The New York Times
Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegadeby Justin Spring
Drawn from the secret, never-before-seen diaries, journals, and sexual records of the novelist, poet, and university professor Samuel M. Steward, Secret Historian is a sensational reconstruction of one of the more extraordinary hidden lives of the twentieth century. An intimate friend of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder, Steward/i>
Drawn from the secret, never-before-seen diaries, journals, and sexual records of the novelist, poet, and university professor Samuel M. Steward, Secret Historian is a sensational reconstruction of one of the more extraordinary hidden lives of the twentieth century. An intimate friend of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder, Steward maintained a secret sex life from childhood on, and documented these experiences in brilliantly vivid (and often very funny) detail.
After leaving the world of academe to become Phil Sparrow, a tattoo artist on Chicago's notorious South State Street, Steward worked closely with Alfred Kinsey on his landmark sex research. During the early 1960s, Steward changed his name and identity once again, this time to write exceptionally literate, upbeat pro-homosexual pornography under the name of Phil Andros.
Until today he has been known only as Phil Sparrow—but an extraordinary archive of his papers, lost since his death in 1993, has provided Justin Spring with the material for an exceptionally compassionate and brilliantly illuminating life-and-times biography. More than merely the story of one remarkable man, Secret Historian is a moving portrait of homosexual life long before Stonewall and gay liberation.
Secret Historian is a 2010 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
“Somewhere in the United States, there may be an attic containing the written remnants of a previously unchronicled 20th-century life that was even more astonishing than the one the writer Justin Spring discovered in San Francisco a few years ago. But even the most skeptical reader of his new book, Secret Historian, will have to admit that the bar is now set high. Samuel Steward, the subject of this absorbing act of biographical excavation, had many identities, including several that the subtitle of the book omits . . . Be assured that it's all for real, and that Spring, even when neck-deep in sensational material, is not a sensationalist. As a biographer, he's humble but firm--he lets Steward's vivid, energetic prose do much of the talking but keeps his own hand on the tiller and never gets giddy, even when Steward seems to be carousing his way through the entire Modern Library . . . The probity and expansive vision of Spring's work is a reminder that a great, outspread terrain of gay history remains to be mapped . . . One suspects there are many more stories of that time worth telling, and too few treasure-packed attics.” Mark Harris, The New York Times Book Review
“Can a secret sex diary furnish an artistic legacy as meaningful as Emily Dickinson's sewn-up bundles of poems, or the piles of paintings Theo van Gogh inherited after his brother's premature demise? Samuel Steward may never have imagined it, but his erotic history raises the question. A talented writer who early attracted the attention of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, he found his career blocked by a determination (so different from hers and his) to write candidly about his homosexuality . . . Steward was an obsessive record keeper, and his journals and his ‘Stud File' of thousands of encounters allow [Justin Spring] to create a remarkably full portrait of a man whose life was what Edmund White's might have been had White been born three decades earlier . . . [This] extensive documentation--and the miraculous rescue of that documentation, recounted in the book's preface--left his biographer material to reconstruct an emblematic homosexual life.” Benjamin Moser, Harper's
“Justin Spring's jaw-dropping Secret Historian reads like a novel probing a lifelong rebel's courage, creativity and ultimate sadness . . . Spring has reconstituted Steward, as Phil Andros might say, in flesh and blood and all sorts of bodily fluids.” David D'Arcy, San Francisco Chronicle
“This is a rich and exuberant biography of a man who deserves to be better known” The Economist
“A fascinating biography . . . [Steward] tackled life with awe-inspiring abandon” Details
“Life in the closet proves boisterous indeed in this biography of an iconic figure of the pre-Stonewall gay demimonde . . . Spring's sympathetic and entertaining story of a life registers the limitations imposed on homosexuals by a repressive society, but also celebrates the creativity and daring with which Steward tested them.” Publishers Weekly
“[A] provocative biography . . . Generous excerpts from Steward's journals and unpublished memoirs fortify an already comprehensive examination of a life lived with unabashed independence and homoerotic expression during the sexual rebellion of the pre-Stonewall era . . . A vivid, candid portrait.” Kirkus Reviews
