Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Samuel Steward: Renegade Professor...

...tattoo artist, writer, masochist & Thornton Wilder's lover

Steward (1909-1993) is the subject of a lurid and fascinating biography penned by art scholar Justin Spring: Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade (published September, 2010). 478 pages. Print and kindle editions available.

The title is not the half of it. Steward was the polymath to end all polymaths. He was a poet who made a career in academia, teaching English at DePaul and Loyola Universities (Steward held a PhD in English), but used the name Phil Sparrow when he began a career as a tattoo artist (he used a pseudonym so as not to jeopardize his teaching position). Steward became addicted to the use of pseudonyms. As the author of gay S&M pulp fiction over a period of more than 30 years, he went by Phil Andros (among many others), providing eager readers with astonishingly literate porn. When the Hells Angels in Oakland, CA, used him as their official tattoo artist, they called him Doc Sparrow. Readers of his articles in underground newspapers and magazines knew him as Ward Stames (an anagram of Sam Steward). And most of these circles of friends were completely ignorant of each other. Suffice it to say that the Hells Angels were unaware that their resident tattoo artist had once been Thornton Wilder's lover.

To a close circle of prominent artistic friends like Paul Cadmus, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Christopher Isherwood, photographer George Platt Lynes and the like, he was known as Sammy. Thornton Wilder drafted the third act of Our Town during a brief affair with Steward in Zurich, Switzerland, upon their first meeting. Steward had a fling with avant-garde writer James Purdy when Purdy was still in his teens. In the early 1950s Steward made pornographic drawings, many of them based on his own Polaroid photographs, and some of his work was published in the trilingual Swiss homosexual journal Der Kreis (The Circle). Oh -- forgot to mention that he played a mean piano.

What a life this man led. As a teenager he seduced Rudolph Valentino (and kept some of the silent film actor’s pubic hair as a memento*), made love to a much older Lord Alfred Douglas (providing an amorous link to his hero Oscar Wilde), bedded Andre Gide’s Arab lover (with Gide’s full consent), and put the moves on Rock Hudson in a department store elevator. Steward kept a card file of every single sexual dalliance, complete with statistics and descriptions of acts performed. Steward was a protegé of Albert Kinsey, who flew in a partner to engage Steward in S&M sexual activity so that Kinsey could film it (assisted by Kinsey's wife!). In his spare time Steward reveled in abusing alcohol and drugs. By the age of 26, while he was a professor at Loyola, Steward was drinking more than a quart of alcohol a day, all the while never missing a class or appointment.

Spring’s book jumps to no conclusions and is assiduously non-judgmental. He simply relates what he discovered among the 80 boxes full of drawings, letters, photographs, sexual paraphernalia, manuscripts and other items made accessible to him by the executor of Steward’s estate. Included was that infamous green metal card catalog labeled “Stud File,” which contained meticulously documented index cards on every sexual partner that Steward had enjoyed over a 50 year period.

It is possible to purchase new and used erotic paperback copies of Steward's pulp porn from amazon.com (search "Phil Andros"), but the prices are staggering: $30-$60-$90 and up for a used paperback, in the hundreds of dollars for new, uncirculated  copies. The Advocate magazine called the Phil Andros erotic novels "the Rolls-Royce" of gay porn. When Justin Spring (author of this biography) passed along several of them to a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, she stated that it was the "happiest, most well-adjusted pornography" she had ever read. My personal reaction (I read one only for researching this post, I swear!) is that you might think that only if your taste runs toward rough sex (and mine does). Enjoy this biography, and try to get your hands on a Phil Andros paperback, many of them replete with covers illustrated by Tom of Finland (see photo at beginning of post).

In an interview by Owen Keehnen in the last year of Steward’s life, Keehan described Steward as "a charmingly smutty Auntie Mame, only instead of life's being a banquet, it was a gay orgy in a tattoo parlor." Steward told Keehan why he gave up teaching English: "I was teaching a freshman class, and I had a little trick of firing a lot of questions at the class to find out what their background was. One of the questions was 'Who is Homer?' It was a mixed class of forty, and not one of them had ever heard of Homer. Can you imagine? Then I asked how many knew how to change a sparkplug, and about thirty hands went up. So that day I decided that maybe it was time for me to think about leaving higher education. I wanted to get as far away as I could. That was tattooing. The mysterious and dark side of tattooing attracted me as well."

*This incident is worthy of its own post. Rudolph Valentino, the silent film heartthrob of countless women, had been called a "pink powder puff" in the Chicago Tribune, a reference to his effeminate mannerisms. Valentino headed to Chicago by train to challenge the reporter to a duel (the writer never showed up) and was then on his way back to California when he stopped for an overnight at a hotel in Columbus, Ohio (July 24, 1926). Valentino was registered incognito, under his real name. Steward, who was living at his aunt's boarding house in Columbus, was an avid collector of autographs, and he got tipped off by a friend who worked at the hotel. Steward, who had celebrated his 17th birthday the day before, knocked on Valentino's door and got his autograph. Their collective gaydar must have been working overtime, because Valentino asked Steward, "Is there anything else you want?" Steward replied, "Yes. You!" Valentino obliged, and Steward kept a scrap of Valentino's pubic hair in a monstrance(!) by his bed for the rest of his life. Steward had not yet converted to Catholicism (1936; he left the church 18 months later, when he came to realize that no one with honesty could be both a Catholic and a homosexual); he was raised Methodist, and his father had taught Sunday School in a Methodist Church for 20 years. Tragically, within a month Valentino died of a ruptured appendix at age thirty-one. Steward's first published book, Pan and the Fire-Bird (1930), a collection of poems and short stories, contained Steward's tribute to Valentino, a poem titled "Libation to a Dead God."

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for bringing attention to a wonderful biography of a truly fascinating gay man.

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  2. Thank you for this timely post - I am reading this fascinating and well written biography right now

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  3. Thank you for yet another well-written, informative piece of gay history. I hope you never tire of keeping up this blog for I will never tire of reading it.

    ReplyDelete