Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade

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9780374533021: Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade

Drawn from the secret, never-before-seen diaries, journals, and sexual records of the novelist, poet, and university professor Samuel M. Steward, Secret Historian is a sensational reconstruction of one of the more extraordinary hidden lives of the twentieth century. An intimate friend of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder, Steward maintained a secret sex life from childhood on, and documented these experiences in brilliantly vivid (and often very funny) detail.

After leaving the world of academe to become Phil Sparrow, a tattoo artist on Chicago's notorious South State Street, Steward worked closely with Alfred Kinsey on his landmark sex research. During the early 1960s, Steward changed his name and identity once again, this time to write exceptionally literate, upbeat pro-homosexual pornography under the name of Phil Andros.

Until today he has been known only as Phil Sparrow―but an extraordinary archive of his papers, lost since his death in 1993, has provided Justin Spring with the material for an exceptionally compassionate and brilliantly illuminating life-and-times biography. More than merely the story of one remarkable man, Secret Historian is a moving portrait of homosexual life long before Stonewall and gay liberation.
Secret Historian is a 2010 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction.

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About the Author:

Justin Spring is a writer specializing in twentieth-century American art and culture, and the author of many monographs, catalogs, museum publications, and books, including Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art and Paul Cadmus: The Male Nude.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
“Wild—Hog Wild”Samuel Morris Steward was born July 23, 1909, in Woodsfield, the seat of Monroe County in southeastern Ohio, a county bordering on Appalachia, and in many ways just as impoverished as that region. His modest, small-town beginnings are important to an understanding of the man he later became, for his plainspoken humor and openness to all things sexual are surely related to his country roots. At the same time, his lifelong preoccupation with the nature of his homosexuality can be seen as a direct response to the “stern and austere Puritanism of my Methodist maiden aunts.”Outside accounts of Steward’s early life are basically nonexistent, and he himself wrote of it only in passing; those few sentimental memories he retained of his childhood—whether shared in letters to his sister, or else recounted in his journals or unpublished memoirs—seem to have made him too sad to dwell on it for long. And indeed he had a painful early life. His academically brilliant mother had died of an intestinal obstruction when he was only six, and his father, who had both drug and alcohol addictions, was essentially unable to care for either Steward or his baby sister. As a result, Steward grew up in a boardinghouse run by his mother’s sister and two stepsisters. These three older spinsters—Elizabeth Rose and Minnie Rose, and their half sister Amy Morris—spent most of their day “cooking and serving, making beds and washing, and hoeing in the garden behind the house when there was time for it.”The Morris, Rose, and Steward families had resided in the Woods-field area for generations, and were well established in the professional class; even Steward’s father, despite his drinking and drug problems, had served for a time as Monroe County’s deputy auditor, and despite his multiple addictions taught a weekly Methodist Bible class for more than twenty years. Steward’s paternal grandfather, meanwhile, was a respected country doctor. All of Steward’s family on his deceased mother’s side were teetotalers as well as devout Methodists, and the church literally loomed large in their lives, for the town’s imposing redbrick church stood just across the street from the boardinghouse. The town had no Catholics, and the one black who had attempted to settle there had been run out of town on a rail. As a result, Steward grew up seeing the world as basically divided between those who devoted their lives to Protestant churchgoing and Christian good works (such as his aunts and maternal grandparents), and those who had, for whatever reason, fallen away.Faced both with the death of his mother and the improvidential absence of his father, the six-year-old Steward might well have withdrawn into grief or shocked stupor. But with the resilience of a child, he did just the opposite, dedicating himself energetically to becoming a highly sympathetic companion to the work-worn aunts who had taken him in. By stepping away from his own feelings and concerning himself primarily with the management and care of others, he was insuring he would not once again be discarded, and in so doing he was also setting the pattern for his later life. But as a result he also grew up feeling very much an outsider, and relatively at a distance from his own feelings and impulses, for he naturally had a great deal of grief and sadness about his own life situation. His aunts seemed not to notice, however, for they had any number of problems and concerns of their own, and moreover they themselves were not very happy people. Worn down by endless amounts of domestic work and by constant money worries, they seem to have lavished most of the joy and attention they had on Steward’s very beautiful baby sister. Steward was after all a boy, and seemed relatively capable of taking care of himself. None of the three aunts had much understanding of males: after all, none of them had married or had children or even had brothers. As adult women living in a home owned by aged parents, their own lives were, in