Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

Pleasure Principle

Samuel Steward lived many lives, all in pursuit of joyous hedonism

Geoff Nicholson


On July 24, 1926, Samuel Steward, one day past his seventeenth birthday, got word that Rudolph Valentino had just checked in to the best hotel in Columbus, Ohio. Grabbing his autograph book, he made his way to the hotel and knocked on Valentino's door. The actor appeared, wearing only a towel, and after signing his autograph asked whether there was anything else the boy wanted. "Yes," said Steward, "I'd like to have you."

The Latin lover obliged. Steward performed oral sex on him and at some point procured a lock of Valentino's pubic hair—a souvenir that Steward kept in a monstrance at his bedside for the rest of his life. He also entered the encounter in his "Stud File," a card catalogue recording details of his sexual partners, eventually a few thousand over the course of his lifetime.

Did all or any of it happen? The monstrance certainly existed, and still does, but short of DNA testing it's impossible to confirm the hair is Valentino's. The only source is Steward himself, in an interview he did with The Advocate more than sixty years after the event. Steward also boasted of having had sex with Rock Hudson in a Marshall Field's elevator and with Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's Bosie, in Hove, England ("head down, my lips where Oscar's had been").

You don't have to be a skeptic to wonder whether there are elements of exaggeration, if not fantasy, about his claims. But Justin Spring, author of Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade and editor of An Obscene Diary: The Visual World of Sam Steward, isn't troubled by such doubts. After all, taken alongside some of the known facts about Steward's long and extraordinary life, sex with celebrities is easily outdone.

There are, however, a couple of Steward's sexual encounters for which we don't have to take his own word. On the afternoons of May 31 and June 1, 1952, in Bloomington, Indiana, he was filmed by Alfred Kinsey having sex with a sadist named Mike Miksche. Kinsey's team thought Miksche was likely to kill somebody one day, but on those afternoons, he merely did Steward some consensual sexual damage. Steward wrote, "At the end of the second afternoon I was exhausted, marked and marred, all muscles weakened . . . my jaws were so tired and unhinged I could scarcely close my mouth." To the extent that Steward is known at all in the mainstream it's via this connection with Kinsey, but this was only one of Steward's lives—he had several others, wildly divergent though never entirely separate.

• • • • • 

Samuel Morris Steward was born in 1909 in Woodsfield, Ohio, and raised by aunts after his mother died and his alcoholic and drug-addicted father proved incapable of looking after him. He did well in school, and despite "many injunctions against 'sin,'" Spring reports that he sexually serviced a member of the football team, as well as older boys, who regarded him as a "dandy substitute for their girls." Having earned a Ph.D. in English at Ohio State, he spent the 1930s and '40s pursuing a respectable if patchy career as a man of letters, teaching at various universities including Loyola in Chicago, publishing novels and poetry, and befriending literary eminences such as André Gide, Thomas Mann, Thornton Wilder, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

If American society in general during this period was undeniably repressive, it's hard to see how Steward himself could have been any less inhibited. He cruised the streets, bars, and baths of Chicago in search of rough trade, especially sailors. Some of this could be very rough indeed: One pickup led to his spending "a seven-hour ordeal as a sexual captive," an encounter that, according to Spring, earned top marks in Steward's Stud File. These facts suggest the extent to which terms such as "out" and "closeted" are modern constructs. In 1978, Steward told an interviewer, "Once someone asked me why I was not 'politically involved.' . . . There were no political movements at all. . . . We got all the sex we wanted, but marching?! Where to? . . . The young of today have no conception at all of the lives we had to lead—furtive, hidden—but joyously hedonistic just the same." It's hardly news that there were plenty of gay men in America eighty years ago, but who knew that some of them succeeded in finding partners so easily?

