Role models of greatness.
Tuesday, January 25, 2022
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."
Friday, January 7, 2022
French composer Francis Poulenc, who engaged in a long string of homosexual relationships, was born January 7, 1899, into a wealthy Parisian family. In 1920 he became a member of a group of young composers dubbed “Les Six.” The others were Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey. Their music was a reaction against the music by the Impressionists (Debussy and Ravel) and late Romantics (Wagner, Puccini, etc.).
During the late 1920s Poulenc first acted on his homosexuality when he met painter Richard Chanlaire, who became his lover. Poulenc’s second lover, the bisexual Raymond Destouches, was a chauffeur and dedicatee of several of Poulenc’s compositions. Musicologists suggested that Poulenc considered gay sex impure and thus had a difficult time with making homosexuality his identity.
The success of his 1924 ballet score for Diaghilev’s “Les biches” (The Deer) led to the commissions of his Concerto for Two Pianos* (1932) and the Organ Concerto (1938), both commissioned by fabulously wealthy lesbian American expatriate Winnaretta Singer, known as Princesse Edmond de Polignac. The organ concerto was premiered in the music salon of her private home, which housed a pipe organ. Famed organist Maurice Duruflé was the soloist.
Poulenc would later have a brief affair with a woman known as Frédérique and have a daughter by her in 1946. They did not marry. In a tour of the United States Poulenc met a friendly gay couple, Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, accomplished duo pianists who commissioned the Sonata for Two Pianos (1953). Poulenc found tours difficult, because they separated him from Lucien Roubert, his lover who died of pleurisy in 1955, just after Poulenc completed his masterpiece, the opera “Les dialogues des Carmélites.” In 1957 he met his last significant lover, Louis Gautier, who helped to revive his spirits. In that year, Poulenc produced his Flute Sonata (middle mvt. in YouTube excerpt below).
Poulenc also composed a significant body of first-rate art songs, numbering more than 200; they remain staples of the genre.
"Hôtel" from a set of five songs "Banalités" (1940). Sung by Régine Crespin.
Leonard Bernstein commissioned Poulenc to write "Sept répons des ténèbres" (1961) for the opening of the Philharmonic Hall, hence known as Avery Fisher Hall, now David Geffen Hall (since 2015) at Lincoln Center, NYC. Shortly thereafter Poulenc died of a heart attack on January 30, 1963. One of the most honored composers of his time, he left an enduring legacy.
Poulenc: A Biography by Roger Nichols
Poulenc: The Life in the Songs by Graham Johnson
*French conductor Georges Prêtre championed the works of Poulenc. I’ll never forget a performance in Paris (November 2004) of Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, selected by Prêtre to be performed on his 80th Birthday concert at the magnificently restored Art Deco masterpiece, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Prêtre owns this piece. Here he conducts the Orchestra National de la RTF with the composer (piano on the left) and Jacques Février (piano on right) in the first movement of the concerto for two pianos.
at the piano with Jean-Pierre Rampal on flute (Rampal was the dedicatee). This middle movement of Poulenc's Flute
Sonata (1957), marked Cantilena, is typical of his light, accessible style. This sonata has the honor of being the most often performed work in the entire repertoire of pieces written for flute and piano. Your blogger had the pleasure of rehearsing this sonata last evening (as accompanist). Pure pleasure.