a very real sense, a surrender to womanly duty: their personal frustrations and domestic claustrophobia were something they accepted as their lot. These were the three adults who populated Steward’s childhood—stern, comfortless, deeply religious women who could not quite understand him or his ways, and yet whom he felt an urgent, almost desperate need to comfort, accommodate, and appease.Out of the double loss of his mother and father—one loss permanent and abrupt, the other ongoing and perpetually inconclusive—Steward seems to have accepted from a very early moment that his life’s essential condition would be one of loneliness and exclusion. Deprived of parental love and recognition, he would grow up expecting very little love from others. Likewise, having experienced very little touching, warmth, or affection as a child, he would eventually find that prolonged physical intimacy made him extremely uncomfortable, and that those who expected the same from him were destined for disappointment. He would grow up to be a very sociable man, highly skilled at managing and seducing others, but unable to cope with everyday closeness. As a boy, he did his best to fit in, but at the same time he spent a good deal of time by himself. His preference for solitude eventually led this gifted young boy to develop a rich private fantasy life, one in which he thought of himself as someone special, separate, and apart.Steward was very intelligent, like his mother, and he worked very hard in school. His aunts had high expectations for him, for although they were stuck in the boardinghouse, they wanted something better for him, and also for his sister. They saw to it that he earned top grades, kept fastidiously clean, had perfect manners, and in general did everything right. Wanting so much to please and amuse his aunts, Steward not only worked hard at his studies but also quickly mastered the piano, and soon specialized in “showy little pieces” that he picked out specifically to delight them. They, in turn, made a great fuss about his looks, which were delicate and refined. In an early set of photographs, he is beautifully turned out in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit featuring velvet breeches, a matching jacket, and a delicate round white collar. In many ways, he seemed like a perfect little doll.Whatever ambivalence Steward may have felt about his childhood in later life, he never denied the goodness of his aunts, or their love of him, or the many great sacrifices they made on his behalf. And, in fact, he would portray them quite tenderly in his first literary novel. But he was also exhausted by them—for the perfect, doll-like, self-contained little man they so much wanted him to be was very far from the complicated, fallible, and emotionally deprived young boy that he was, or the troubled teen he eventually became.Because of his extraordinary academic achievements, Steward seems to have felt from a very early moment that the great awareness of “difference” he had from the people around him was primarily due to his intelligence. And indeed he was very intelligent: brilliant not only at all his school subjects, but also at music, amateur dramatics, and drawing. Among these many activities, though, he found his greatest pleasure in reading and writing, for through them he began to imagine himself in the outside world. From his earliest days Steward read everything he could lay his hands on: popular fiction, poetry, and the great classics of Western literature. He borrowed vast numbers of books from the local library, and also purchased books and magazines by mail. Because silent films were shown weekly in town, Steward became a great fan of film and stage celebrities—men and women whose lives and careers seemed so real to him in the pages of Photoplay that he began to write them letters. Much to his amazement, several wrote back. In this way, reading and writing served from earliest childhood to create for Steward an intimate conduit to the world of his dreams and fantasies—a world full of glamorous and fascinating people so very different from the simple folk of Woodsfield. Before long Steward was writing to nearly every celebrity he could think of—authors, musicians, and film stars—and assiduously collecting and cataloging their autographs and letters. He cherished their responses to him as proof positive of his own special ness. Through his collection of celebrity letters and autographs, he had created a world in which he stood at the absolute center.In his unpublished memoirs, Steward makes clear that while he spent many of his leisure hours reading and writing and chasing down autographs, he also spent a good deal of time playing with other boys and girls. He may have been thought of by his contemporaries as “different” because of his bookishness, but he was always treated with respect. The facility with which he handled nearly everyone around him—from his aunts to his teachers to his fellow high school students—suggests that Steward had a talent for communication. He was by no means a leader, but by the time he reached high school (and the emotional and physical changes that come with the onset of puberty), he was well known for playing any number of sly pranks and practical jokes. Duplicity was something in which, for whatever reason, he took an enormous and childlike delight: being bad, misbehaving, and “crossing the line” between acceptable and unacceptable behavior were in many ways central to his character from boyhood onward. This love of duplicity became even stronger when Steward discovered sex.Growing up under the watchful eyes of spinsters, Steward had known that sex was “wrong” long before he knew what it was. He later remembered, only half jokingly, that “in my sheltered little-boy Methodist way, the talk [of sex] caused me much agony. The sligh...

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