Steward's hedonism included self-destructive drinking. Alcohol made him brave and reckless, and perhaps it was easier to endure the sadistic treatment he sought and found. However, in the late '40s he determined to dry out; to distract himself, he started painting and making sculptures. For the next several years, while continuing his academic career, he enjoyed a spell as an erotic artist and illustrator, usually working in styles that resembled those of Beardsley, Cocteau, and Tom of Finland. Works from this period, along with Steward's photography and pictures of his Chicago apartment, can be seen in An Obscene Diary. Spring calls the place a Gesamtkunstwerk—it was a personal museum of "homoerotic fetish objects, objets d'art, curios," as well as murals and a telephone adorned with images of erections.

Around this time, Steward became acquainted with George Platt Lynes and Paul Cadmus. More important, he met Kinsey. Introduced by a university colleague, Kinsey took Steward's sexual history, as he did thousands of other people's, but whereas Kinsey's interviews typically lasted about an hour, his session with Steward went on for five. Kinsey knew he'd found a prize, and he flattered Steward into becoming an unofficial "collaborator." In his journal, Steward wrote, "The thing that amazed [Kinsey] most . . . was that I was a 'record keeper'—'something all too rare,' he said." (A volume of Steward's writings edited by Spring, Notes from the Sexual Underground, 1935–1975, will be published later this year.)

Kinsey and Steward were kindred spirits: archivists, obsessives, collectors. Kinsey recorded other people's sex lives; Steward recorded his own. Each time Kinsey visited Chicago he met Steward, clocking upward of seven hundred hours of conversation, and they corresponded until the end of Kinsey's life. In 1951, Steward bought one of the first Polaroid cameras and showed the results to Kinsey. Sometime later, Steward was asked to put together a collection of "sex-related disciplinary devices" that duplicated his own.

Kinsey was deeply sympathetic to Steward, and though it is now thought that homosexual masochism was a part of Kinsey's own makeup, the relationship was platonic—a rarity for Steward. He regarded Kinsey as an accepting, nonjudgmental father figure. He was devastated by Kinsey's death in 1956 and wrote in his journal, "To think that this vital man, this overwhelming personality should have been struck down . . . leads me to distressful and adolescent cryings-out against something or other, I scarcely know what."

By then, however, Steward had thrown himself into a new obsession: tattooing. The interest was largely theoretical at first, and he was especially intrigued by the symbolism of the tattoo needle penetrating the body and leaving fluid behind. But then he got tattooed himself, writing, "The tattoos I have on me ally me with the herd, the toughs, the lower-class, the criminal." Before long, this interest was thoroughly practical. Steward became a practicing tattooist, calling himself Phil Sparrow and embarking on a career that lasted from 1954 to 1970, operating first from his own apartment, then moving to a booth in the Sportland Arcade in Chicago, later to Milwaukee, and eventually to Oakland.

Tattooing allowed him to put his ink and his hands on a large number of men, many of them sailors, and some of them were happy enough to have sex as part of the process (though as he got older, Steward relied more on paid hustlers). His reputation as a tattooist was high, but by the late 1960s the Bay Area was no longer a hippie haven. Crime, hard drugs, and the spread of hepatitis made a tattooist's life increasingly difficult. Steward had also become the "official" tattooist of the Hells Angels, a poison chalice if ever there was one.

In 1970, he hung up his tattoo machine and, writing as Phil Andros, concentrated on pornographic novels with titles such as San Francisco Hustler and The Greek Way (Steward's fiction oeuvre totals a dozen or so novels and a few story collections). In the 1980s, under his own name, he published two "Gertrude Stein–Alice B. Toklas Mysteries." The writing continued into the '90s, by which time he had become a cherished source of anecdote and history for the Bay Area gay community. He died in Berkeley in 1993, at age eighty-four.

• • • • •

That he lived to such a ripe old age is perhaps the most surprising fact of all about Steward. He took enormous risks, legal as well as physical—how he stayed out of jail is anybody's guess. He told the novelist Glenway Wescott, another Kinsey collaborator, "Of course, I wouldn't dare do it, except that my dream all my life has been to be in prison, and to be fucked morning, noon and night by everyone, and beaten." This must be one of the very few fantasies Steward failed to live out.

