, according to WGN-TV. At ...


Gay News

ATTRACTIONS 'The Dr. Seuss Experience' at Water Tower Place 2021-11-12
- It's certainly a time and place to be immersed in nostalgia. The family-friendly attraction "The Dr. Seuss Experience" is running through Jan. 2, 2022, at Water Tower Place, 835 N. Michigan Ave. It's certainly hard to ...


 



Copyright © 2022 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.

 
 

TRENDINGBREAKINGPHOTOS







Sponsor
Sponsor


 



Donate


About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots      OUT! Guide     
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Advanced Search     
Windy City Queercast      Queercast Archives     
Press  Releases      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast      Blogs     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam      Outguide Categories      Outguide Advertisers      Search Outguide      Travel      Dining Out      Privacy Policy     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.