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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 4244 times since Wed Sep 29, 2010
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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 4244 times since Wed Sep 29, 2010
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