In a profile of Steward, interviewer Owen Keehnen concluded, "He was an absolute masterpiece of living," which is undeniable. And yet a life such as Steward's can create problems for a biographer, especially when the subject is a writer and artist. The life is fascinating, the writing and art rather less so.

Spring seems aware of this and suggests that Steward's writing is of sociological rather than literary interest. He has a point. Passages such as this one, from a letter to Lynes in 1954, are anything but timeless: "Here, at long last, was the essence of the Sailor. . . . Here was the hand that had knotted the rope and spliced it, the Sailor who knew the far suns and seas, the bamboo huts of savages."

When it comes to Steward's visual art, Spring writes that An Obscene Diary "is probably best described as a collection of ephemera documenting a period of serious experimental play, through which Steward effected the transition between his old life as a university professor and his new life as a tattoo artist." This is downright apologetic. Spring also contends that Steward was engaged in "a radical form of self-documentation," which sounds needlessly grand to me. Steward's self-documentation may have been historically unusual, but as the Internet proves, the moment people didn't have to take their film into a photo lab for processing, such documentation spread to every suburban subdivision and motel room in the land. (Admittedly, monstrances containing pubic hair remain a rarity.)

What makes Steward more thoroughly radical is the extremity of his needs. No doubt his masochism served a necessary purpose, but it's hard not to see him as a victim of both his times and his pathology, his sexuality rooted in self-hatred, although this is a conclusion Spring leaves to the reader. We might also conclude that Steward's life was a cause for terror and pity as much as celebration. He lived the only way he could, but we might well wish that he could have lived it with less anguish.

Even so, Samuel Steward is sui generis, not a symbol or representative of anything, neither a stereotype nor a role model. His life was extraordinary for its time, but it would have been extraordinary at any time. Spring's achievement is in rescuing Steward from the dark alleys of history and delivering him to us not as a case history but as a fully human and unique individual.

Geoff Nicholson's most recent novel is Gravity's Volkswagen (Harbour, 2009). He writes the food blog Psycho-Gourmet.

J Spring

September 7, 2010
8:38 am

As the author of the biography Secret Historian, I’d like to note that this review contains many inaccuracies:

The reviewer writes "Steward's fiction oeuvre totals a dozen or so novels." Not so. There are nine novels, not "a dozen or so." They are: the early literary novel Angels on the Bough; The five Phil Andros novels, My Brother, Myself; The Boys in Blue; Roman Conquests; Shuttlecock; Greek Ways; the roman a clef, Parisian Lives; and the two Gertrude Stein mysteries, The Caravaggio Shawl and Murder is Murder is Murder.

The reviewer writes, "Steward had thrown himself into a new obsession: tattooing. The interest was largely theoretical at first...but then he got himself tattooed." Not so. Steward's early interest in tattooing came about first through the casual, drunken act of getting himself tattooed in 1948, as described on page 104 of the biography. The first “theoretical” interest in tattooing is documented in several letters and journal writings from 1954, which can be found on page 188 of the biography. This “theoretical” interest develops nearly six years (and 82 pages) after Steward was first tattooed.

