Gerry B's Book Reviews

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

Will the real Samuel Steward please stand up…




Blurb: 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 pseudonym Phil Andros.

Until today Steward’s many identities have been known to only a few—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 in the years before gay liberation.  

Hardcover – 496 pages; also available in Kindle format – 898 KB


Review by Gerry Burnie

It’s difficult to know what to say about Secret Historian by Justin Spring [Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010]. It is the type of story that overwhelms while you’re reading it, and stays with you long after you set it down. Moreover, while I liked and admired Justin Spring’s writing, and the nostalgic look at the twentieth century, I disliked the principal character, Samuel Steward, as being disturbingly egocentric and self-serving.

Having said that, I will start by saying that even though Spring was the beneficiary of nearly thirty boxes of Steward’s journals, papers, photographs, etc. (a horde that most writers—especially me—would give their souls to find), he still had to sort and categorize these into a meaningful order for the rest of us. Not an easy task, given Steward’s will-of-the-wisp nature. In this regard, I believe has done a masterful job of tracing Steward’s development from a displaced youngster in a stiflingly, religious-bound backwater, to the avant-garde salons of Paris; overseen by such literary giants as Gertrude Stein and Alice B Tolkas.

On a personal note I identified most sympathetically with Steward’s small town beginnings, whereby he learned very quickly how to be deceptive because it was what others wanted, i.e.

[The situation was that Steward had written a ‘love’ note to a salesman who had unethically made it public. Thereby, Steward’s father (a drunken, drug-using Sunday school teacher) found out about it and confronted his son.] “I want to know what the hell a son of mine is doing writing love letters to another man.” Steward recalled him saying in his journal, and then went on: ““I think,” I said, drawing on my new vocabulary from Havelock Ellis, “that I am homosexual.”

“…Don’t give me any of your smartaleck high school rhetoric!” He [his father] bellowed…[And] that was the way the conversation went on for about an hour. When I saw that he wanted to believe that I had not actually sinned, the game became fairly easy…I pretended to be chastened, to be horror-struck at the enormity of [what I had proposed to the salesman]…I worked it to the hilt, falling in easily with his suggestion that perhaps I should go to see a professional whore—that such an experience might start me on a heterosexual (he said “normal”) path.””

It was the first lesson that he, and we, learned about being homosexual in pre-Stonewall days—pre-bathhouse-raid days in Canada (1981). Deception and compartmentalization were the prices paid for pursuing an alternative lifestyle; not because one wanted to live a lie, but because others were uncomfortable with the truth. Oh, and the understood cure for deviance was the “Royal Fuck,” as a friend of mine once coined it.

It is not at all surprising that Steward could juggle multiple lives; including, incidentally, a (alcoholic) professor of graduate studies. Moreover, his students apparently loved him, and he loved them; one in particular, for whom he traded “As” for blow jobs.

One of the things I found quite interesting was the absence of the term “gay” when referring to himself or others as homosexual. Rather, he used the more clinical descriptor “invert,” “deviant” or, occasionally, the pejorative “queer.” This is no doubt due to the fact that “gay,” referring to a homosexual, dates from after WWII (1945). It, too, was used as a pejorative until it was adopted by the gay community.

Another aspect that fascinated me was the treatment for syphilis in the pre-penicillin era, i.e.

“The best treatment then available was ‘a three year ordeal—[including] weekly shots of Neosalvarsan from a doctor…’”

“The painful weekly shots gave Steward both purpura and a skin ulcer. After the course of neosalvarsan came a mercury ointment that he had to rub into his armpits and groin, and then a course of saturated solution of potassium iodide ‘which caused the skin to erupt all over [my] back in what looked like Job’s boils.’”

The fact that Steward contracted syphilis is not at all surprising, for he was a twentieth-century Satyr with an insatiable sexual appetite, and who kept his own ‘scoreboard’ on 3” x 5” file cards that he referred to as his “Stud File.” These included sailors, thugs, underage hustlers, Rudolph Valentino, Thorton Wilder (“Our Town”), students, policemen, ex-cons, priests, Hells Angels, scripted orgies, and brutal S/M sessions (both scripted and otherwise). Indeed, so prodigious was he that it surprising he found the time to do anything else.

Nevertheless, Justin Spring, like a good biographer, never judges; rather, he leaves it to the readers to draw their own conclusions. In this respect, while Secret Historian is a valuable look at gay history throughout much of the twentieth century, it is seen through the slightly distorted prism of one man’s exploits. Enthusiastically recommended for biography fans, and students of the twentieth century. Four stars.

Last week 310 visitors viewed Bashed, by Rick Reed. Thank you for your insterest. Gerry B.

February 20, 2011 Posted by | biography, Historical period, Homoerotic, Non-fiction | Leave a comment


%d bloggers like this: