Today Samuel M. Steward (1909-1993) is remembered, if at all, as the author of the Phil Andros gayrotic novels and stories and as the friend of Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, Thornton Wilder and other famous writers.
Justin Spring rescues Steward from his undeserved obscurity in Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade (Farrar Straus Giroux). Based on Steward’s “secret” diaries, journals and detailed Stud File - which after Steward’s death were stored in his executor’s attic - this excellent biography reveals Steward’s many-faceted life: as Sam Steward, Professor Samuel Steward, tattoo artist Phil Sparrow and erotic author Phil Andros. Samuel Steward was also an out and proud gay man who enjoyed and pursued sex with other men decades before Stonewall.
Though Secret Historian is first and foremost the biography of a most fascinating man, to a great degree it is also a social history of gay male life in the 20th century. While Steward was an extraordinary man in so many ways, he was also a gay man of his generation.
Even so, Steward “didn't want to bow to convention and marry, and he didn't want to engage in hypocritical statements about his sexuality,” Spring says. “He wanted to be truthful about his experience of the world, including his sexual experience. And in doing so he paid a terrible price. He kept a low profile about his sexuality during his drinking years, but once he got sober, he recognized that his situation was personally intolerable, and he made the radical change from professor to tattoo artist.”
During the 2008 presidential campaign, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee infamously told the New York Times that 1968 was the dawning of “the age of the birth-control pill, free love, gay sex, the drug culture and reckless disregard for standards.” However, Steward’s surviving records reveal that he and other men led active and diverse gay sex lives decades before Huckabee’s annus horribilis.
In an age of sexual repression, Steward was “promiscuous,” a term whose moral connotation Spring dislikes: “If you were to live in a world which prohibited you from sharing a bed or even a home with a partner of the same sex, and you were strongly discouraged from being seen with the same individual of the same sex on a regular basis, you would seek out sex in whatever ways were open to you. Or else, of course, live celibate - which is a choice that many men made. As Steward's life story demonstrates, many men were sexually active with other men even during the most sexually repressive era in our nation's history. The stakes were higher, but so of course was the thrill.”
What made Steward unique, and his biography possible, was his habit of keeping a written record of his life, especially his sex life. “Sam kept records and collections of things from childhood onwards: letters from celebrities, books, autographs, and various sorts of memorabilia. His sexual record-keeping was just one aspect of his collecting personality. Most collectors are to some degree obsessive. Sam's records of his sexuality are to my mind beautifully and admirably comprehensive, and I'm glad he kept them as assiduously as he did.”
“That being said, I feel that his sense of what he was doing and why he was doing it evolved over time. At first he kept the sex records for his own pleasure and satisfaction; after meeting Alfred Kinsey and reading the Kinsey Report, he realized that what he had done so naturally and for so many years just for himself was indeed valuable to science and to culture. At Kinsey's urging he became ever more focused on that record keeping. Kinsey reinforced Steward in the belief that what he was doing was going to aid in the cause of sexual enlightenment.” Steward’s records of his sex life later formed the basis for his Phil Andros books, beginning with $tud (1966).
Steward lived alone all of his adult life, and in his writings he often expressed a low opinion of gay relationships. But, as a young man, Steward hoped “to find a special person and settle down quietly with him. Over time however that came to him to seem increasingly impossible and, frankly, undesirable; sex as recreational activity was so fascinating to him that he preferred it to sex with a single partner, and co-habiting would definitely have gotten in the way. Even so, there were sex partners in his life with whom he had sex more than 200 times, and towards whom he felt an enormous affection. These were, in a broad sense, relationships, and moreover ones that he cherished, even as he cherished his privacy and his solitude, both of which are of utmost importance to most writers.” In any case, it would be wrong to define Steward by today’s standards of political correctness.
Steward was certainly ahead of his time when he decided to give up his academic career and become tattoo artist “Phil Sparrow” at a time (the fifties) when people with tattoos were often sailors, gang members and low-lives. “It was Steward's attraction to the fringe element and lower-level people who wanted tattoos that was in part responsible for him becoming a tattoo artist,” Spring says.
“Steward had a lifelong attraction to blue-collar, working class, and criminal class men. This was not just a sexual attraction but also a personal attraction. He came from a very unassuming background himself, and despite his extraordinary mind, he felt at home among them, and was fascinated by their various adventures and ways and language.” As Phil Sparrow, Steward “was among the first to introduce large-scale Japanese-style tattooing to Americans. And he also pioneered in the development of fine-line tattooing, hygienic tattooing, and the creation and use of better inks and better machinery.”
Though Sam Steward was no Harry Hay or Frank Kameny, Spring insists that he “was an activist all his life, beginning in his college years at Ohio State University, where he organized protests against racial segregation in the fraternity system and boycotted the presence of the ROTC on the OSU campus. By the mid-1950s he was involved with Der Kreis (a Swiss homophile magazine), which actually predates the Mattachine Review, and moreover focused not only on homophile journalism but also on erotically-themed poetry and fiction describing same-sex sexual activity.”
“Moreover, he translated Querelle de Brest [by Jean Genet], that landmark of gay literature, 15 years before it was ever published in English, and he actively smuggled all sorts of homophile and homoerotic literature into the United States.” Steward also contributed to US gay publications like Vector, Gaytimes, Gaysweek and the Advocate.
Ahead of his time in his pursuit and advocacy of gay leathersex, Steward is “particularly admired by gay activists in the BDSM community, among them many former editors of Drummer.” Not a “joiner” by nature, “the activism he engaged in consisted largely of writing letters, books, articles, stories, and poetry, not going to meetings or marching in rallies and demonstrations,” Spring adds. “Consciousness-raising takes many forms, and fiction is among the most powerful of mediums for doing so -- particularly during the 1950s. I consider his Phil Andros novels of the early 1970s to be consciousness-raising; they certainly changed my view of myself and the world when I read them.”
Though much of Steward’s gayrotic fiction was published by Alyson Books and Perineum Press in the 1980's and by Badboy and Masquerade Books in the 1990's, most of his writings are sadly out of print. Hopefully, the success of Secret Historian will inspire a publisher to resuscitate Steward’s literary works. In the meantime, Justin Spring will soon be publishing an anthology of Steward's writings, including his letters to Gertrude Stein, George Platt Lynes, Alfred Kinsey and others. Spring promises that collection will also feature selections from Steward’s journals, stories he wrote for now-defunct magazines, and even some poetry, “so hard-core Steward fans will definitely have some good reading waiting for them there.”