Secret Historian: Samuel Steward

Kevin Killian


Justin Spring’s new biography of the late Sam Steward has only been out for a month or two and it has already received some rapturous reviews: last week it was nominated for the National Book Award. I so admired Spring’s previous biography, Fairfield Porter, A Life in Art (1999), that if he had turned his attention next to the life of a dandelion I would have been interested. I could barely credit my senses when someone, I can’t recall who, told me that the biographer would next be turning his storytelling powers to Samuel Steward, whom I knew slightly back in the mid 1980s. Humph, thought I, my original dandelion idea has more merit. And yet once I thought about it with full attention, a life of Sam Steward made sense.

Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) was a realist painter who seemed in some odd way the other half of a figure like De Kooning, the yin to his yang or whatever, and he was a bisexual working in a heavily heterosexual time and milieu—and he was an excellent writer, largely on art subjects. Steward wasn’t tortured as much as he was obstinate, though Spring’s book lets us in on his myriad disappointments and frustrations. And though he was a decent enough writer, he was no Fairfield Porter; his real talents lay in other directions, almost off the culture map entirely. In effect Spring’s colossal research and inspired prose seem almost to expand the field of what culture is, or what it amounts to, since Steward’s greatest achievements were his tattoo artistry, his work in gay porn, and his friendships, some of them erotic, with the great closeted names of his time. And he was also a key informant for founder of Sexology Alfred Kinsey, whose star itself seems to wax and wane regularly as weather. Perhaps Steward is to culture what Kinsey was to science—someone who understood the concept but never bothered to play by the rules. And maybe this is Sam Steward’s time; if so, it is thanks to an executor who just cleared his throat and got on with the task of preserving dozens of boxes’ worth of the most unseemly material I know of, then waited until the right biographer came into focus. I want one of each of these guys, Justin Spring and Michael Williams.

So when Spring asked me what I remembered of the late Samuel Steward, I was, to begin with, astounded that someone was writing his life. Then he said that he already had a contract with FSG and, my, I was impressed. By an odd coincidence I had just finished his Fairfield Porter and I thought, I will put myself completely into Justin Spring’s hands. Well, biography is my game, my middle name, my compulsion you might say. (With Lew Ellingham I wrote a life of the American poet Jack Spicer (1925-1965), and the late Donald M. Allen had edited books by both Spicer and Steward. so the branches seemed tangled somewhere before my time.)

“Repetition and first time: this is perhaps the question of the event as question of the ghost.  What is a ghost?  What is the effectivity or the presence of a specter, that is, of what seems to remain as ineffective, virtual, insubstantial as a simulacrum?  Is there, between the thing itself and its simulacrum, an opposition that holds up?”  That’s Derrida, late Derrida, from The Spectres of Marx. Steward was a different kettle of fish. I remember meeting him at Steve Abbott’s house at the corner of Haight and Ashbury. Around Steve’s big oaken round table next to his tiny kitchen you could meet all sorts of people in the 1980s. Mostly gay people. Steve would invite everyone over to meet this one or that one. I don’t know how he got them all there, but he was a natural enthusiast.

In graduate school I had read Dear Sammy—Steward’s annotated collection of his letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Grad school where, or so it seemed to me, I was the only one who had ever heard of Gertrude Stein. It was an English Department of the worst description, staffed by know-nothings and steadily, almost unendurably, drifting off into irrelevance and sexual adventuring. Our “star” was a poet who had won the Pulitzer Prize in the 1950s and who bemoaned the way poetry had disintegrated since then. There was also a prize-winning novelist from Ireland whose books were best sellers and lauded by The New York Times. Modernism might as well never have happened, for these people considered themselves modernists. In this atmosphere Stein’s name was never mentioned. Yeats and Eliot were the great gods, nothing really had happened since World War II. Except for Saul Bellow—several of whose castoffs were also tenured faculty. One woman kept a critical resistance alive in me: Sallie Sears, whose teaching and critical eye seemed very akin to that of Susan Sontag’s. It was she who encouraged us to read Woolf, Jean Rhys, yes, even Gertrude Stein. I picked up Dear Sammy and all of a sudden it was like, wow, this guy Steward actually knew Stein, and Alice, and he’s still alive!