The reviewer writes, "Steward…boasted of having had sex with Rock Hudson in a Marshall Field's elevator and with Lord Alfred Douglas." Not so. As I state in the biography, Steward never wrote or spoke publicly of his sexual encounter with the young man who later took the screen name of Rock Hudson. Steward’s single written description of their sexual activity occurs in his Stud File (where Hudson is listed under his real name of Roy Fitzgerald and no elevator is mentioned). The contents of the Stud File card for Fitzgerald are clearly noted in the biography on page 94; the specifics of the encounter as they were described by Steward to his friend and former student Douglas Martin in 1978 (via telephone) are also footnoted on page 94. Steward also mentioned the Roy Fitzgerald incident to his close friend Jack Fritscher in the late 1970s. Fritscher and Martin described these intimate revelations by Steward about Fitzgerald in the course of my interviewing them; both are still alive to confirm the conversations today. Neither characterized the revelation as boastful, nor did I ever imply Steward was boastful about his sex life in the biography. To my understanding he was the opposite of boastful.
Much as he may have privately valued his experiences with a number of notable men, Steward was truly reluctant to describe his encounters with Rudolf Valentino, Rock Hudson, Thornton Wilder and Lord Alfred Douglas in public. Steward nonetheless wrote about his experiences with Douglas and Wilder after being urged to do so by his gay activist editor (and friend) Richard Hall. (Hall, for his part, felt that a written document of these experience would be valuable to future generations, and so they are.) The section of the biography in which Steward hesitates to write about both Wilder and Douglas (pages 385-390) features substantial extracts from letters Steward wrote about his disinclination to violate their privacy. Steward wrote these letters not only to his friend Douglas Martin and to his editor at the Advocate, Richard Hall; but also to the Thornton Wilder biographer Linda Simon; to the Thornton Wilder biographer Gilbert Harrison; and to the Beinecke Library director Donald Gallup. These letters are quoted in the biography and clearly cited in the book’s endnotes. None of them could be remotely characterized as boastful.

The reviewer writes "There are, however, a couple of Steward's sexual encounters for which we don't have to take his own word." There are many more than “a couple.” In An Obscene Diary: The Visual World of Sam Steward, one of the two books the reviewer is ostensibly reviewing, there are 224 polaroids in which Steward is recognizably having sex with dozens if not hundreds of different men. The rest of the section of the book featuring the sex polaroids (which is to say,196 of the 320 pages in that book) features photographs in which Steward is either participating in the sex acts of others as a photographic voyeur, or else participating in sex acts as a subject with his face obscured. The reviewer's assertion that there are only "a couple of...sexual encounters" about which Steward had proof (or about which his biographer had proof) is stunningly inaccurate. The reviewer needed only to look at one of the two books he was reviewing in order to see that proof.

The reviewer states "the only source [about the encounter with Valentino] is Steward himself, in an interview he did with the Advocate" : Not true. Apart from that 1989 interview, Steward corresponded with his friend Douglas Martin about the event during 1977 and 1978; he also discussed it with Martin by telephone, according to Martin, who is still living. Steward also mentioned it in an unpublished interview with Jack Fritscher in 1974 which was given to me by Fritscher for my research. In the biography, the Fritscher interview with Steward is mentioned in a footnote on the same page as the encounter (page 16), so I wonder how the reviewer could have missed it. A full citation for the Fritscher interview is also listed in the bibliography, on page 450. One of the several portions of the Martin-Steward correspondence that clearly and specifically mention the Valentino encounter (and the Valentino pubic hair clipping) appears on page 381 of the biography.

