Justin Spring has limned the strange and singular life of a true maverick. It is a story that is at once historically important and fascinating, yet sometimes tawdry and depressing. Despite the laudatory reviews that Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade has received since its release last year, Spring’s biography of Samuel M. Steward lacks objectivity and comprehensive research and contains several errors at a minimum. Presenting a fascinating subject, the biography is an important contribution to the fields of gay studies and sexuality studies. It is, however, skewed and unsatisfying in some ways. Unlike a more professional historian, Spring tells us at the outset that he has done his best to tell Steward’s story the way that Steward might have done, foreshadowing his reluctance to truly interrogate or critique his subject. This attitude is problematic on its face, not least because Steward was known to insist on his importance in the lives of famous authors whom he met or befriended, such as Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, minimal though it was. The way that Steward sold himself is taken up in turn by Spring as selling points bolstering Steward’s historical importance. What Spring tends to de-emphasize almost disingenuously is that Steward already told much of his tale in a stack of published books including two memoirs. Spring would rather perpetuate the dubious notion that Steward had been an almost total “secret.” On the other hand, the author does clearly articulate the literary, cultural, and socio-political contexts surrounding Steward’s trajectory. Secret Historian is moreover a strong source of information on pre-Stonewall 20th century gay fiction, for example, in which Steward took a keen interest.
Samuel M. Steward was born in 1909 and raised in a small Ohio town. He received his PhD in English from Ohio State University and taught there before moving to Chicago to accept teaching positions at Loyola, then DePaul. While living a sub-rosa sex-centered gay life at night, Steward was an English professor and literary fiction writer by day. Through the connection of his former professor Clare Andrews at OSU, Steward became a correspondent and friend of modernist author and art collector Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas. Sam also became a friend and lover of playwright Thornton Wilder, and after his death outed him, to the consternation of some Wilder scholars. But when teaching became stale amidst years of energy-sapping alcoholism and ceaseless nocturnal cruising, Steward turned his back on academia and became Phil Sparrow, tattoo artist, setting up shop in Chicago. It should be stressed that this was in the Cold War 1950s and tattoos were very far from the mainstream, considered déclassé, pretty much the sole domain of sailors, soldiers, and criminals. Steward’s main motivation to become a tattoo artist was to get his hands on the lithe bodies of young men and be paid for it, especially the hordes of navy men that passed through the city.
In the late 1940s Steward began corresponding with sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who had recently rocked Norman Rockwell America with his studies of the Sexual Behavior in the American Male (1948), which claimed much higher incidences of homosexual acts among the male population than commonly believed. Kinsey, an entomologist and lover of statistics, naturally was intrigued by Steward’s lifestyle and the fact that he kept obsessive records of each of his sexual encounters in what he called his “Stud File.” Steward became an informant and subject of Kinsey’s study and the two men became long-time friends. His dynamic with Kinsey is a good example of the way in which Steward connected himself to 20th century figures of major historical and cultural importance.
When tattooing began to grow stale and Steward’s aging body became less appealing to young gay men, he then changed from Phil Sparrow to Phil Andros, the writer and fictional hero of a series of pornographic pulp novels, many delving into S/M. As the protagonist of the books, Phil Andros was different from past gay characters in pulp and literary fiction, in that he was confident and sex-affirmative rather than neurotically self-loathing or suicidal, and this is one reason for Steward’s significance. Steward was addicted over long periods to alcohol, Benzedrine, and barbiturates, and he gradually became addicted to sado-masochism. Perversely, eventually he could only find sexual gratification when a paid confederate was abusing him.
In self-mythologizing mode, in the preface Spring makes much ado over his access to Steward’s “Stud File.” While one can understand his excitement over this find, Spring refers to it too often and in too much detail. Steward’s maniacal recording and collecting, including samples of his sex partners’ pubic hair, seems to have possessed Spring at times, to the detriment of the flow of the narrative and its sense of scope. But such are the demands of our age as we hunger for the bizarre and dirty details over the broader and more subtle cultural meanings and resonances. Spring does his best to meet the public’s desire for sensation in the text and in some of the black-and-white photographs of orgies, et cetera, included herein. In Spring’s sometimes tiresome mining of the Stud File, poring over lurid detail such as exactly how many times he had masochistic sex with Mr. X, causes to book to be overlong; it might have benefitted from judicious trimming.
