You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual RenegadeSecret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade by Justin Spring
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 1926, when he was 17 years old, Samuel Steward learned that Rudolph Valentino was checked into a downtown Columbus, Ohio, hotel under his real name, Rudolph Guglielmi. Already an avid autograph hound, Steward went to Valentino's hotel room, knocked on the door, got the autograph, gave the silent film star a blow job, and took home a snippet of his pubic hair. He kept the hair all his life in a monstrance bought at an antique store. That object now resides in a private collection in Rome.

Not many people could have that kind of story nor the DNA evidence to back it up -- nor the carefully maintained "Stud File" that chronicled some sixty years of sexual encounters. Steward was an academic and young man of promise who became close friends of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, wrote one light-weight novel, spent two decades teaching English at de Paul University in Chicago, finally left that position to become a full-time tattoo artists, and in the 1970's wrote gay porno novels under the name Phil Andros.  Throughout his life he pursued sexual encounters with hustlers, sailors, and working class men, sometimes staging group sex parties in his apartment and venturing further and further into the world of bondage and S/M. He was a significant contributor to Alfred Kinsey's Institute for Sex Research, sending them updates on his sex life and once performing in a film depicting an master/slave training session. His published memoir of Stein and Toklas did not sell well, but it was the event that eventually brought all his identities together as he became the subject, late in his life, of interviews and articles in gay publications. He died of heart failure in 1993 and was quickly more or less forgotten.

For this biography Justin Spring worked with Steward's extensive private papers that had  been stored in a Berkeley attic since his death, letters held by the Yale and University of California, Berkeley, libraries, and whatever material the Kinsey Institute was willing to open to researchers. As the author points out in his afterwards, Steward lived through every major change in American gay life except for the internet. His friends came from the arts and from the street, and  his life story, at times unbelievable, was carefully documented by himself and Alfred Kinsey. Secret Historian is consistently entertaining but does not shy away from the sadder and darker aspects of Steward's life. It is a compulsively readable and possibly important American biography.

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