Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Storymaking - Part 1

An Afternoon with Michael Adams

Michael Adams is a quiet editor with a fierce streak. The first time I walked into his office at I noticed he had a poster that said “Fuck Bush.” Every week he volunteers at Housing Works Bookstore and it’s hard to imagine him anywhere besides Greenwich Village. His apartment is filled with books and an oversized fireplace. It is an inviting kind of sanctuary. As gay people we learn to tell stories. He told us some good ones over the course of an afternoon.

Hopefully, this is the first of several interviews.

Interviewer: I want to start with a little background about what Detroit was like when you were growing up.

Michael Adams: We lived in Royal Oak, a suburb for the auto industry. My father was not in the auto industry, but many people were. We moved there when I think I was 12, in 1959; midway between the Eisenhower and the Kennedy period, a period of transition for the country.

My father was in sales and he was transferred to that territory from East Grand Rapids. Detroit was the first big city I had ever really lived near. To my eyes, it was a lovely, civilized place to live. But Detroit was very segregated. Royal Oak had no black families that I know of, so I didn't know any African-Americans. You could probably spend a lot of time there without seeing any black people. That was important because it was an unreal view of the world.

Detroit had a small, manageable downtown and that's the only place I would go. My parents saw no problem with me going downtown by myself to go into Hudson's Department Store, to go record shopping, to go to the Fisher Theater, which was the big place for out-of-town musicals in those days.

Interviewer: Were there black people downtown?

Michael Adams: There must have been, but they were very much "the other" and you didn't socialize with them; you didn't go into their neighborhoods and they didn't come into yours unless they were cleaning your house.

Interviewer: Did you have a housekeeper?

Michael Adams: No. My mother was not one to have a housekeeper. That was all very distant from us. I didn't really know much about Martin Luther King. My parents didn't talk about it. My father was king of the racist jokes. I knew every synonym and pejorative for a black person. But that’s not what you asked about.

Interviewer: I was asking about the context.

Michael Adams: Many people say it was an innocent time, but it was a terrible time in that way.

Interviewer: I assume then you didn't know any gay people?

Michael Adams: None.

Interviewer: Or even a concept of what gay meant?

Michael Adams: I guess I learned that just by reading as much as I did and melding it with my own awareness of my own sexual preference. But from what I read I couldn't even tell you what alerted me to the fact that there were such things as homosexuals.

Interviewer: So when did you first begin to realize that you might be another form of the other?

Michael Adams: There was a definite transition because I remember being aroused and interested in female breasts from a very early age. That was sort of the heyday of Playboy and to go to the drugstore and open a centerfold was thrilling. I guess maybe you're all just a whole bundle of sexual nerves in that period. And I remember those were the days of actresses like Jayne Mansfield and Diana Dors and these big-breasted women fascinated me.

Somehow along the way that transferred, but I don't remember if it was a day or a week or what it was that suddenly made me conscious. But I do remember when I was between eighth and ninth grade thinking, "Oh, high school's going to be great because I'll be able to see a lot of guys with hair coming out of their t-shirts." That is a vivid memory, but, when does something like that become conscious in your mind? I don't know. It doesn't happen, it's just gradual. And then you realize who is the object of your interest; that's what you look at.

Interviewer: When you went downtown what were you shopping for? Is that linked to your growing awareness of being gay?

Michael Adams: I would go to record stores all the time because I collected records. There was a Fabian record and he was in swim trunks. And I kept returning to that record. I'd go to show tune albums and look at the covers in the Judy Garland section, but then I'd keep coming back surreptitiously to that Fabian album, not fantasizing, but just fixated on it. And then it was like, "Well duh! This must mean something." And then I just fell into the awareness that that was my sexual preference, even though I didn't even know the mechanics of sex.

Interviewer: Did you know what to name it?

Michael Adams: Not really. I knew what it was because the phrase ‘latent homosexual’ came into my consciousness. I had read it somewhere, only I thought the word latent meant "seriously." I didn't think, "I've got to get out of this." I still had crushes on popular girls. There were a lot of popular girls who I had crushes on. The ones who were unavailable and maybe I was trying to force myself unconsciously to be a part of that.

So there's a split going on; my lust was going one way, but another way, at least my social awareness was, "I'd like to date some of these really cool girls." And none of them were interested in me, but I befriended them because I was kind of popular in high school. Not popular for sports, but popular because I was president of the Thespians and vice president of the French club and National Honor Society and all of that.

Interviewer: All that overachieving, over compensating.

Michael Adams: Exactly. I was kind of a character. I was in the school plays and I sought to be well known, well-liked is the better phrase.

Michael Adams at the Senior Potluck. 1965

Interviewer: Was there any guilt associated with those seriously homosexual feelings?

Michael Adams: Totally, total, total, total. Guilt in the sense that I knew this was a secret I had that I could not tell anyone in my family.

Interviewer: Could you tell anyone?

