In his introduction to the captivating Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist and Sexual Renegade, author Justin Spring discusses the almost unbelievably vast range of personas, lives and experiences of Sam Steward. He states, “…I have come to know my subject as a complicated man of many identities. Among them are Samuel M. Steward, the mild-mannered poet, literary novelist, and professor of English literature at a Catholic university in Chicago; “Sammy” Steward, adoring young friend and fan of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder; Thomas Cave, spiritual seeker; Sam Steward, unofficial sex researcher for Alfred Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research; Phil Sparrow, streetwise Chicago tattoo artist; “Phil” and “Phillip von Chicago,” homoerotic illustrator; Ward Stames, homophile journalist; “Doc” Sparrow, official tattoo artist of the Oakland Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang; and finally, Phil Andros, the homophile pulp pornographer who described the sexual underground of the American 1950s with passion, good humor, and charm” (xii-iii).
Spring continues, “Steward’s journals, letters, memoirs, diaries, and archives of published materials brought all these various identities together into one man,” which is exactly what Spring accomplishes in his illuminating biography of Steward (xiii).
Before Secret Historian, few understood Steward’s entire story, mostly knowing one of his many alter egos. Embarking on an enormous amount of research, Spring resurrects Steward’s raucous, rebellious, role model-worthy and ultimately historically significant biography for readers, rendering Secret Historian arguably mandatory for anyone interested in queer history. A fascinating read, Secret Historian is a sometimes gossipy, sometimes raunchy, sometimes melancholy, sometimes gleeful and always amusing ride through Steward’s life.
As shown in Spring’s introduction, there are clearly too many details in the biography to insert in this gushing review from his double life as a tattoo artist in Chicago to his lifelong adoration of rough trade (unsurprisingly he was a huge fan of Genet) to his struggles with alcoholism and later, barbituate addiction.
However, I know what all you, dear filthy readers, want to hear about: the sex. Well, Mary, there is a lot of that. Since he was a young man, Steward kept extremely detailed records of all his sexual encounters in what he termed the “Stud File” (don’t you love the name?).
His near obsessive record-keeping interested seminal sex researcher Alfred Kinsey who made Steward an integral collaborator at his Institute of Sex Research.
Describing his first meeting with Kinsey, Steward remembers, revealing, as well, the extent of his sexual records, “The thing that amazed him most of all [about me] was that I was a ‘record keeper’—’something all too rare,’ he said. But I had an accurate count on the number of persons I had been to bed with, the total number of times of ‘releases’ (as he termed them) with other persons, number of repeats, and all the usual statistical information, taken from the ‘Stud File’ that I had kept on three-by-five cards from my very first contact many years before in Ohio. My information like Kinsey’s was coded, but not so unbreakably or exclusively. I showed him the file; he was fascinated” (116).
Driven in part by his own obsessions and eventually his friendship with Kinsey, Steward’s record-keeping, as well as his large collection of erotic art and photography, gives contemporary queer historians an entry point to understanding the sexual cultures of a large part of the 20th century, particularly during the years when these types of records were highly illegal.
And yes, Steward’s numbers were….ahem….significant. In a questionnaire for Straight to Hell Magazine in 1982, Steward lays out his perhaps final tally (Steward died in 1993 but at 76, things start to slow down). As he recalls, “I have had sex with 807 persons for a total of 4647 times. Several (4 or 5) numbered over 200 times each, though I never had a ‘love affair’ with anyone, nor lived with him” (396).
For you celebrity lovers out there, some very notable figures appear within these statistics from Rudolph Valentino to Rock Hudson to Thornton Wilder and even, Lord Alfred Douglas who Steward boinked expressly for the opportunity to go where Oscar Wilde had gone before him.
