Pleasure Principle

An Obscene Diary: The Visual World of Sam Steward BY Justin Spring. edited by Sam Steward. Elysium Press/Antinous Press. Hardcover, 320 pages. $150.

The cover of An Obscene Diary: The Visual World of Sam Steward

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.

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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.

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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.