"Justin Spring...isn't troubled by such doubts [about the Valentino encounter]." Not true. The reviewer’s suggestion that I took the documentation of Steward’s life lightly is really very bizarre, considering the 45 pages of notes and bibliography the book contains. I approached every aspect of Steward's life with skepticism.
Quite apart from the coherent set of statements Steward made about the meeting with Valentino throughout the course of his long life, both in interviews and personal correspondence, there is no denying that the Valentino autograph exists (it is pictured in the photo section of the biography), and moreover that it exists in a bound album that contains 18 other celebrity autographs and 50 autographs of Steward's high-school classmates in Columbus. The reviewer chose not mention this fact – which has a direct bearing on the credibility of the autograph – even though both the album and its contents are clearly described in the biography in the footnote on page 15. That footnote gives the names of the 18 other celebrities, all of whom are known to have passed through Columbus during that period, many of them staying at the Deshler-Wallick, a luxury hotel that was, in fact, physically connected to the Palace Theater, where so many of these celebrities (including silent film stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Pauline Lord, and Mae Murray) made public appearances.
The autograph album remained with Steward throughout his life as a cherished object, and it remains with his executor today. The authenticity of the 69 signatures in the bound volume have never been doubted by anyone who has seen it, including the rare book and manuscript dealer who estimated its value for Steward in 1973. In comparing the Valentino autograph to other examples of Valentino’s autograph, I saw no great discrepancies, apart from the use of a different sort of pen; but in Steward’s account, Steward supplied Valentino with the pen. There was also, arguably, the question of underlining; Valentino usually underlined his name. But given that the 31-year-old Valentino was standing in a hotel room, wet from the shower and with a towel around his waist, using an unfamiliar pen, I thought it probable that his signature in this instance was probably more hurried than most.
In later years, Steward was puzzled by the accounts of Valentino’s life as presented in celebrity biographies. In a letter to his close friend Douglas Martin dated November 4, 1977, he wrote of the impossibility of distinguishing between fact and fiction in all that had been written about the star: “You won’t learn much from the Scagnetti book,” he wrote Martin, “Nor from the Irving Shulman biography. Nor from Brad Steiger’s and Chaw Mank’s (was ever such a name!) sensational paperback. There’s a fairly sober Penguin paperback by Alexander Walker with lotsa pitchers. [And here is] a quote from Raymond de Becker’s Other Face of Love (purporting to come from R[udolf] V[alentino]’s private journal, date: June 5, ‘24: “a very goodlooking boy followed me for a quarter of an hour, and in the end he came up to me outside the Opera (in Paris) ...I went with him to his home and he kissed me with a frenzy even on the staircase...I was wildly passionate...We made love like tigers until the dawn.” However...all this junk about R[udolf] V[alentino] is just searching out the scandale, I reckon...what someone called ‘biograffitti.’”
As Steward’s biographer, I too felt that celebrity biography was a less than trustworthy source of information. Steward, on the other hand, was in no way a celebrity and in no way connected to the Hollywood dream-machine; he gained nothing by writing the truth of his own life except the satisfaction of self-documentation. He was passionately committed to keeping a clear and detailed lifelong record of his sex life. His extraordinary archive continues to bear witness to that commitment. And anyone who has read Steward's memoir, Chapters from an Autobiography, or his 1977 memoir of his friendship with Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Dear Sammy, can see that throughout his life Steward was drawn to confession. Religious confession; literary confession; epistolary confession; and finally diaristic and statistical confession.
In Steward’s journal, in an entry dated Sept 20, 1954, he described his relationship to Kinsey through the act of journal-writing by noting “Dr. Kinsey will read all I have to say herein, and probably no other….with him I have always been painfully exact and honest.” Several years earlier, in 1950, Kinsey interviewed Steward extensively about his sex life, and subsequently asked Steward for a copy of the Stud File. The Stud File contained the card about Valentino, filed under the name “R. Guglielmi”. Steward gave the Stud File to Kinsey, and Kinsey copied and returned it in May of 1950. The idea that Steward would have lied to Kinsey about his sexual activities is, to my mind, simply not possible, given his work for and with Kinsey over the many years of their acquaintance, and given Steward’s own core belief in the importance of sexual documentation. The letter detailing the copying of the Stud File by Kinsey is clearly noted on page 119 of the biography, both in text and footnote, and those letters remain at the Kinsey Institute Library. The Kinsey Institute will also confirm that the copy Kinsey made of Steward’s Stud File remains in the Kinsey Archive.
Given Steward's determination throughout his life to testify with total honesty about the nature of his sexuality and sexual activities, given his absolute commitment to the Kinsey research, and given the extraordinary physical evidence that substantiates the Valentino encounter, I concluded that Steward wrote the truth about his encounter with Valentino. But for the reviewer of the book to suggest that I did so without careful deliberation is, once again, inaccurate.

— Justin Spring

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