Samuel Steward crammed more living into his 84 years, than most, juggling a handful of careers, often keeping each job a secret from his colleagues, meanwhile helping pioneer everything from tattooing to gay pornography.
In the fascinating bio Secret Historian, Justin Spring paints a complete picture of a renegade and pioneer who was barely known outside of the world of gay erotica, despite being friends with everyone from Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder to tattoo legend and his one-time apprentice Ed Hardy.
Raised in an Ohio boarding house by two religious, spinster aunts after his mother died and his father couldn’t be bothered, Steward had his first same sex experiences with out-of-town boarders at the house. From that point on, sex became a focal point of Stewart’s life. He kept detailed journals and eventually pictures of his sexual adventures throughout his life, many of which found their way into academic studies on sexuality by Dr. Alfred Kinsey of the Institute for Sex Research, and eventually became the basis for many autobiographical porn stories.
All the while, Steward was also working as a university English professor in Montana, Washington and finally at Loyola and DuPaul. Toward the end of his career as a professor in Chicago, Steward also worked as a tattoo artist on the side, trying to keep both professions walled off from each other.
Thoroughly researched, the book is almost heartbreaking at times, particularly Steward’s inability to gain mainstream acceptance for his non-porn related literature and his internal struggles with Catholicism.
The book begins with Steward’s upbringing in Ohio and ends with his final vocation as a tattooist in the politically-charged, often dangerous neighborhoods in Oakland, CA. Although he eventually found a literary outlet and some degree of underground fame through his erotica (writing under the name Phil Andros), you get the sense that Steward simply wanted to be accepted as a writer like many of his close friends. Though it’s come decades after his death, Secret Historian is a satisfyingly compelling bio on a largely unknown historical figure.
Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist and Sexual Renegade by Justin Spring/Farrar, Straus and Giroux/2010/Hardcover/496 pages