Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)
The true history of America’s sexuality is only now being written. In the decades following the nation’s third sexual revolution of the 1960s-1970s (following those of the 1830s-1840s and 1910s-1920s), sexual practices once ignored or derided by many Americans, such as the female orgasm and homosexuality, became part of mainstream culture. The repeated efforts of the Christian right to suppress this sexual revolution have failed.
As America’s sexual culture changed, a new generation of scholars emerged who offered an increasingly uncensored and non-moralistic analysis of earlier notions of sexual life, especially of “perversions” and of those who pushed the boundaries of sexual practice. This new history includes biographies and memories of “ordinary” Americans who lived radical sexual lives, challenging and changing the nation’s moral order. We live sexually freer lives today because of these radicals.
Justin Spring’s biography of Samuel Steward eloquently reveals this development. Secret Historian is a carefully researched, well-told, and humane portrait of the proverbial guy next door. Steward was not a mid-20th century sexual celebrity like Bettie Page or Rock Hudson, but rather a relatively anonymous everyman who pushed the boundaries of sexual pleasure—in his case homoerotic sexuality.
Steward was a white, educated gay man whose life spanned the 20th century, from 1909 to 1993. His is a story of one man’s faltering attempt to live a meaningful life during a tumultuous century of social and sexual transformation. Steward was born and raised in Ohio and, after his mother died and his father abandoned him and his younger sister, he was reared by three domineering Methodist aunts, classic asexual spinsters who ran popular boardinghouses in Woodsfield and Columbus. He discovered his homosexuality as a teenager and had innumerable sexual encounters that defined his adult life.
Steward lived a compelling life. He was a college English professor for two decades, teaching at Loyola and DePaul; he authored numerous articles, short stories, scholarly works, and novels, including much male erotica; he was deeply close to Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, lover with Thornton Wilder, and a Kinsey Institute researcher; he was a celebrated tattoo artist for 15 years; he was part of a heterosexual “common law” marriage; and he was an early gay-rights activist. But mostly, Steward was a man possessed by insatiable sexual desire, a man who documented nearly 5,000 sexual liaisons—he kept a detailed card catalog, a “Stud File,” of these encounters. Yet, he is all but forgotten today.
As Spring’s book sadly reveals, Steward seems to have been haunted by a dark shadow, by a painful loneliness and deep unhappiness. He seems to have been unable to establish intimate, long-term personal relationships. However, he engaged in thousands of sexual experiences, including liaisons with celebrities such as Rudolph Valentino, Lord Alfred Douglas, and Roy Fitzgerald (aka Rock Hudson). He sustained some of these liaisons, like his affair with Wilder, for many years. Unfortunately, these relations seem to have been bereft of a satisfying emotional dimension.
Steward had a special, almost filial, relationship with Stein and Toklas. He first met them in the mid ’30s, visited them repeatedly and, after Stein’s death in 1946, kept up an attentive friendship with Toklas until her death in 1967. Based on the extensive sampling of personal correspondence that Spring includes in this book, one gets the sense that Stein and Toklas were the closest thing Steward had to “good” parents. They welcomed him into their very busy lives, a young, attractive, and creative fellow homosexual. They were approving, respectful and supportive. Over time, he became “dear Sammy,” one of their sons.
Spring is deeply sympathetic towards Steward’s life, offering often-compassionate psychological interpretations of his questionable conduct, whether involving rough trade sex encounters (in which he was often robbed and beaten), exploration of sadomasochism, debilitating alcoholism and drug taking, and the flaunting of obscenity laws that risked imprisonment as he built a remarkable collection of homoerotic pornography.
Steward appears to have lived out his life trapped by the deep psychological traumas resulting from his mother’s death and father’s abandonment. Oddly, his father, a drug addict who died from an OD, became a Sunday school teacher at a church across the street from his aunts’ boardinghouse and, while never financially supporting Steward and his sister, saw them regularly. When, as a teenager, Steward admitted his homosexuality to his father, his father had him go to a female prostitute.
Steward’s unhappiness was compounded by the heightened homophobic moralistic climate that characterized America from the ’20s thru the ’60s. This sentiment was shared not only by his father (who felt shamed by his son’s desires), but by the popular media and psychiatry. While Spring never explores the issue of psychotherapy, Steward seems to have felt prohibited from seeking professional help for his malaise due to the prevailing societal prejudices against homosexuality.
Nevertheless, waking one day from a drink-induced stupor, he joined AA and kicked his alcoholism. He also maintained a remarkably candid relationship with Alfred Kinsey who became a positive father figure. While Kinsey accepted Steward’s emotional needs and sexual excesses, Steward never seems to have sought help for his emotional distress.
Steward’s midyears are the most compelling period of his life and provide a unique view into the underground gay sex scene of the ’30s thru the ’60s. During the ’30s, he was part of the vanguard of bohemian and homosexual cultural life in the U.S. and Paris. It was a period of promise, of dinners with Stein, Jean Cocteau, and Thomas Mann, of Steward feeling his full intellectual and sexual potential.
Sadly, with Stein’s death, Steward entered the most painful phase of his life. His sense of promise, kept alive through his relationship with Kinsey, gradually faded. During this period, he abandoned academia, became a master tattooist (tattooing the King of Denmark and Ralph “Sonny” Barger, head of the Hells Angels) and ceaselessly pursued boundary-breaking sexual exploits. While these liaisons were momentarily enticing, they ultimately left him feeling unsatisfied, disappointed, and deeply alone.
Spring carefully lays out the issues that drove Steward to repeatedly re-invent himself, pursuing a never-ending quest for sexual satisfaction. What Steward failed to achieve in terms of personal relations he made up in his sex life.
Over time, he became increasingly entranced by sadomasochistic sex, seeking out beatings, whippings, humiliation, piss play, and even worse.
But sex for Steward was also social. He participated in and hosted sex parties in which a handful to two dozen or so gay men showed up at his place to participate in semi-anonymous fuck sessions. The sex scene of the ’30s thru early ’60s was very different than today: existing laws made homosexuality a crime and public or private sex gatherings were illegal. A half-century later, it’s hard to imagine just how extensive was the underground gay sex scene that Steward cultivated. Living the last third of his life in the Bay Area, Steward felt isolated and much adrift. Amidst the onslaught of AIDS that wreaked havoc among the Bay Area gay community, Steward’s work was rediscovered and he achieved some of the recognition that he so long sought. He died at the age 84 in 1993.
Secret Historian is a remarkable piece of scholarship, one that took its author Justin Spring a decade to write. His book is an invaluable addition to the sexual history of 20th century America. Spring’s only weakness is that, while introducing some of the major social and political occurrences of the century, he fails to step back and to look beyond his autobiographic subject to the larger evolving sexual culture being lived out around—and through—Steward. Balancing the individual and the collective, the personal and the social, the private and the public is one of the great challenges confronting historians, biographers, memoirists, and novelists. Spring has done this most admirably in his enthralling biography of Samuel Steward.