Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade
Who was Sam Steward? Influential professor, ballet enthusiast, S/M practitioner, author of paperback pornos and serious novels, and tattoo artist are just a few of the roles he played in his life. Among his friends were many important cultural and literary figures of the time including Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Thorton Wilder, Ed Hardy, and Alfred Kinsey, yet he remains virtually unknown today. Justin Spring brings to light Steward’s story for the first time, drawing on his many letters and obsessively detailed records of his sexual encounters kept on index cards known as the “Stud File.” Steward dabbled in many professions and lifestyles, managing to be very talented at many things but never exceptional at anything.
The great tragedy of Steward’s life is that he could almost taste the fame and fortune in front of him, but could never quite reach out and grasp them. Most of his big plans fall through—he is rejected by the Navy and loses his dream of becoming a sailor, he is forced to give up his teaching position when his tattoo parlor and homosexual activities are discovered, and his memoirs remained unpublished at the time of his death.
Yet despite his failures, Spring makes a strong case for Steward’s significance in early American homosexual history. Steward was decades ahead of most in his views on pride in gay identity. He was not ashamed of his sexuality, and had a great disdain for those that insisted homosexuality was a disease. He displayed male pornography in his apartments and held “daisy chain” parties where many men would have sex together at a time when discovery of these activities would have resulted in imprisonment. A combination of self-destructive tendencies, sexual desire, and earnest rebellion fueled his search for sex in dangerous places with dangerous men. He nearly avoids death multiple times, and is repeatedly raped, robbed, and beaten up by men he seeks sexual encounters with. He has many pleasurable sexual encounters, however, including a memorable elevator experience with movie star Rock Hudson before he was famous.
Outside of sex, his life was mainly devoted to writing and teaching. He had numerous letter correspondences, the most moving of which was with Gertrude Stein. Steward was one of the first to have frank discussions with her about her lesbianism, and she doted on him like a son. Steward is forced to watch Stein and most of his friends die throughout his lifetime. In late life, he becomes very depressed and addicted to barbiturates. He dies almost all alone in the world, his life mostly a side note in the biographies of his celebrity friends.
Spring does a good job of chronicling Steward’s life, making him seem both interesting and endearing. The thoroughness of his biography is at once the book’s greatest asset and its greatest fault. While Spring is clearly passionate and dedicated to his subject matter, his work could have benefited from a lot of editing. For instance, it is not essential to know every time Steward gets diarrhea, or every brief love affair he has, but Spring includes everything. Nearly every page has a footnote, or several, with information that is not particularly vital to the story.
Overall, though, Secret Historian is a compelling homage to a man history has unjustly ignored. Steward may have not become famous in his lifetime but his writing, teaching, and friendships brought comfort to many other struggling writers and homosexuals in America and helped them to survive, and it is for this that Spring takes the time to give him the recognition he deserves.