Steward had written a fan letter to Stein back in the early ‘30s and she had encouraged him to visit her should he ever leave Michigan and come to France. He stayed friends with her and Alice for many years, until Alice’s death in the 1960s. In the meantime he quit his job as professor in the English Department and became a tattoo artist in postwar Chicago, where he dealt with the criminal and sexual underworld and became one of Dr. Kinsey’s principal informants. He also wrote a series of gay pornographic novels under the name of Phil Andros, which were having a sort of vogue at the time I’m speaking of now, the mid ‘80s, when I was pretty new to San Francisco. Spring presents Steward’s life in a series of showy, vivid tableaux, each one rather risible but also sad. Late in life Steward told Boyd (Straight to Hell) McDonald that his sex life had been full indeed. “I have had sex with 807 persons for a total of 4647 times. Several (4 or 5) numbered over 200 times each, though I never had a love affair with anyone, nor lived with him.”  In these times, when gay marriage is such a charged issue, it is difficult to think back to a time when domesticity, indeed or “romance,” were counter-revolutionary concepts, but Steward had something of Lenin in his soul, and a fierce intolerance for those who played the game soft. It was almost for ideological reasons, as Spring points out, that Steward admired above almost all other art works the pornographic drawings Jean Cocteau had created for the 1948 limited edition of Jean Genet’s Querelle de Brest. His own art was, if you ask me, a feeble imitation of Cocteau, or maybe an “Americanization.” It was like Cocteau starring Paul Bunyan and Popeye. (Justin Spring has edited a companion book to his Steward biography, An Obscene Diary: The Visual World of Samuel Steward, drawn from Steward’s collection of his own and others’ sex drawings, tattoo sketches, Polaroids, illustrations, gouaches, and just plain smut. An Obscene Diary is a sumptuous book bound and boxed in a punitive black and white, available from Elysium Books. Get it now while it’s still only $150. OK, that’s more than I like to spend on a book, but once you see it you will be scratching your head and thinking that, really, the publishers must be losing money because it’s so deluxe.)  I like the spirit that he displayed in these chapters: when he planned a sex orgy at his apartment, he painted murals on the walls to make the room more libidinous, more Pompeiian, I suppose to get his guests feeling frisky.

Along the way he kept a creepy little rolodex contraption called the Stud File, where he detailed on index cards the names and ages and races of every guy he ever had sex with, and the date and time. It was a list that included Valentino, and the young fellow who would later become Rock Hudson. Maybe when you have sex with 800 plus guys, one or two of them are bound to be gods—well, isn’t that the purpose of sex, to reintroduce the divine into our lives?

I was introduced to Steward by Paul Mariah, who published “Manroot,” a gay literary magazine, and who was then printing some old archival thing of Steward’s, these poems from the ‘30s or ‘40s written in the mannered Georgian style of A E Housman. I subscribed and eventually got my copy (Love Poems: Homage to Housman, 1984). There was a kind of launch for the book at the old Walt Whitman Bookstore on Market near Castro. I felt kind of schizophrenic: on the one hand meeting all the Language poets and other avant-garde artists, and on the other hand going to book launches for Homage to Housman. I understood myself to be working towards reconciling these interests in my makeup. I saw myself as living and that I could make sense of the contradictions later.

Cute, you could tell Steward had been very handsome when younger, in a dark Irish-looking way like Tyrone Power. All right, maybe not Tyrone Power handsome, but still he was a good-looking man even at 75. He was a pocket Venus, as my mother used to say, a little beauty you could take home with you in your pocket or handbag. Steward had a social smile and could look very merry and he liked to laugh. But alone with him, in his house in the East Bay, I didn’t like him all that much. He had things everywhere, so many tchotchkes you didn’t know where to look. I remember he had this one shadowbox-type frame up on the wall with what looked like the kind of old Indian flint me and my pals used to pick up in boyhood, along the forest paths nearby my parents’ house, like an arrowhead. It was no arrowhead, Steward said, it was part of the guillotine blade that had cut off Marie Antoinette’s head.