“Justin Spring documents the extraordinary life of one of Kinsey's crucial gay witnesses, and reading Secret Historian is like reading Kinsey dramatized. A cultivated, rather shy professor of English literature, Sam Steward dropped out in midlife to become an eminent tattooist and writer of S&M porn. As the story of a sex-obsessed recovering alcoholic later addicted to barbiturates and to masochistic thrills, this could easily have become a portrait of a failure. Instead, through Steward's copious records, we have a brave, fly-on-the-wall account of American homosexual subculture and persecution.” Martin Stannard, author of Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark: The Biography
“A true page-turner--and a memorable act of historical reclamation. Sammy Steward is all but unknown except by a handful of historians, but Justin Spring's lively biography--which is full of important new information about pre-Stonewall gay life--should put Sammy on the map, which is where he decidedly belongs.” Martin Duberman, author of Cures: A Gay Man's Odyssey
“Secret Historian is a startlingly, unforgettably vivid glimpse into a life--and a world--that few of us can imagine.” Terry Teachout, author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
“Samuel Steward, secret sexual historian, is a secret no longer. From an evangelical Ohio boardinghouse to the gardens of the Villa Borghese, from the lobby of the City Opera to the South Side YMCA, Steward led--and recorded--an improbably revealing, representative life. Bedding Oscar Wilde's Bosie, taking tea with Stein and Toklas, and confessing to (and performing for!) Dr. Kinsey, he seemed determined to leave no corner of twentieth-century American queer culture unexplored and undocumented. Justin Spring has rescued his story from a San Francisco attic and set it before twenty-first-century readers with unflagging patience, authority, and humanity--Secret Historian is a major achievement.” Langdon Hammer, author of Hart Crane and Allen Tate
“Justin Spring has painstakingly and compassionately unearthed the labyrinthine world of a brilliant, multifaceted, and troubled creator. A classically educated and highly talented renegade intellectual, Steward's trajectory was impacted at every turn by his sexual compulsions. This bittersweet story, with its hair-raising and obsessively recorded details, is astonishing. Steward's humor, empathy, and refusal to bow to the repressive status quo are a moving testimonial to honesty, courage, and integrity. His story should resonate with anyone engaged in the ongoing struggle for personal freedom of identity.” Ed Hardy
“This is a rare and important book. Secret Historian is a genuinely captivating combination of clear writing, a clean conscience, and more dirty stories than I ever imagined one life could hold.” Debby Applegate, author of The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
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The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade
By Justin Spring
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2010 Justin Spring
All rights reserved.
"Wild — Hog Wild"
Samuel Morris Steward was born July 23, 1909, in Woodsfield, the seat of Monroe County in southeastern Ohio, a county bordering on Appalachia, and in many ways just as impoverished as that region. His modest, small-town beginnings are important to an understanding of the man he later became, for his plainspoken humor and openness to all things sexual are surely related to his country roots. At the same time, his lifelong preoccupation with the nature of his homosexuality can be seen as a direct response to the "stern and austere Puritanism of my Methodist maiden aunts."
Outside accounts of Steward's early life are basically nonexistent, and he himself wrote of it only in passing; those few sentimental memories he retained of his childhood — whether shared in letters to his sister, or else recounted in his journals or unpublished memoirs — seem to have made him too sad to dwell on it for long. And indeed he had a painful early life. His academically brilliant mother had died of an intestinal obstruction when he was only six, and his father, who had both drug and alcohol addictions, was essentially unable to care for either Steward or his baby sister. As a result, Steward grew up in a boardinghouse run by his mother's sister and two stepsisters. These three older spinsters — Elizabeth Rose and Minnie Rose, and their half sister Amy Morris — spent most of their day "cooking and serving, making beds and washing, and hoeing in the garden behind the house when there was time for it."
The Morris, Rose, and Steward families had resided in the Woodsfield area for generations, and were well established in the professional class; even Steward's father, despite his drinking and drug problems, had served for a time as Monroe County's deputy auditor, and despite his multiple addictions taught a weekly Methodist Bible class for more than twenty years. Steward's paternal grandfather, meanwhile, was a respected country doctor. All of Steward's family on his deceased mother's side were teetotalers as well as devout Methodists, and the church literally loomed large in their lives, for the town's imposing redbrick church stood just across the street from the boardinghouse. The town had no Catholics, and the one black who had attempted to settle there had been run out of town on a rail. As a result, Steward grew up seeing the world as basically divided between those who devoted their lives to Protestant churchgoing and Christian good works (such as his aunts and maternal grandparents), and those who had, for whatever reason, fallen away.
