Customer Reviews: Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade
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on October 13, 2010
Truth is indeed stranger (and a helluva lot more fun) than fiction! Had the life of this incredible man not been so thoroughly researched (a decade in the making) by the author, Justin Spring, and so meticulously documented by the subject himself, one would scarcely believe such a life could have existed.

Secret Historian, The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, intrigued and touched me on so many levels. Firstly, it's a real page-turner. I didn't want to put it down, as I could hardly wait to find out what Sam was going to get himself into next. And trust me, Sam never let me down!

Secondly, as a devotee of gay history, not since Donald Vining's detailed diary has a gay man's day to day life been documented in such vivid detail. Through Sam Steward's scandalous Stud File, his letters, his journal and other writings, Justin Spring's fascinating book shatters the myth that the pre-Stonewall gay life was all gloom and sexless doom.

This is not to say that Sam, being an isolator who eschewed emotional attachments with other men (and who battled alcohol and drug addictions), didn't have his share of loneliness and depression, especially in his later years when he felt he was no longer sexually viable. Indeed, with the iconoclastic life he designed for himself, a later life of addiction, isolation and sadness seemed inevitable. Fortunately, Sam's delightful sense of humor, very much in evidence in this book, sustained him through most of his darkest hours.

And therein lies the primary reason this book moved me so much. Except for Sam's fascination with S/M sex, I found such a great number of parallels between his life and my own, his thought processes and life choices, that the final chapters in this book served as a wake-up call; a realization that unless I made some serious lifestyle and career changes, that my own golden years would likely be filled with solitude and detachment as Sam's had.

My only regret is that, after being introduced to Sam Steward in this moving and entertaining biography, I was never able to meet the man in person. But thanks to the author's obvious affection for his subject, I feel as though I have.

I've never written a book review in my 50 years, And it's not often that a book can not only hold one's interest through two readings, but also serve as a catalyst to change one's life. But Secret Historian has done just that.

And Dear Justin Spring: I had to make sure that you knew.
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on September 1, 2010
I knew I was going to enjoy this biography from its first page. Spring writes, "I first came across Steward's name in the gay pulp fiction archive and database at the John Hay Special Collections Library at Brown University..." The gay pulp fiction archive?! Immediately readers know they're in for a ride.

Samuel Steward (aka Donald Bishop, Thomas Cave, John McAndrews, Phil Sparrow, Ward Stames, Phil Andros) was a poet, novelist, Catholic English professor, tattoo artist, gay pornographer, friend of Gertrude Stein and Alice Tolkas, and a key contributor to Alfred Kinsey's sex research. Justin Spring has rescued this astonishing character from oblivion, giving him the break he never got in what Steward described as "my happily wasted life."

