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‘Secret Historian’ By Justin Spring

‘Secret Historian’ By Justin Spring

Author: Reginald Harris

October 13, 2010

While I may not remember my first encounter with Phil Andros, I do know the one that made the strongest impression on me occurred in the bathroom of a friend’s house in New Jersey: There I discovered a copy of The Boys in Blue, Andros’ tale of cops on the make in 1970’s San Francisco—he had me hooked.

Over the next few years, my partner and I collected as many of the Tom-of-Finland-covered Perenium editions of his work as we could. Fortunately for us, someone in our city had fallen out of love with Phil, and sold many of their books to the (late, lamented) Lambda Rising, where we picked them up for their used books section version of a song.

To say that Phil and his adventures have given us hours of pleasure would be an understatement.

By the mid-1980s, it was known that ‘Phil Andros’ was the pen name for Samuel Steward, a man who improbably had gone from knowing Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas to writing “one-handed fiction.”

But finding out how this had happened and why, or much more about him, remained a mystery—Justin Spring’s Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward solves that mystery.

Drawing on the voluminous material left after Steward’s death—thanks to his habit of compulsively recording many aspects of his life, especially his sexual encounters—Spring has delivered the fullest account of this enthralling writer, professor, tattoo artists, and pornographer we are ever likely to have, and written one of the best books of the year.

Born in southeastern Ohio in 1909 and raised by his aunt and her stepsisters, Sam Steward seemed well on his way to a career as a writer and instructor, publishing a short story collection and a novel by the mid-1930s, and teaching at Washington State University, and both Loyola and DePaul in Chicago.

Although successful, it was his other life—his sexual life and his stubborn insistence on “his right to be free” at a time when homosexuality was illegal that lead him to abandon the academy to pursue tattooing and writing explicitly about sex.

The range of Steward’s contacts over his long life (he died on New Years Eve 1993) is astounding: from Stein and Toklas and Christopher Isherwood, to International Mister Leather founder Chuck Renslow and tattoo artist Don Hardy.

His conquests—Steward seduced Lord Alfred Douglass in order to “be connected” to Oscar Wilde, and had a quickie with a young actor soon to be known in Hollywood as Rock Hudson—were equally wide-ranging and included a pronounced weakness for sailors.

John Leaphart and Buddy Mc Cartny. George Platt Lynes

George Platt Lynes

In Chicago he shared stories—and African American Johnny Leapheart—with photographer George Platt Lynes, and later after moving to Oakland, California, became the official tattoo artist of the Hells Angels.

Steward meticulously documented his sex life from 1924–1974 in a 746-card “Stud File,” briefly detailing his thousands of encounters with other men. A sex researcher before its time, reading Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) gave this documentation a new focus. Steward met Kinsey in 1949, becoming a friend and “unofficial collaborator,” writing a long autobiographical statement for him, supplying him with materials and information about homosexuality and S/M—even filming some of his encounters to assist the doctor’s research.

Secret Historian is also at times very funny, as Steward details his encounter with the deeply closeted Thornton Wilder: “On top of me, and after ninety seconds and a dozen strokes against my belly he ejaculated. At this he sprang from our bed of roses and exclaimed in his rapid way: “Didntyoucome? Didntyoucome?” No, I didn’t” [Pg 52], to bemoaning the “‘Pussies in Boots’ of the burgeoning Leather/SM scene in California in the 1970s. For all his relative openness, however, Steward continued to have a certain ambivalence about homosexuality, finding male couples “unnatural” and believing men should “live alone and learn to like it, and to be self-sufficing,” like himself [pg 258].

Stud File

Using Steward’s life, Justin Spring has given us a vivid, in-depth look at gay life before Stonewall, when the “naiveté” of the mainstream about homosexuality allowed gays an odd kind of freedom to pursue “straight” men with impunity, while remaining outsiders in a world where they were not allowed to exist.

Previously the author of works on artists Fairfield Porter and Paul Cadmus, Spring also has edited the forthcoming An Obscene Diary: The Visual World of Sam Steward, a sample of the many drawings, photographs, and other works Steward created or collected over the years.

Brilliantly navigating through the many lives and pseudonyms of Steward, Secret Historian is a remarkable work that shows Justin Spring to be as much of a master seducer as Steward himself. Writing in a compulsively readable style which perfectly complements its subject’s incredible story, he turns what could have easily become a sordid tale of compulsive sex, publishing disappointments, and near misses into a balanced, clear-eyed portrait of a fascinating, complex human being who was, “if nothing else, a man who dared to live his beliefs.”
The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade
by Justin Spring
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374281342, 496pp.

Reginald Harris photo

About: Reginald Harris

Poetry in The Branches Coordinator and Information Technology Director for Poets House in New York City, Reginald Harris won the 2012 Cave Canem /Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize for Autogeography. A Pushcart Prize Nominee, recipient of Individual Artist Awards for both poetry and fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council, and Finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and the ForeWord Book of the Year for 10 Tongues: Poems (2001), his work has appeared in numerous journals, anthologies, and other publications.

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