Faced both with the death of his mother and the improvidential absence of his father, the six-year-old Steward might well have withdrawn into grief or shocked stupor. But with the resilience of a child, he did just the opposite, dedicating himself energetically to becoming a highly sympathetic companion to the work-worn aunts who had taken him in. By stepping away from his own feelings and concerning himself primarily with the management and care of others, he was insuring he would not once again be discarded, and in so doing he was also setting the pattern for his later life. But as a result he also grew up feeling very much an outsider, and relatively at a distance from his own feelings and impulses, for he naturally had a great deal of grief and sadness about his own life situation. His aunts seemed not to notice, however, for they had any number of problems and concerns of their own, and moreover they themselves were not very happy people. Worn down by endless amounts of domestic work and by constant money worries, they seem to have lavished most of the joy and attention they had on Steward's very beautiful baby sister. Steward was after all a boy, and seemed relatively capable of taking care of himself. None of the three aunts had much understanding of males: after all, none of them had married or had children or even had brothers. As adult women living in a home owned by aged parents, their own lives were, in a very real sense, a surrender to womanly duty: their personal frustrations and domestic claustrophobia were something they accepted as their lot. These were the three adults who populated Steward's childhood — stern, comfortless, deeply religious women who could not quite understand him or his ways, and yet whom he felt an urgent, almost desperate need to comfort, accommodate, and appease.
Out of the double loss of his mother and father — one loss permanent and abrupt, the other ongoing and perpetually inconclusive — Steward seems to have accepted from a very early moment that his life's essential condition would be one of loneliness and exclusion. Deprived of parental love and recognition, he would grow up expecting very little love from others. Likewise, having experienced very little touching, warmth, or affection as a child, he would eventually find that prolonged physical intimacy made him extremely uncomfortable, and that those who expected the same from him were destined for disappointment. He would grow up to be a very sociable man, highly skilled at managing and seducing others, but unable to cope with everyday closeness. As a boy, he did his best to fit in, but at the same time he spent a good deal of time by himself. His preference for solitude eventually led this gifted young boy to develop a rich private fantasy life, one in which he thought of himself as someone special, separate, and apart.
Steward was very intelligent, like his mother, and he worked very hard in school. His aunts had high expectations for him, for although they were stuck in the boardinghouse, they wanted something better for him, and also for his sister. They saw to it that he earned top grades, kept fastidiously clean, had perfect manners, and in general did everything right. Wanting so much to please and amuse his aunts, Steward not only worked hard at his studies but also quickly mastered the piano, and soon specialized in "showy little pieces" that he picked out specifically to delight them. They, in turn, made a great fuss about his looks, which were delicate and refined. In an early set of photographs, he is beautifully turned out in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit featuring velvet breeches, a matching jacket, and a delicate round white collar. In many ways, he seemed like a perfect little doll.
Whatever ambivalence Steward may have felt about his childhood in later life, he never denied the goodness of his aunts, or their love of him, or the many great sacrifices they made on his behalf. And, in fact, he would portray them quite tenderly in his first literary novel. But he was also exhausted by them — for the perfect, doll-like, self-contained little man they so much wanted him to be was very far from the complicated, fallible, and emotionally deprived young boy that he was, or the troubled teen he eventually became.
Because of his extraordinary academic achievements, Steward seems to have felt from a very early moment that the great awareness of "difference" he had from the people around him was primarily due to his intelligence. And indeed he was very intelligent: brilliant not only at all his school subjects, but also at music, amateur dramatics, and drawing. Among these many activities, though, he found his greatest pleasure in reading and writing, for through them he began to imagine himself in the outside world. From his earliest days Steward read everything he could lay his hands on: popular fiction, poetry, and the great classics of Western literature. He borrowed vast numbers of books from the local library, and also purchased books and magazines by mail. Because silent films were shown weekly in town, Steward became a great fan of film and stage celebrities — men and women whose lives and careers seemed so real to him in the pages of Photoplay that he began to write them letters. Much to his amazement, several wrote back. In this way, reading and writing served from earliest childhood to create for Steward an intimate conduit to the world of his dreams and fantasies — a world full of glamorous and fascinating people so very different from the simple folk of Woodsfield. Before long Steward was writing to nearly every celebrity he could think of — authors, musicians, and film stars — and assiduously collecting and cataloging their autographs and letters. He cherished their responses to him as proof positive of his own specialness. Through his collection of celebrity letters and autographs, he had created a world in which he stood at the absolute center.
In his unpublished memoirs, Steward makes clear that while he spent many of his leisure hours reading and writing and chasing down autographs, he also spent a good deal of time playing with other boys and girls. He may have been thought of by his contemporaries as "different" because of his bookishness, but he was always treated with respect. The facility with which he handled nearly everyone around him — from his aunts to his teachers to his fellow high school students — suggests that Steward had a talent for communication. He was by no means a leader, but by the time he reached high school (and the emotional and physical changes that come with the onset of puberty), he was well known for playing any number of sly pranks and practical jokes. Duplicity was something in which, for whatever reason, he took an enormous and childlike delight: being bad, misbehaving, and "crossing the line" between acceptable and unacceptable behavior were in many ways central to his character from boyhood onward. This love of duplicity became even stronger when Steward discovered sex.