Spring’s pronounced lack of detachment or objectivity is plainly revealed when he repeats as fact Steward’s detailed story claiming that he sexually serviced Rudolph Valentino. Steward kept a swatch of what he claimed to be Rudy’s pubes in a “reliquary” on his mantel, a photo of which is included herein, and Sam repeated his story so many times that perhaps he started to believe it himself. But the biographer’s job entails sorting out facts from self-mythologizing fables, and Spring never even suggests the possibility that the story may have been anything but the truth, so taken in is he by his subject. A more analytical biographer might have seen red flags in the fact that Steward never once repeated this story in print or to interviewers—despite spilling the ink on every other run-in, sexual and otherwise, he had with celebrity. For example, Steward repeatedly published his literary celebrity stories, sometimes first in a publication such as The Advocate and later in a book. In Chapters from an Autobiography he tells of going down on an aged Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas solely because of the older man’s past erotic physical connection to Oscar Wilde—Steward didn’t even like Douglas as a person and was repelled by his body. Responsible for the outing of Thornton Wilder, Sam inspired the image of umbrellas at the opening of an act in Wilder’s enduring Our Town (also not new to Spring’s book). Perhaps Spring ought to have attempted to corroborate the Valentino story with scholars or biographers of Valentino, because they have subsequently shown that Steward’s story, though replete with detail, is utter fabrication. Spring was either gullible, overly enraptured with his subject, or he repeated this sensational story in bad faith with the idea of publicity in mind. I seriously doubt that the latter is the case, but if it was, it worked: the New York Times referred to Rudy story in not one but two different articles. The Huffington Post has since refuted Steward’s fallacious fellatio tale. Had the story not been apocryphal, this is one example of what I would have otherwise cited as exciting new information from the archive, previously unknown from the published material.
Secret Historian, though fascinating and important, is marred by self-aggrandizement by its author, which would not be realized by the general public previously unfamiliar with Steward. In the preface Spring frequently iterates the phrase “I discovered” in reference to his research on Steward, which has a possibly misleading cumulative effect, when he is usually discussing material or information that Steward published. Spring over-stresses the “secret” nature of Samuel Steward’s activities, and critics have unquestioningly followed in perpetuating the idea that precious few people were even cognizant of Steward. For example, esteemed gay historian Martin Duberman claims in a jacket blurb that Steward was “all but unknown except by a handful of historians.” This is a gross exaggeration. Actually, beyond gay historians, serious scholars of Dr. Kinsey, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Thornton Wilder, and James Purdy, along with scholars of 20th century U.S. gay literature and culture generally, would likely know of Steward. After all, in 1977 he published a memoir through a major house, Houghton Mifflin, Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, reviewed in the New York Times and issued in mass market paperback. A second memoir followed, Chapters from an Autobiography, issued in 1981 by a publisher of gay authors, Grey Fox. Steward was interviewed for Winston Leyland’s seminal Gay Sunshine periodical and this conversation was anthologized in a Gay Sunshine Interviews book; Steward also wrote the introduction for a 1980s re-issue of James Barr’s early gay novel Quatrefoil (1950). During the Phil Andros period, anyone who asked the publisher would be told that Phil Andros was actually Samuel M. Steward.
Spring tends to downplay these memoirs and other published sources as source material for his book, stressing instead the archival papers and files to which he gained access to that had been stored in an attic. That makes for a much better copy—that all was shrouded in secrecy, hidden in gothic style in an attic, and it took Justin Spring to shine the light—and the media has eaten it up, especially the once-homophobic but now gay-affirmative New York Times. This legend built up around the book is not wholly accurate, though it is indeed a great back story for promotional purposes. Granted, the unearthed archive was indeed an important find, because most men of his generation would likely have destroyed any evidence of their homosexuality. Yet Steward had already shared the details to Kinsey, so it isn’t as though no one had ever been aware of the details of Steward’s sex life. Also, Steward’s life was so singular that he cannot be truly said to be representative of early to midcentury gay male life. On the contrary, Steward led a mostly solitary and introverted life, never experiencing any kind of long-term relationship with another man. He seems to have been obsessed with the orgasm, detached from intimacy or love. The solitary sadness of his life, especially in his later years, along with his more sinister connections to the Hell’s Angels and their vicious trade in amphetamines and other hard drugs, as their “official” tattoo artist for a period, is glossed over by Spring, who tends to celebrate his subject to the end.