He was pretty downbeat, kind of sour, and he had nothing good to say about many of my heroes, and preferred people I thought were kind of second rate. You probably know the story of how he met John Cage (in Chicago I think, during the war years). I don’t know what happened between them but he saved his best vitriol for Cage, whom he thought a gigantic fraud. The story of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” was applied to Cage, whom he thought was in a conspiracy to destroy modern music. “But wasn’t he a disciple of Stein’s?”  He ignored that—if indeed it’s true, I can’t remember now. “He knows nothing about music, and what he knows he trivializes.”  The two of them attended the same party, and Steward recognized him as the man who been cruising very successfully some seedy part of Chicago for days. He (Cage) pretended to be an angel, but he was a devil. Steward’s own favorite music was Verdi’s Don Carlos, if I remember right. He liked one version of Don Carlos and not the other.

It was like this with everyone I liked. He was patronizing towards Don Allen who he said had spent his whole life uselessly mooning over a man he couldn’t have, a man who moreover resembled a giant plucked butterball turkey—the poet Philip Whalen, I later figured out. He couldn’t abide Carl Van Vechten, whose photographs I really like. To my admiration of Van Vechten, he counterposed the Apollonian perfection of George Platt Lynes. At any rate, he had some of Lynes photos around the apartment, some of which I hadn’t seen before. He extolled Lynes’ professionalism and meanwhile Van Vechten was a rank amateur who just broke into photography to get more black dick. I asked him if he had ever posed for Van Vechten and he said no, he had refused. Van V. liked tattoos and tried (failed) to take photographs of tattoos on black men but was too much of an amateur to use enough light on their bodies. Maybe there were differences of opinion over the Stein Estate?  But I don’t remember that part of it. At the same time, SS seemed to revel in the story, which I did not know much of, still don’t, of Lynes’ fall from grace. He went “out with a bang.”  He (SS) said he had based one of his novels on the Lynes case—was it a story of two brothers? Lynes, I believe, was in love with two brothers at once.

I was thinking of these things and writing them down because Justin Spring was coming over. We, the people he interviewed, wanted to please him, but we didn’t know what he wanted exactly. When the shoe was on the other foot and I was interviewing people about Spicer, I’d fly into a rage when they wouldn’t remember things exactly the way I wanted them to. Now I was watching his face and thinking, he’s bored. He knows all this already.

Steward started writing porn, he told me, when he was troubled with insomnia and his mind filled up with sex images and stories to go with them. A naive beginning, and he was already so willful. He had had sex with Thornton Wilder and also the actor Alfred Lunt. I remembered the Lunts from Holden Caulfield’s flippant allusion to them in The Catcher in the Rye, but to this day I don’t know how this came about. Steward had been recommended to Lunt by a mutual friend.

Steward dressed very smartly, looked trim, but kind of like the Little Professor stereotype. Like Professor Calculus in Tintin. Funny to think that underneath that garb was a mess of tattoos. There was thus something about him that put one to mind of tales by Hawthorne. I didn’t think however that he had a divided consciousness so much as an implacable will, and one that drove him to a controlled madness. I looked around his house and saw all these things, tokens of having lived, and decided to throw away all my shit. I didn’t want to wind up like him, alone and kind of crazy. On the other hand he was happy, I thought, just more conservative than I was.

I came to his house in Oakland under a false impression, that somehow we were going to make love. I had read one or two of the Phil Andros books and thought that he, the writer, was a really hot guy. And somehow I thought, this guy Sam Steward was a top. I was pretty naïve, even though I was 30. I’m writing all these things down and I’m embarrassed by my own youth and presumption. I figured, hell, he’s old as Methusaleh, he won’t turn me down. But turn me down he did, even though I was practically wagging my dick in his face. And then I realized what a “bottom” he was, too late for me to act all masterful. He had been involved he said in some very rough sex play in his life and one time had almost lost a testicle.