This biography is definitely not for the gentle reader. Steward's prodigious sexual escapades from the 30s through the 80s made my few remaining hairs stand on end. Sailors, thugs, underage hustlers, Rudolph Valentino, Thorton Wilder, students, policemen, ex-cons, priests and one Hells Angel, scripted orgies, brutal S/M sessions: all were documented in his meticulous "Stud File." Almost despite himself, quiet little Steward was a defiant, transgressive artist to his core, surviving repression, literary rejection, AIDS, alcoholism and depression with a staggering sense of aplomb. One favorite example (that will only mean something to gay readers of a certain age): in his late 50s, Steward's favorite paid partner was "one very talented and extraordinarily good-looking hustler who later took the porn name of Johnny Hardin... Between late 1966 and 1970 Steward had sex with him 155 times." Now there is a fun fact to know and tell.
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on October 20, 2010
Samuel Steward (aka Phil Sparrow, Phil Andros) lived (1909-1993) an interesting life. A boyhood that, if not necessarily unhappy, was not an easy one. He obtains a doctorate in English literature and then a series of untenured teaching jobs, mostly in Chicago and at Catholic institutions, for which, temperamentally, he was not well suited. Sam was homosexual and the years of his adulthood were, well, let us say, unpropitious for gays in America. On the other hand Steward never found it difficult, until he reached a certain age, to find sexual partners. He diligently compiled a card file detailing all the thousands of his sexual experiences (from Rudolf Valentino on), which Alfred Kinsey considered to be of enormous scientific interest and significance. (Steward was one of Kinsey's main homosexual sources for his study of male sexuality.) Sam loved Europe, especially France, and visited the country as often as his limited resources allowed. Hankering for a literary career, he boldly introduced himself to Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, who become life-long friends. (Steward published late in life the letters they wrote him, under the title "Dear Sammy.") He met Gide and Cocteau and became Thorton Wilder's lover, apparently Wilder's longest lasting relationship. Then Steward becomes interested in tattooing (he always was attracted to sailors) and opened a tattoo parlor in Chicago while he was still teaching at De Paul University. There was some inconcinnity between Steward's two professions and eventually, when his external employment was discovered by university authorities, Steward was terminated, although he informed his students (he was quite a popular teacher) that he had quit. Life becoming less endurable in Chicago, Steward moved to Oakland, CA, opened a tattoo shop there and soon became the favorite artist of the local branch of the Hell's Angels. His literary career only took off when he began publishing gay pornography, of a higher literary standard than is usual, under the nom de plume of Phil Andros. Steward never made much money at it (porn publishers didn't then pay well), but Sam found the labor fulfilling. Late in life, his health declined and he still lived in a very rough neighborhood. Thankfully, a few friends were there to take care of him until the end.
"Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade" by Justin Spring, is a reasonably well written and lively book. (With a subject like Steward, how could it not be?) I'm not fond of the "sexual renegade" bit; I suppose it's there for hype. But otherwise, this is a book I would strongly recommend both because Steward is interesting and because the book sheds much light on what it was like to be homosexual in America before Stonewall.
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on February 16, 2011
Samuel Steward's life encompasses an incredible sweep of time across the 20th century. His story traces the changing world of gay men in the US and, to a lesser extent, Europe. Steward was unique in documenting his journey through time, including an encyclopedic record of his sexual experiences along with journals and correspondence. His career encompassed academic life, tattooing, and pornography as well as literary efforts to integrate various parts of his experience. His work has remained largely obscure until Spring's book. The book is a credible effort at bringing together this material, along with additional information gleaned from interviews and from other documentary sources. The result is a book that is deeply respectful to its subject, well documented and footnoted, yet highly readable. Steward did not live a tidy mainstream life and I would expect that even some people drawn to the book by his unorthodox life may be put off by some sections despite Spring's treatment. Spring is careful not to go overboard with speculation or analysis and, for the most part, the book amply describes how Steward fit his changing times and was shaped by his experiences, free of judgments. Steward was remarkable for the variety of people with whom he crossed paths including Alfred Kinsey, Gertrude Stein, Thornton Wilder, the Hell's Angels, and numerous key figures in the early development of leather communities and contemporary gay fiction, as well as pornography. Steward accepted his sexuality in an environment that did not, but could not conceive of close committed relationships among men and carried many stereotypes of gay men throughout his life preferring the sexual company of straight identified men. His choices in terms of lifestyle, sexual relations, and his explorations of sexual extremes seem to reflect the limitations of his self acceptance and his ability to situate himself in the limited gay world of his time. Indeed, he seemed less than fully accepting of the more open environment of his later years and like many of his generation felt estranged from many social currents associated with the 1960s. In a certain sense, social change came too late for him and his life is easily contrasted with the lives of men even a generation younger like Chuck Renslow, Jim Kane, or John Rechy (whose work he found too "conflicted"). Steward appears to have been a mentor to many students and to many younger men throughout his life and perhaps his failures in fulfilling his academic and literary aspirations kept him from fully appreciating his impact on other people.

