The Lost Autobiography of Samuel Steward. Review by Dale Boyer
Note - a version of this review appeared formerly in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
In 2010, Justin Spring's award-winning biography, Secret Historian, brought to light the curious history of Samuel Steward. Steward was a former university professor turned professional tattoo artist, which was unusual enough. But it was his history as a sexual renegade, and his long-time collaboration with Alfred Kinsey on the famous Kinsey report that seemed to be his true claim to fame -- that, and the fact that he wrote a great deal of gay literature under the name of Phil Andros. Oh, and there's also the fact that he had sex more than 4,500 times with over 800 different men, including Rudolph Valentino, Rock Hudson (in an elevator in Marshall Field's Department Store), Oscar Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, and Thornton Wilder, as well as friendships with Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, and a host of other luminaries.
All of this information and more has already been covered in Spring's excellent biography -- so thoroughly, in fact, that one might wonder at this point: is there really much value to reading the autobiography itself? While Spring's book drew on a great variety of Steward's unpublished work, as well as notations in his "Stud File" (the exhaustive catalog he kept of every sexual experience), editor Jeremy Mulderig here has set himself the task of reconstructing Steward's autobiography both from a vastly truncated earlier work (Chapters from an Autobiography) with work from his unpublished 110,000 word manuscript in the Beinecke Library at Yale University which, even in Steward's own judgment, was overly long. The result is a reconstructed and expanded version of 85,000 words that has never been published in this form before.
Steward is an engaging and erudite writer (his Ph.D. background is everywhere in evidence), and he seems to have been drawn to -- and defiant about -- his sexuality from a very early age. Steward claims to have had sex with every member of his high school basketball team, four members of the football team, and three of the track. Nor, he claims, was he ever taunted for this, partly, he reasons, because the men enjoyed access to sex too much, and also because of the relative lack of sophistication of small towns:
"By and large, homosexuality and fellatio were considered so unbelievable and impossible that although one might be teased for being a sissy, no one could believe that any person actually engaged in the 'abominable sin.' This kind of thinking protected us all during the 1920s and '30s, and we lived happily under its shadow and cover."
Openly defiant even in his choice of Ph.D. subjects, Steward, in his dissertation, touched upon the probable homosexuality of Cardinal Newman. Despite this, he somehow managed to gain teaching positions at DePaul and Loyola Universities in Chicago -- posts he would occupy for the next 20 years.
Feeling stifled in academia, however, he gave this up to pursue a career as a tattoo artist. Friends and family were aghast at his career choice, but he wore his tattoos -- and viewed his tattooing -- not only as a badge of honor, but also as an assertion of sexual freedom. Even his eventual decision to leave teaching was thumbing his nose at established society: as he took his leave of academia, he had himself tattooed with a winged phallus and whip, thereby literally branding himself, a la Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, with the emblem of his difference.
Steward reveled in his sudden unfettered access to all the glorious young navy bodies (via Chicago's close proximity to the Great Lakes Naval Base). After all, he could now freely touch and decorate these men -- something he'd never been able to do as a teacher, looking out at all the bright, young, undergraduate males. Steward writes that many of the men opened up in unexpected ways during the sudden intimacy of the tattooing session, and he had sex with a number of them in the back of his shop on Chicago's skid row (in those days, located on State Street south of Van Buren).
Eventually, Steward met Kinsey, who was immediately taken not only with Steward's sense of liberation about sex, but also impressed by his immaculate record keeping. Over time, Kinsey would film him in several S/M sessions, and the two spent over 700 hours discussing such things as the link between tattooing and sex (both involve an active and a passive partner, as well as insertion).
In 1963, legal complications arose when the law in Illinois changed to require that anyone receiving a tattoo be at least 21. This suddenly dried up Steward's supply of eager young 18-year-olds, thereby impelling Steward to relocate first to Milwaukee, then to the far more liberated San Francisco of 1965. However, at 56, Steward was aging. Anyone else at this point may have begun to think of retirement, but there was yet a third career in the offing for Steward, that of a writer of pornographic tales. Thus was born the literary persona of Phil Andros, who would go on to create a series of hustler stories such as $tud and Below the Belt, some graced with covers by Tom of Finland.
The book offers tantalizing glimpses of both Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, with whom he carried on a friendship that spanned decades. It provides, as well, fascinating insights into well-known but sadly closeted individuals such as Thornton Wilder, of whom Steward writes:
"Thornton went about sex almost as if he were looking the other way, doing something else, and nothing happened that could be prosecuted anywhere, unless frottage could be called a crime. There was never even any kissing…He could never forthrightly discuss anything sexual; for him the act itself was quite literally unspeakable."
Here is a witness to some of the world's great personalities, living defiantly through the strictures imposed by society during those times, and asserting at every turn that he had as much right to be happy as anyone else, which is precisely what makes his memoir one of the most remarkably daring and unusual accounts of an unapologetically renegade gay man in the 20th century.