Thursday, December 2, 2010


"I guess I'm just ahead of my time." -- Samuel M. Steward

In the early 1990s when I was a student at Ohio State University, I received my first vague hint about the amazing life of Samuel Steward. A professor in the English department remarked during a lecture that a 1930s graduate student at OSU had befriended Gertrude Stein, attempted unsuccessfully to correspond with James Joyce, and later become a legendary writer of gay porn novels. A short time later I became aware of, but did not read, a volume of letters from Stein and Alice B. Toklas to a friend named 'Sammy.' A few years after that, I read in Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's fine biography of Alfred Kinsey a graphic account of the activities of Kinsey informant Samuel Steward, whom the author identifies as a friend of Stein and Toklas. Thus, over the course of fifteen years I had acquired many of the pieces of the Steward puzzle, but I never followed up on any of these hints; I never put the pieces together.

Justin Spring puts all these pieces together and reveals many more in his absolutely fascinating biography. Secret Historian is more than a great gay life; it's a great American life, the Whitmanian breadth of which is measured by the facts that Samuel Steward spent an afternoon in the 1930s with Thomas Mann and many late nights in the 1960s with Sonny Barger. During the Great Depression he wrote his master's thesis on Spenser and his doctoral dissertation on Cardinal Newman, and thirty years later he was the official tattoo artist of the Hell's Angels. His friends ran from High Modernists to high motorcyclists. He had a tete a tete with Andre Gide and a sadomasochistic relationship with a former Nazi stormtrooper. He had sexual encounters with Rudolph Valentino, Rock Hudson, and the aging Lord Alfred Douglas, and that's just the tip of this book's phallic iceberg. Steward is one of those people who seems to have known everybody and blown at least half of them. Spring expertly guides us through the many contradictory changes of Steward's amazingly multiple life, from his smalltown Ohio childhood to his years as a Chicago orgiast, from his scholarly studies of Spenser and the Oxford Movement to his volumes of hardcore gay porn (Camille Paglia, for one, would have no trouble making the connection between Spenser and porn; see the Spenser chapter in Sexual Personae), from his years as a professor at Catholic universities to his second career as a highly regarded tattoo artist, from his decades of truly dangerous sexual outlawry to his final years as a friend of the San Francisco Police Department and organizer of a neighborhood watch program, from his passionate midlife attraction to black men to some late in life remarks that sound identical to those of so many racist "Reagan Democrats." Along the way we are afforded eye-opening glimpses of Chicago police corruption, the Chicago gay underworld, Oakland in the dangerous years after the Summer of Love, and much more. This book is an embarrassment of riches, and I close it thinking that while Samuel Steward may never have found 'success' as a literary artist, he successfully followed the dicta of his first master, Oscar Wilde, and made an artwork of his life. And that life was a fucking masterpiece.

I have one criticism upon finishing the book. Spring tells us of Steward's "common law wife" and long-standing friend Emmy Curtis, but he seems to downplay her role in Steward's life--including, importantly, his sex life with her. Steward's sexual activity was overwhelmingly gay but not exclusively so, and the extent to which he had sex with Emmy Curtis is the extent of his bisexuality, one level of sexual complexity that this book (perhaps following Steward's lead) almost completely ignores.

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