I enjoyed the book greatly and heartily would recommend it to others. Nonetheless, a number of things, probably related to hasty editing, knocked off a star. There are several chapters toward the middle of the book that seem elliptical in transition with material that clearly belonged in a previous chapter. There are characters who are introduced as close to Steward who make little or no later appearance and some key characters enter Steward's life with little context being provided. This was particularly true of Ike Barnes, the partner of Jim Kane, who was very helpful to Steward in his later years. I needed a Google search to discover Barnes' relationship with Kane and other details about his background. The final decade of Steward's life seems poorly integrated, in places. Steward is variously lonely and depressed, visited regularly by various friends and acquaintances, addicted to sleeping pills and other drugs, highly functional and productive, and frail. Despite the availability of first hand observations, it seems that Spring was unable to pull together a really coherent picture of Steward and how he functioned on a day to day basis. This period is not well documented in Steward's journals which may account for some of the problem.
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on September 4, 2011
I am a male homosexual of a certain age that was hauled into the local police sub station when I was 16 for being caught in the back seat of my high school boy friends car with my/ our pants down. It was 1967 and the year, Spring tells me, homosexuality was legalized in the US. As a result of the turmoil caused, I left home days after high school(1969)and came to San Francisco more because of the hippy '60s than because it was gay. I have lived here for over 40 years, openly gay, but with no context! No matter what I did or accomplished in my life this feeling of "not good enough" has stayed with me and been a hinderance to my being truly happy as the person I am. Steward/ Spring have provided a picture of the context in which attitudes were formed on both sides of the homosexual condition. Steward's facination with BDSM is a measure of his attitude toward himself, but he always moved to his own compuss. I feel this is a transformative book and essential reading for anyone homosexual or interested in homosexuality. I knew homosexuality was never a choice but until this, I felt it somehow less.
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on August 24, 2010
Spring,an exceptional biographer, has taken a look at a relatively unknown life, and through its exploration has revealed not only a life ardently lived, but one which illuminates the lives of so many others. I look forward to Spring's next work.
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on January 3, 2011
Unlike most people reviewing this book (at this point) I'm not a gay man, so that makes my perspective a little different. This was, whatever your gender & orientation, a fascinating book about a really interesting man. I read this book for the tattoo angle, but learned a lot about Kinsey, erotica, and mid-century gay culture- very interesting and educational. Also? This guy had a lot of sex.

The tattoo history... left a little to be desired. I felt that the author's narrow look at "why people get tattooed" was handled poorly. Certainly, Steward was interested in the sexual nature of tattooing- he was interested in the sexual nature of everything, clearly. But to only quote one very flawed source (Albert Parry's Tattoo) that all tattooing is sexual is not a good representation of tattoo culture at any time in history. There were also factual errors about Amund Dietzel, taken not from facts but the things that other artists had been saying about him for years. Errors like these are pretty common in tattoo histories, because "facts" are repeated in print without really being checked out.

All in all, a very good read with unfortunately a few flaws in the areas I really was interested in.
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on October 20, 2010
This book should be required for all gay men. At different times in this compelling bio, Steward's life story will remind you of just about every gay man you know. Just when you think his life story can't get more interesting, it does. Just be careful that someone doesn't read it over your shoulder on mass transit. This book, like Steward, goes from discreet to graphic in an instant.
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on June 19, 2011
Please consider this review a work in progress. Sam Steward took the time and had the bibliographical skills to detail his social and sexual experiences. It is remarkable how this fellow made any sort of a life for himself at all in a period where gays' existence was invisible as they were hunted and exterminated like vermin. Here Justin Spring chronicles the disparate facets of Sam Steward's life with admiration and sympathy. LGBTs couldn't enjoy today's freedom and credibility without the groundwork laid by men like Steward. He succeeded in academics, had an ample sex life, produced art & shared in the community of artists and writers in spite of society's voluble opprobrium.

As a sad gay teen I read the World Book encyclopedia to distract me from the roiling fear and self hatred. How surprising to learn that Steward was one of its important editors. I only wish I knew more about Steward earlier.)

Steward often suffered from loneliness, depression, addiction, violent masochism and poverty. All disheartening, yet he's nevertheless left behind his novels, Phil Andros literary pornography and his collaboration with Kinsey to make the prevalence and normalcy of gay social and sexual life. Among other contributions, he published his correspondence with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, wrote two Stein/Toklas mystery novelettes, documented Thornton Wilder's hidden gay life, and revealed ugly truths about Hell's Angels.

I recommend this book from several angles, It is a portal to a Midwestern gay man's life in early 20th century. It illuminates those cultural icons who were his friends and sex partners. So much of peoples' lives are hidden and lied about. By lying about their true human natures, and silencing those who are open about them, celebrities and their handlers have succeeded in projecting false images which provide corrupted models that queer youth cannot identify with. This book shows how everyone has clay feet, and that clay is not so bad.
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Justin Spring has done what every biographer should do: he has managed to make Samuel Steward come alive as few writers of biographies do. On the other hand, he had help from his subject. Steward kept records--journals, dates, photographs, the "Stud File," artwork, etc., etc., for his entire adult life. The author recalls how he discovered, with help from the executor of his estate, Michael Williams, who, upon Steward's death in 1993, was the recipient of eighty boxes of his letters, journals, photographs, papers, an entire attic of them, that required months to go through them all. That is not to take away from the skills of Mr. Spring, however. He ultimately had the task of deciding what to include and what to leave out in order to make Steward a flesh and blood human being. Other people more important than I share my assessment since the author was nominated for a National Book Award for his efforts.