As he explains, “I must honestly admit that I had no interest whatsoever in Lord Alfred Douglas as a person or as a writer, but only in the fact that he and Oscar Wilde had been lovers, and back in those shrouded days the name of Wilde had a magic all its own for those of us who had to live without the benefits of liberation or exposure of our wicked lives. Besides, I was in my twenties and Lord Alfred was by then sixty-seven, and in anyone’s book that’s old. To go to bed with him was hardly the most attractive prospect in the world—it was terrifying, even repulsive. But if I wanted to link myself to Oscar Wilde more directly than I was linked [by touch] to Whitman [through the novelist and poet Hamlin Garland, who had touched me on the head at an OSU literary reception], there was no other way” (44-5).
Beyond just the gossipy fun of some of Steward’s sex stories, his articulate record-keeping and diary-writing allowed his personal experiences to be preserved, unlike many other gay men and women during the Lavender Scare. Throughout Secret Historian, Spring emphasizes the danger Steward was putting himself in by just recording his sexual encounters whether through photography, drawing or writing.
And herein lies the true power of the biography: the assertion that personal histories matter and can combat the institutionally enforced silences surrounding queer sexuality. Without Steward’s own records, we would have no idea about this, as Spring terms, “sexual renegade.”
Granted, as Spring explicates in his introduction, finding Steward’s full history was not as easy as it sounds. After encountering Steward’s work as Phil Andros, the queer pulp fiction writer, Spring became interested in Steward’s life. Tracking down his materials in various archives, Spring then attempted to find the executor of Steward’s estate.
As Spring recalls, “After tracking down a manuscripts dealer in Berkley who owned some artwork by Steward, I came up with two possible addresses for his executor, but no phone number, and was also told he might have either died or moved away. I wrote to him at the addresses I had been given but received nothing back. Several months later, though, my phone range in New York. It was the executor; he was in town on a brief visit, was I possibly free to meet in the next hour or so? I was; he came by. After a long and friendly conversation, he invited me to come visit him in San Francisco—for, as he revealed, he had been keeping Steward’s papers in his attic for nearly a decade” (xii).
He continues, “Only when I turned up on his doorstep a month or so later, however, did the executor let me know the extent of his holdings. Steward’s effects filled nearly the whole of his attic. I spent the days that followed unpacking and photographing this enormous trove of objects, papers, drawings, photographs, manuscripts, home furnishings, and sexual paraphernalia–sensing, as I did so, that among this vast and bewildering collection I had found one of the more sensational secret lives of the twentieth century” (xii).
In addition to finding one of the most sensational secret lives, Spring also unearthed the key to preserving queer histories. Ever the professor, Steward still has much to teach us about the power of personal archives. Often queer history is in danger of being erased and through his many archives, Steward was able to assert the significance of his own sexual experiences.
Not only do Steward’s archives reveal the strength of the personal to declare the presence of alternative histories, his record-keeping questions even the dominant understanding of gay history. For a long time, LGBTQ history has been divided into two time periods: pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall, meaning a progression from closeted repression to liberated pride. However, Steward’s extensive erotic life surely destabilizes this division.
As Spring notes, “Each generation of writers reinvents its perception of sexuality through novels, poetry, and autobiographical writing, and in the process rebels against the perceptions and experiences of the generation before. For male homosexuals in the twentieth-century United States, these shifts in perception have up to now been largely described merely as ‘pre-Stonewall’ and ‘post-Stonewall.’ But clearly there have been other equally significant generational breaks: between pre-World War II and post-World War II; pre-Kinsey and post-Kinsey; pre-McCarthy and post-McCarthy; pre-AIDS and post-AIDS; and, most recently, pre-Internet and Internet. Miraculously, Steward passed through all but the last of these periods, diligently documenting his myriad sexual and social experiences as he went” (412-3).
Certainly, Steward’s biography is not the only recent study to question the progressive narrative understanding of Stonewall as a turning point of liberation. In particular, Jonathan David Katz’s exhibition Paul Thek and His Circle in the 1950s at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art enacted a similar questioning of the repression of pre-Stonewall years.
So, dear readers, moral of this story: keep those diaries updated, queens, because who knows who will one day search an attic to find your very own place in history.