Finally he mentioned that he had always had a knack for predicting the future. Once he had met a young man in the Midwest and he knew that the guy would turn out to be a killer. He killed women and wrote with lipstick on the mirrors of their apartments, “Catch Me Before I Kill More.”  When this story was in the papers and before the killer was caught, he read that detail and flashed back to having met this guy, and after the killer was captured he was confirmed. “Why didn’t you go to the police?” “Because they are our enemy.” Anyhow he said he could tell my future especially by the way I didn’t want to be tattooed or pierced. I just wanted to be me. He suggested that I was making up for having been circumcised—that this trauma had affected me on some level so deep I couldn’t name it. “I’d get a tattoo,” I said, “if you’d do it.” But his tattooing days were done, he said. In fact, he could barely move about any more. He turned me around and undid my pants, then took them open with a skill that suggested he’d been studying them to see how to do it quickly. He pulled down my jockey shorts in the back to expose most of one hip, and darted his finger at one spot, “There’s where I’d tattoo you,” he said. I was thinking, well, finally we’ll get to have sex or something, but no. That was not in the cards. He told me that, if he still was in the business, he’d put a tic-tac-toe board on my ass, with X’s and O’s filled in (in different handwritings as though two people were playing) and the middle square would be blank, because I hadn’t decided yet if I were straight or gay. Yeah, there I was with this big hard-on feeling more and more ridiculous, and he’s pointing to the imaginary middle square on my ass cheek and tapping it telling me, time will tell what happens to you, Kevin. I had given up my fantasy of having sex with this guy but still I felt dismissed, told off. As I told these things to Justin Spring, I felt the gap shrinking, the gap of time between when it happened and the moment I resolved to put the whole nasty business out of my head.

“Repetition and first time,” says Derrida, “but also repetition and last time, since the singularity of any first time, makes of it also a last time. Each time it is the event itself, a first time is a last time. Altogether other. Staging for the end of history. Let us call it a hauntology.”

And after that I saw Steward a few times. He came up with his idea of having Gertrude and Alice be detectives in a series of cozy novels that were pretty popular. I heard him read from Murder is Murder is Murder and was shocked to hear how bad it was. I couldn’t even buy it. I went back and sold my other copies of his books to Green Apple (a used bookstore on Clement Street in San Francisco). I thought, he’s meretricious; he’s not the answer for me. Now I wish I had taken the time to understand him better. Could I have, though? Isn’t there a gap between youth and age, a gap of understanding that can never be bridged? I think so.

Last month Justin Spring came to town and I went to a party in his honor in a private home where the host had taken down his normal pictures and knick-knacks and hung instead a few items out of the Steward estate. Autographed photos of Gertrude Stein and Thomas Mann. A painting by Steward of a dapper looking boyfriend—he had a serviceable Grant Woodish ease with paint, he wasn’t trying to be diaphanous like Cocteau. And there in a corner sat, small and squat, the first Accu-Jac ever invented. We lifted the cover off to see what it looked like inside. I wasn’t even sure what an Accu-Jac was; Secret Historian quotes from its advertising copy that it was the “world’s first fully automatic masturbation machine,” with “complete suction, stroke, speed and dildo depth controls.” We lifted off the lid and my mind began to reel. It was a dark mangle of heavy steel parts and a laminated vellum—was it a bellows? I couldn’t really see. Anyone who’d entrust his junk to this love box really didn’t care about—well, about taste for one thing—but you had to appreciate the joie de danger embodied by the Accu-Jac, by its relational aesthetics. I closed the lid and knelt there, in mute homage, by the Accu-Jac just as once I knelt by the grave of Frank O’Hara, and I thought to myself how no man has ever known what he really wants.