Along with Spring’s questionable acceptance of Steward’s Valentino fabrication, another example of the deficiencies of his research and fact-checking is his shameful treatment of the American author James Purdy, who died in 2009. Knowing Purdy to be an important friend, correspondent, and supporter of Steward’s over the decades, Spring wrote Purdy two letters but Purdy was in his nineties and without the energy and resources to quickly return correspondence. Instead of approaching friends or scholars of Purdy who might be able to elaborate, Spring instead seems to have been offended by Purdy’s lack of response, or if not, for whatever reason, Spring gives Purdy short shrift in Steward’s narrative. Irresponsibly, Spring even repeats a false insinuation from Steward’s journals about Purdy, who of course couldn’t defend himself, and as we have seen with the Valentino story, the journals are not entirely a reputable source despite Spring’s assumptions.
The lives of Steward and Purdy bear many intriguing similarities, which created a bond between them, one unexplored by Spring. Just to name a couple of examples: both are queer men from small Ohio towns and during their teenage years each was raised in a fatherless home that had been converted to a rooming house by the mother due to economic necessity, and each escaped Ohio for Chicago. Spring, however, is apparently never aware of the close parallels between these two remarkable men. Purdy and Steward became friends, and briefly lovers, in Chicago in the late 1930s and shared a circle of friends, among them the surrealist painter Gertrude Abercrombie and the author Wendell Wilcox, who was another friend and correspondent with Stein and Toklas. Spring makes several errors in his discussion of Purdy, starting with the first mention of James: despite Spring’s claim, Purdy was not in his “late teens” when he and Sam were intimate but was rather in his mid-twenties.
As we have seen, Steward is notable for his pattern of friendships with more accomplished literary artists and James Purdy was no exception. Unlike Steward, whose published literary fiction was limited to a couple of novels and a collection of short stories, Purdy published no fewer than 25 works of fiction or drama. In Steward’s case, his unpublished works of fiction were rejected not only by publishers but by esteemed literary friends such as Stein, Wilcox, and Wilder. James Purdy published his comic novel Malcolm in 1959, praised by Dorothy Parker and other authors. Malcolm features fictional characters based on the real people Purdy knew in their Chicago circle including Abercrombie, Wilcox, and Steward, who appears as Professor Robinolte the tattoo artist (the “Robin” part alludes to Steward’s tattooing pseudonym “Swallow”). Although Steward did not appreciate Purdy’s earlier work, he found its envelope-pushing frankness to be inspirational, and Purdy’s fiction would go on to be praised by a host of literary luminaries including poet Dame Edith Sitwell, Carl Van Vechten, William Carlos Williams, Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams. If Steward was not a big fan of Purdy’s early work, he nevertheless found it inspiring because Purdy was exploring taboo or repressed subjects that Steward wanted to plumb in his own work.
When Sam found himself a character in Purdy’s Malcolm, a short novel once widely taught to undergraduates, Steward changed his tune, calling Malcolm “rather hilarious” and praises “a fine chapter laid in the Tattoo Palace of Professor Robinolte—a true portrait of [my] place in the arcade.” In Purdy’s novel, The Tattoo Palace “was both severe and cosy—severe because it bore every witness to the painful operations enacted within—the electrical tattooing needles, the bloody rags, the bottles of disinfectant and smelling salts, and the bloodstains on the floor; cosy because Professor Robinolte . . . cared for all his customers like members of his family, sending them annual birthday and Christmas greetings, and often advising them on their domestic and professional careers, while somewhere behind him soft music poured forth.” It is unclear whether Spring has read Malcolm or any book by Purdy for that matter—there is no evidence of it here. The biographer would have done well to quote from Malcolm and to reference the powerful and astounding Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967)—like Steward’s unpublished novel manuscript, it is set in Chicago of the 1930s and the title character is based upon writer and Stein correspondent Wendell Wilcox, a mutual friend of Steward’s who is mentioned many times in Spring’s biography.