Growing up under the watchful eyes of spinsters, Steward had known that sex was "wrong" long before he knew what it was. He later remembered, only half jokingly, that "in my sheltered little-boy Methodist way, the talk [of sex] caused me much agony. The slightest brushing of my hand against my penis was not only a religious sin, but would lead to blindness and pimples, kidney disease, bed-wetting, stooped shoulders, insomnia, weight loss, fatigue, stomach trouble, impotence, genital cancer, and ulcers." In fact, he so deeply internalized his aunts' great fear of sexual "filth" that the unintentional discovery that his foreskin could retract (and the sudden sight of his filth-encrusted glans) shocked him so deeply that he passed out cold.
Not surprisingly, then, Steward experienced a series of significant physical and emotional upsets as his body entered puberty. Sexual thoughts and desires began to surface within him despite his best efforts to exclude them from consciousness. It was at roughly this time that he began to engage in various forms of aggression and bad behavior, including pranks and practical jokes. As a result, he wrote, "The meek mild little mama's boy, the potential sissy, may have remained that on the outside, but inside there was a curious change to a twelve-year-old devil."
He began to do a lot of spying and eavesdropping. Steward's growing curiosity about other people's private lives and personal habits presumably led him first to peep through the many keyholes available to him in his aunts' boardinghouse. There he could watch and listen to whatever the various male lodgers might be getting up to in their rooms. He also began to spy on various other people throughout Woodsfield, including a girl who lived next door. In one of his earliest surviving short stories, written while still a preadolescent, Steward describes spying on a teenage boy and girl who have gone skinny-dipping together; while he senses something momentous is about to happen between them, he does not yet know what it is.
Steward's first introduction to sexual self-pleasure came about through instruction by another boy in the practice of masturbation. He achieved orgasm some time later, in private. Some time after this first orgasm, Steward began to realize that he was sexually excited by other boys. While he found the realization troubling, he also seems to have realized in short order that he could do nothing about it — just as, indeed, he could do nothing to control his interest in sex. As he later observed, "'Choice' had no part in [my sexual identity.] When I discovered what I wanted [sexually], every corpuscle, every instinct I had, drove me unerringly in that direction."
Steward later wrote that he could recall no real concern among the adult population of Woodsfield about the sex games he and the other boys in town sometimes played, at least insofar as these games might potentially cause them to develop into homosexuals. He credited this lack of concern to a simple, widespread disinclination to discuss sexuality in general, and on top of that, an almost complete, culture-wide ignorance about the existence of homosexuality:
Midwest American views on homosexuality in the 1920s were very quaint, and were based on the assumption that all people raised in civilized Christian countries knew better than to fall in love with, or bed, persons of the same sex. Knowing better, then, the Fundamentalist mind made two breathtaking leaps of illogic: people did not do such things, and therefore such things must be nonexistent. This kind of thinking protected us all during the 1920s and 30s. Though one might be teased for being a sissy, no one could believe that any person actually engaged in the "abominable sin." We lived under the shadow and cover of such naiveté.
Thus while Steward recalled many injunctions against "sin" in his religious upbringing — both in church and at home — he recalled no specific early injunctions against homosexuality. Through his own investigations, however, Steward soon ascertained that sexual acts between men were not only strictly illegal in Ohio, but also punishable by incarceration. In his unpublished memoirs, he concludes the story of his first non-masturbatory sexual experience with another boy — "a big guy" football player who had convinced him to engage in an act of oral sex that was "over in less than two minutes" — by going on to note that the punishment for such activities in Ohio at that moment so far exceeded the "crime" as to make the whole situation absurd: "So began my criminal life, then punishable by the laws of the state of Ohio — at that time — by about twenty years of imprisonment, I guess. Each time. Total incarceration in Ohio: between five and six thousand years."
