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Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade Hardcover – August 17, 2010

4.6 out of 5 stars 84 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Life in the closet proves boisterous indeed in this biography of an iconic figure of the pre-Stonewall gay demimonde. Steward (1909–1993) was an English professor, a novelist who wrote both well-received literary fiction and gay porn, a confidant of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, a furtive but exuberant erotic adventurer whose taste for sailors, rough trade, and violent sadomasochism endeared him to sex researcher Alfred Kinsey; later in life, he became Phil Sparrow, official tattoo artist of the Oakland, Calif., Hell's Angels. Spring (Paul Cadmus) fleshes out this colorful story by quoting copiously from his subject's highly literate journals and sex diaries—his Stud File contained entries on trysts with everyone from Rudolph Valentino to Rock Hudson—which afford an unabashed account of Steward's erotic picaresque and the yearnings that drove it. (His swerve from academia into tattooing, with its mix of physical pain and proximity to nubile male flesh, was essentially a fetish turned into a business.) 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. Photos. (Aug.)
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“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


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1 edition (August 17, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374281343
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374281342
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (84 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #612,258 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Justin Spring is a New York based writer specializing in twentieth-century American art and culture. His biography SECRET HISTORIAN is a 2010 New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a 2010 National Book Award Finalist, an Amazon Top 10 Biography of the Year, an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book for 2011,winner of the 2011 Lamda Literary Award in Biography; the winner of the 2011 Randy Shilts Prize in Non-Fiction from the Publishing Triangle; and winner of the 2011 Geoff Mains Non-Fiction Prize of the National Leather Association. It is also an ARTFORUM Top 10 of 2010 pick and a Top 10 Book of the Year for 2010 in the San Francisco Chronicle.

For a full review of SECRET HISTORIAN by Mark Harris in the New York Times Book Review:

For a feature on Justin Spring's discovery of the Steward Archive, by Patti Cohen in the New York Times:

For a slide show in the New York Times about the Steward Archive:

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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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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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.Read more ›
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