Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Secret Historian - The Amazing, Danger Filled Life of Samuel Steward

Samuel Steward lived a life few could imagine. From humble beginnings, he managed to obtain a PhD and a University teaching position. By choice he gave it up to become a Tattoo Artist in one of America's most dangerous neighbourhoods.

"The Question of Being Important Inside is One..." - Gertrude Stein in a Letter to Samuel Steward, January 12, 1938

It would be impossible to make up the life Samuel Steward lived in 84 years on planet Earth (1909 - 1993). From a modest upbringing by his maiden Aunts in a boarding house, he went on to attain a PhD, teach in Universities, and then perform a complete about face by becoming a full-time Tattoo Artist.

He was also, according to his own detailed records, an accomplished slut and an even bigger danger whore.

In pre-Stonewall America, when being gay could mean not just the loss of one's job, but also one's freedom, Steward kept a 'Stud File.' His Stud File consisted of neatly typed and cross referenced Index cards detailing his sexual adventures. He also sent handmade gay erotic stationary to certain pen pals - such as the photographer George Platt Lynes. This in an age where interception would have meant likely surveillance by U.S. Intelligence agencies, and possible imprisonment.

Sam Steward's risk taking started early. Growing up in the small town of Woodsfield, Ohio, he began initiating sex with older, well-built boys in his school. His own journal recollection of these early experiences is wonderfully candid:

"I figured I was put in that town just to bring pleasure to the guys I admired. In that small (about 350 students) High School the word got around quickly enough... and (I think) they all came to look on me as a dandy substitute for their girls. They treated me with a funny kind of respect - as if they knew that if they made me mad, they wouldn't get any more. I was not patronized or made fun of."

Justin Spring's fantastic biography Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade exists largely because Steward was so thorough about documenting his life - and not just the sexual adventures. He also kept detailed travel journals, and in later life various manuscripts, sexy photo albums, and correspondence. He regularly wrote Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, and Thornton Wilder - well known literary personalities during Steward's time.

This is not to say that Steward lived a charming, success-filled life with a constant upward trajectory. On the contrary - throughout his University career and beyond he faced addiction issues. Steward's struggle with alcoholism lasted more than 10 years. He only gave up the bottle following an aborted suicide attempt. In later life he would develop a Benzedrine habit (an early form of Amphetamine).

Steward struggled with his addiction issues despite being a published author, a respected teacher, and having a very active sex life that often included orgies ('Spintriaes' or 'Partoozies' as Steward would sometimes refer to these get-togethers in letters to friends). Steward's use of the word 'Spintriae' reflects a classical education - the term comes from the Ancient Greek word for anal sphincter.

Most remarkably for this reader was the discovery that at age 45, Samuel Steward decided to try his hand as a Tattoo Artist. At first he moonlighted, and eventually setup shop in the Sportland Arcade - a rather decrepit space that Steward nicknamed, "The Cage." He ran his Chicago shop under the pseudonym Phil Sparrow. Even so, senior staff at DePaul University, where Steward taught, eventually discovered his extracurricular activities and then fired him.

Part of the appeal in Tattooing for Steward was the access it gave him to lower class (and sometimes criminal) young men - his preferred sexual type. His appetite for risk was so great that when Steward moved to Oakland, California in the mid-1960s' he setup shop at 1727 San Pablo Avenue - an address very near the Hell's Angels' world headquarters.  

Spring writes of the location:

"Oakland, the city about which Gertrude Stein had observed, 'there is no there there' certainly lived up to that epithet in Stewart's new business neighbourhood, a commercial strip down which few pedestrians could venture, since it was essentially isolated by the convergence of two four-lane commercial highways. But the new shop was serendipitously just a five-minute ride from 4019 Foothill Boulevard, the world headquarters of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, a sprawling, loose-knit social club and criminal organization that was just then in the process of cornering the California drug trade, and whose members all regularly sought out new tattoos to define their status and accomplishments to other members of the gang." 

Steward named the new location, 'The Anchor Tattoo Shop' so it would be the first entry in the phone book. At this location he survived three robberies, witnessed the death-by-shooting of the Pawn Shop owner next door, and somehow managed a friendly relationship with the Angels. From 1967 through 1971 he was even their official Tattoo Artist.

After leaving the Tattoo world around 1970-71, Steward would have yet another career in his later years. This time as Phil Andros, writer of homoerotic fiction.

Sam Steward's success at adapting to so many worlds (university teaching, tattooing, and writing - both erotic and for mainstream publications) is worthy of the respect and recognition he is given in Justin Spring's thoroughly researched biography.

The real significance of Steward's accomplishments - in spite of his alcoholism and later Barbiturate addiction, is summed up nicely in the book's 'Afterword: The Steward Papers.'

"Steward suffered an enormous amount of artistic and professional rejection throughout his life. Though a writer and scholar of proven talent, he could find no comfortable place for himself in the literary or academic worlds. For nearly two decades the impossible situation in which he lived prompted him to escape into self destructive alcoholism...

It was Steward's lifelong struggle with self-esteem - in other words, his lifelong search for pride, dignity, and self respect, or what Gertrude Stein had so once plainly described to him as, 'the question of being important inside of one' that was clearly his central life issue. That question of self respect (or the lack of it) was, of course, intimately connected to his sexual identity." 

I highly recommend this book; especially to other gay men, who will likely find a little bit of themselves in Sam's life story.

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