Just as is the case with the Valentino story, Spring uncritically repeats another false insinuation from Steward’s notebooks. In 1956 Purdy came to visit Steward in his tattoo shop and expressed his support for what Steward was doing, a remarkable stance given how bizarre Steward’s decision to leave a professor position to become a tattoo artist seemed to about everyone in the 1950s. Purdy, who had been a college professor for over nine years at Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, had just recently quit his Assistant Professor of English job himself because his partner, Dr. Jorma Sjoblom, a Finnish-American Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Lawrence, also hailing from northern Ohio, landed a scientific research job in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Dr. Sjoblom, whom I have personally interviewed, invited James to live with him and devote himself to his fiction writing full-time at last. James had been hunting such an opportunity for many years. Contrary to the facts, however, Spring writes in a footnote that “Steward was of the opinion that Purdy had been caught while having sex with a student. No account of Purdy’s departure from the school where he taught exists.” Steward had written in his journal that like himself, Purdy had “given up teaching as a shitty, futile business” but continues parenthetically, “(I guess he was caught in fragrant delicious),” punning on the Latin phrase in flagrante delicto. But this is pure speculation on Steward’s part, further qualified by “I guess,” and it is highly irresponsible and dishonorable for Spring to repeat this slander derived solely from a teasing, parenthetical “guess” from a diary without any corroboration whatsoever. In fact, an article on Purdy was published in the Appleton, Wisconsin, newspaper in 1962 whose author clearly had access to Purdy’s employment records at Lawrence College. If there had been a scandal this article would have never appeared. Moreover, such a scandal is not mentioned in the memoirs of Douglas Knight, the President of Lawrence College (later University) at the time of Purdy’s departure, who does mention other faculty difficulties including one involving closeted homosexuality.
Even though they were friends, it is clear that Steward had rivalry issues with Purdy, because he seems to have wanted to tease the author. Perhaps it is because Purdy was younger and for a while (in the 1930s and most of the 1940s) remained unpublished but rose to achieve the kind of literary success that Steward only dreamed of, despite his endorsement by Stein, who through her influence got Wendell Wilcox’s Steinian novel Everything is Quite All Right (1945) published. Intriguingly, in Steward’s Chapters from an Autobiography, three page numbers are listed in the index entry for “Purdy, James” but he is never actually mentioned once in the book (Spring confuses Dear Sammy with Chapters, muddying the waters). This is ironic because Purdy had urged Steward to write these memoirs, as Spring acknowledges. Spring is again irresponsible when he reprints negative comments from Alice B. Toklas about Purdy’s early work taken out of context from Dear Sammy. Toklas was offended that Purdy had the chutzpah to mail her his book unsolicited and ask her for an endorsement of his work. The point is, Spring again mistreats Purdy, because after repeating Toklas’s dismissal, Spring leaves out Steward’s own footnote from Dear Sammy that contextualizes and diminishes these remarks. To clarify what Spring misrepresents, Steward had written: “Alice later changed her mind about [Purdy’s] work and came to admire him a great deal. Her first opinion, however, resulted from an irritation that he had sent her his book without her requesting it—a mistake in the judgment on the part of Carl Van Vechten, who had asked Purdy to send it, assuring him that Alice would react favorably. Had Van Vechten himself sent the book, her reaction . . . would have been much different.” For Spring to totally ignore this mollifying explanatory note shows either vindictiveness toward Purdy or outright sloppiness in his scholarship. Since Spring tells us that Purdy had been angry that Steward had placed Toklas’s comments in Dear Sammy in the first place, even with the added footnote, it is doubly disturbing that Spring omits Steward’s footnote about how she grew to appreciate Purdy’s fiction.
Spring includes a few other similar errors regarding Purdy, of which space disallows discussion. The Valentino scholars have refuted Steward’s story; I happen to be a Purdy scholar so I have caught errors and misrepresentations about him—but there remains the question of how many other errors are included within this book with regard to other individuals discussed.
Without a doubt, like its subject, Secret Historian remains remarkable and singular despite its faults. It is not, however, quite as strong as has been stated by follow-the-leader critics. It could have been better had Spring been less overtly aligned with its subject, and had the book been left in the oven to bake a bit longer. Yet even with its faults, Secret Historian remains a fascinating read for those interested in 20th century American gay history.Visit: Justin Spring | Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Purchase: Powell’s Books | Amazon