Steward had enjoyed the encounter with the football player, and as a result, he subsequently provoked similar encounters with other (usually older, better developed) boys in locations all over Woodsfield: in the town graveyard, in a neighbor's attic, in the courthouse bell tower, and even in the same room at the Methodist church where his father taught his Sunday Bible class. Since Steward usually proposed and intiated these activities, he felt no sense of coercion by the older boys. Rather, he considered himself unique:
I figgered I was put in that town just to bring pleasure to the guys I admired ... In that small (about 350 students) high school, the word got around quickly enough, and (I think) they all came to look on me as ... a dandy substitute for their girls ... I felt different from those boys — superior in a way, because I could give them something they wanted (and needed?) ... I thought I was the only one, and grew somewhat proud that I could satisfy these boys, most of whom I looked up to and admired because they were my adolescent "heroes." [And] they [in turn] treated me with a funny kind of respect, as if they knew that if they made me mad, they wouldn't get any more ... I was not patronized or made fun of. In those far-gone days, everything seemed "natural."
Even so, these new activities made Steward ever more clearly an outsider. To his teachers and his aunts he may well have seemed a handsome young man of great academic promise, but to himself — and among the boys with whom he was active — he was not only a rebel (a boy who stole from the cash register in his uncle's store, got drunk on stolen wine, and once even threw a pumpkin through the window of the high school principal's house), but also an oddity (because he was a boy who enjoyed pleasuring other boys sexually, and seemed to have no shame about doing so). To Steward, who had basically already accepted that he would never quite "fit in," his sexual activities were just another aspect of his teenage rebellion. With puberty, he later observed, "the birth of desire had taken place in me, and the patterns that I needed to survive were firmly imprinted by the time I left the town [of Woodsfield]: concealment and pretense, duplicity, a guise of wide-eyed innocence — and a kind of 'passive aggression' [unusual] in such a shy-seeming young man."
Excerpted from Secret Historian by Justin Spring. Copyright © 2010 Justin Spring. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
Justin Spring is a writer specializing in twentieth-century American art and culture, and the author of many monographs, catalogs, museum publications, and books, including Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art and Paul Cadmus: The Male Nude.
Justin Spring is a writer specializing in twentieth-century American art and culture, and the author of many monographs, catalogs, museum publications, and books, including Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade and Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art and Paul Cadmus: The Male Nude.
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Reading SECRET HISTORIAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SAMUEL STEWARD, PROFESSOR, TATTOO ARTISTS, AND SEXUAL RENEGADE it is difficult to decide which is the more important - learning about a rather phenomenal man (Samuel Steward) whose life to date has been a well-guarded secret, or discovering one of the finest biographers writing today - Justin Spring. Spring is a seasoned biographer whose publications include 'Paul Cadmus: The Male Nude', 'Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art', 'The Essential Jackson Pollock' and 'The Essential Edward Hopper' among others. But to whichever the compass point designates as the worthier of the two men, this is a fascinating book about art, about philosophy, about the great figures in the world of the arts in Paris and the US in the first half of the 20th century, about the details of the important Alfred Kinsey Reports on human sexuality, a detailed description of the art of tattooing, and, most importantly, a solid well documented written history of the homosexual community in the days before Stonewall began to break down centuries long barricades of understanding human sexuality. Samuel Steward (July 23, 1909 - December 31, 1993) was a man born out of his time. He was a brilliant teacher and professor who happened to have discovered his sexual preferences very early in life, servicing men without a sense of guile even as a teenager, and following his insatiable sexual appetite with journals and cards, with coded but detailed description of every encounter - a fact discovered by Alfred Kinsey who used Steward's `material' to support his investigations of male sexuality in a book that would change sociology forever, if taking some pauses during the McCarthy era for condemnation! Steward was a very fine writer and would have been an exceptional novelist had his subject matter of choice been more in keeping with the mores of the times. It is doubtful that Alfred Kinsey would have been able to document his interview investigations across the United States without the additional help of constant communication form Steward with his chronologically obsessive diaries of his activities. But that is only one aspect of the man, Samuel Steward, that Justin Spring so thoroughly and graciously unveils. He had access to Steward's letters to such people as Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Thornton Wilder, Thomas Mann, Jean Genet, Jacques Delaunay, George Platt Lynes and so many other who were involved in the early days of sexually oriented literature. He changed his name frequently (monikers to protect his professorial identity to save his job at university), thus surviving in a world that considered materials that dealt with `invert behavior' to be against the law to write, photograph, worn or sell. Always fascinated with pushing boundaries, Steward engaged in sessions of `daisy chains', photographing them and detailing them and then sending them on to Alfred Kinsey. His obsession with rough types of men led him to learn tattooing and he became an authority and an artist of the trade. Justin Spring has done an amazing amount of research and from his very readable writings we learn more about many aspects of the subterranean world of the 20th century as any book yet published. If at times it seems that Spring's reportage becomes redundant, it is only because he is reporting a life as it unfolded.
Finally gave up on this one