Born in 1909, Steward received a Ph.D in English from Ohio State University. After 13 years as a college professor, mostly at DePaul University in Chicago, he lost his job when the administration found out that he was the man named Phil Sparrow who was tattooing sailors and other men he found desirable at a tattoo parlor in an unsavory area of Chicago. As talented as an artist as a writer, he often painted murals on his apartment wall and said about his tattoo art: "' my art gallery is now walking around the world. `" Steward later moved to California where he continued his craft. Having become weary of tattooing--he no longer found the men as desirable as previously and he was robbed at least three times in his location, he closed his shop, took on the name of Phil Andros and wrote several gay porn novels under that name. Steward ultimately wound up in a cluttered cottage with one and then 2 more dachshunds, the only love he ever found in life he said. "I fell in love, really in love--for the first time in my life. . . It was as if all my life I had been waiting for an object on which to pour out all the accumulated love that I had been storing up for so many years.'"

Steward did more things with one life than three other people. He maintained a friendship with Gertrude Stern and Alice B. Toklas, having visited Toklas seventeen times in Paris after Stern's death. He was friends with George Platt Lynes who gave him several of his male nude photographs. He met Lord Alfred Douglas, the man who had been involved with Oscar Wilde. Steward had a sexual relationship with Thornton Wilder (OUR TOWN) that Thornton's sister and biographers refused to acknowledge. One Christmas while working in the bookstore at Marshall Field's in Chicago, he met a handsome man named Roy Fitzgerald, also an employee there. The two of them had oral sex in an elevator that they stopped between the floors. Fitzgerald later became the movie star named Rock Hudson. Steward also had a tryst with Rudolph Valentino and kept a lock of his pubic hair to prove it. Steward was also friends with Alfred Kinsey--he was devastated when the sex researcher died--and provided him with whatever information Kinsey needed for his research. Steward also knew many people in the leather community and gay porn industry. A recovering alcoholic, Steward's drug of choice was Seconal. He was also a "recovering" Catholic, having been a convert for a brief time in his youth to what he called "sensual Catholicism." He spent most of his life, however, as an atheist. Steward never owned a car--as an older man in the neighborhood where he lived he was beaten on the street by thugs-- and only had a television late in life, one that he built himself.

Besides being a biography of Steward, PRIVATE HISTORIAN is also a primer on the lives of many homosexuals in general during this time. It was a time of great oppression as sex between men was punishable by many years in prison in most states in the country, Illinois being the first and only state for many years to decriminalize sex between two men. Steward probably would never have used the word "gay." Sad to say, he pretty much avoided other gay people, instead usually paying for sex with trade. Like many men of his time, rightly or wrongly, he compartmentalized his life. On one hand he was the dapper, neatly-dressed college professor with a pencil moustache. (He only found out years after he stopped teaching that he was much loved and respected by his students.) Steward could be a man of great compassion as evidenced in the moving letter he wrote to a former student Douglas Martin on the death of his partner of sixteen years from AIDS. "Friends are there and are to be counted on--and as long as I am around, I'll expect to share in your sadness as well as your happiness." But this college professor in another life was also the tattoo artist who kept records of everything and everyone he did sexually: "I have had sex with 807 persons for a total of 4647 times." The same man who can tease me with Phil Andros porn also quoted beautiful lines from an Edmund Spenser canto used on the tomb of Joseph Conrad that I had never heard before: "Sleep after toyle, porte after stormie seas,/Ease after warre, death after life doth greatlie please."

We should be slow to judge Mr. Steward since we have walked neither in his weejuns nor his boots. But surely he lived his life on his own terms, rejecting society that rejected him. I have thought about Steward long after I finished this book. I would like to have met him. But then I did, through this very fine biography.
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