Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

The talented Mr. Steward


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Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade by Justin Spring; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $32.50

In transparency, rather than review Secret Historian , I can best, as a SoMa historian, give heads-up about the authenticity of my friend Justin Spring's important biography of my longtime friend Samuel Steward. Born in 1909, Steward defied the stress of the anti-gay century when owning one gay photograph meant jail. He defiantly documented gay culture in his books, sex diaries (1924-73), tattoo journals, and activist input to his beloved mentor Dr. Kinsey at the Institute for Sex (1949-56). His anxiety-driven life was an existential pile-on of family dysfunction, literary ambition, alcohol, celebrities, speed, hustlers, censorship, interracial S&M, rage against aging, and a soul shared with an unborn twin in his left testicle. As Gertrude Stein warned her "dear Sammy," his every gorgeous vice sliced away at his self-esteem until he died on December 31, 1993.

New York author Spring was researching his book Paul Cadmus: The Male Nude when in 2001 he discovered the "cold case" of Steward stored in a San Francisco attic. Since 1969, I have been eyewitness to Steward's story, and can testify to the pitch-perfect authenticity of Spring's character study, which downloads the analog diaries and letters without overpowering Steward's risque voice. At Stonewall, gay character changed. Reading Secret Historian, you see why it had to, and, why, if it hadn't, you'd still be in the closet.

Steward was a bon vivant chum whose life, like Christopher Isherwood's, was a cabaret. Sunbathing in France in 1938 with Stein and Alice B. Toklas, fleeing Nazis by ship, he was an ambitious boy from Ohio who knew how to sing for his supper at the tables of Stein-Toklas, Thornton Wilder, Oscar Wilde's lover Bosie, George Platt Lynes, Tennessee Williams, Kenneth Anger, the Hells Angels, and my lover Robert Mapplethorpe and me when Steward joined what he playfully dubbed my "Drummer Salon," which included SF poets Ronald Johnson and Thom Gunn.

Steward, always pursuing publishers, loved Drummer, SF's longest-running gay magazine. As a founding editor-in-chief, I printed his cop-fetish story in my "authenticity issue," Drummer 21 (March 1978). In February 1978, from my Drummer desk, I arranged an iconic dinner party "mixer" at the home of leather-priest Jim Kane and chef Ike Barnes. The guests were legendary Drummer contributors who had never before met: Steward; Tom of Finland and his lover Veli, on Tom's first visit to America; Drummer art director A. Jay; Oscar streaker Robert Opel, founder of SoMa's first gallery, Fey-Way; and Mapplethorpe, with whom Steward shared a taste for kinky Polaroids and black men. I watched Steward, a graduate of Stein's "Charmed Circle," glow in the convergence of the kind of shining company he had adored since youth.

The day after Steward turned 16 in 1925, he recalled to me on audiotape, he blew silent-screen star Rudolph Valentino, sneaking snips of pubic hair and enshrining Valentino's down-low DNA in a gold reliquary he kept forever. That's when his literary, art, and erotic hoarding started. Gay treasures piled up in his Berkeley cottage, then in the attic of his executor, expert librarian Michael Williams.

Steward, immensely generous to friends, romanced straight women; adored lesbians; fetishized black, Latino, and straight men; and spouted old-school queer theories knocking the wannabe masculinity of gay men. He chased Gide and Genet, ran from James Purdy, balled Rock Hudson, tattooed James Dean, and wrote screenplays for SF filmmaker J. Brian. His sex-tourist diaries of SF (1953-54) give eyewitness to bars, baths, and "sailor sex" so wild at the Embarcadero YMCA he was banned from Y's everywhere.

As a popular university professor and zealous masochist (1930s-80s), he worshiped students and rough-trade Navy seafood. To get his hands on young recruits, he learned tattooing, and while still teaching, opened Phil's Tattoo Joynt (1956-63) in a sleazy Chicago arcade. Wrongly accused of child murders, he fled west to Oakland, opening his Anchor Tattoo Shop (1964-70), where the Hells Angels adopted him.

Inking 150,000 men, Steward pioneered today's tattooing style, mentoring young San Franciscan Ed Hardy and Chicago leatherman Cliff Raven, who, like Steward, was intimate inside Chuck Renslow's Family. Spring reveals that Steward documented how Renslow, the great unrequited love of his life, and the artist Etienne organized 1950s homomasculine leather culture around Kris Studio, Tomorrow's Man, the Gold Coast bar, and 1960s physique contests that evolved into the International Mr. Leather contest (IML).

Steward and I met in 1969 when he was 60 and I was 30. With Kinsey long dead, we both feared he might die without a post-Stonewall update. So I became the first gay scholar to interview him. Our session was recorded in his Berkeley cottage (1972) before the B.A.R., the Advocate and Drummer existed, and a dozen years before younger writers such as Joseph Bean, John Preston, and Gayle Rubin courted him. Sam's self-esteem bucked up; he felt validated by my arts grant to record him for the Journal of Popular Culture. But he stipulated I never use his narrative while he was alive, "because I have to live off my story." He meant dinner parties, autobiographical essays, and university lectures.

On my audiotape, Sam's voice rings as clear as in Spring's book. He spoke frankly about his literary life, affairs, beatings, arrests, and divine lunches in Paris, Rome, and SF. He smoked his cigarettes, tilted his glass, and told true oral history of sex, intrigue, revenge, and literary gossip in phrases so measured I realized he had long ago decided precisely how his story should be told.

I believed every word, and gave my 30-year-old transcripts to Spring, who, empowered by Michael Williams' attic archive, fit 84 years of Steward's drama into his book, which finds a universal gay story in Sam's specific life. Steward would have loved Spring. Once again, Sam sings for his supper. Secret Historian succeeds as amazing cautionary tale and awesome remembrance of things past.

Justin Spring reads Tues., Sept. 21, 6 p.m., at the Hormel Center, SF Public Library.

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