Michael Adams: No, I had no one. There was no one. You didn't go to the school counselor. At the same time I had the realization, I realized that this was something I would have to live with forever. I mean in those days I used to have nightmares that I would be walking down the aisle, because in those days it was like college, military, marriage. That was the thing you were on and there was no wavering from this. So I just assumed that I would have to endure those things, even though I had this very, very, very deep dark secret.

Interviewer: There weren't any girlfriends in those early years?

Michael Adams: No. In fact, a few of the best friends I had in high school I told just last year. I mean they knew I was gay, but they didn't know then, or at least they didn't know they knew. It was like, "Oh, in retrospect you probably were." But these are not girls I dated. These were girls I hung out with.

Interviewer: Was it a prosperous time for white middle class people in Detroit because of the car industry?

Michael Adams: Yeah. We were very solidly middle class and my father did well, we had a car, but our house was small. Eventually we had two cars. We didn't take vacations. We might go to somebody's house on the lake for a couple of weeks, but we were not wealthy. It was late '50s, early '60s. There was a self-satisfaction; a contentment about America's place in the world. We certainly didn't know any poor people; not poor-poor. And the guilt came from being raised Catholic. That was big time as my mother was devout.

Interviewer: When did you stop going to church?

Michael Adams: When I went off to college. For several months into college she would ask, "Are you going to Mass?" And I'd say, "No." And then finally she said, "Look, you're an adult; do what you want as far as that's concerned."

Interviewer: But all through high school?

Michael Adams: Mass, Mass, Mass, every Sunday.

Interviewer: And Catechism and all that?

Michael Adams: Yeah. Because I went to a public school I had to take religious instruction, as it was called. I hated all of it. You can say you don't believe it, but when you're a Catholic, there's still something that embeds in you that you can't quite escape - ever.

Interviewer: It follows you.

Michael Adams: I think I have escaped it now, but you still think in terms of mortal sins and venial sins and heaven and hell. Sometimes when I was young I would go to sleep thinking of what eternity was like; forever and ever and ever and ever and trying in my mind thinking what that must be if you went to hell.

Interviewer: As you're emerging as a sexual human being?

Michael Adams: Horrible, horrible. But I never tried to pray my way out of it because somehow I knew that there was no prayer that was going to "cure" this. It was a matter of fact. If somebody had said, "Oh by the way, you're going to wake up tomorrow and you're going to have no arms," or whatever, you'd say, "Okay, I'll just deal with it." I mean you'd be terrified, but it was a fact. It was something like, "Oh hell, if I pray I'll grow two more arms." No. I knew that this is what I was.

Interviewer: There was no changing that?

Michael Adams: No. There wasn't this mechanism that was going to change it.

Interviewer: Tell us what you can about the troubles in high school.

Michael Adams: My best friend was a guy named Ron and basically he brought me out. We met in gym class because we both hated gym and we started going to the movies. You spend a lot of time together; stuff comes up. And, again, it was even hard to talk about with a peer because the culture made it very clear and my family made it very clear that effeminacy was wrong and bad because of what it represented usually, which was this unnamed sexual deviancy.

Interviewer: So it wasn't even named.

Michael Adams: No, not in my family, no. No one ever said, "Be very wary of the strange man who comes and offers you candy." I never had any of that. It just was that even as a little kid I was chided if I did anything the least bit effeminate. It was very clear that effeminacy was bad and to be cured for want of a better word. The only cultural references we had were all bad.

On television [the comic] Ernie Kovacs had a character called Percy Dovetonsils, who was a very effete poet. He had a little mustache. He had little pursed lips and was, to my parents, hilarious. But the subtext was he's hilarious because he's a freak. He wasn't called a homosexual, but it was alluded to, and to anybody who knew, that was what he was doing. He was an object of ridicule. He was funny because of that.

Interviewer: You get these signals.

Michael Adams: Very early on those signals were clear; this is not something that's good.

Interviewer: So the story begins with Ron?

Michael Adams: He basically brought me out because we started talking about it and it got to the point of like, "Well if you had a football team and had to do whatever you wanted, what would you do?" And we talked about taking pictures of them naked, but that was only if we were queer this is what we would do kind of stuff.

Interviewer: So hypothetically if, if, if.

Michael Adams: We were playing this game with each other and he was the one who finally gave in and said, "By the way, you know I am homosexual." Again, the terminology is a little fuzzy to me because I don't know when "gay" became the word. But actually it was around that time that we probably started using it, but we might have said homosexual. I don't know if we ever said queer. Anyway, he finally admitted to me. He said, "You know I have to tell you I am," and --

Interviewer: How old are you?

Michael Adams: I was 15 or 16.

Interviewer: And he was the same age?

Michael Adams: Yes. And that's when reality hit home. I remember leaving that conversation, whatever we were doing, going home; lying down on my bed, turning hot, turning cold. Just like okay, now it's all been back here in my head, but now it's real. Now somebody has actually said that. You didn't have the courage to say to him, "Me, too," but that will come in time. He went on to try to seduce me and succeeded in New York City the week we saw the original production of Funny Girl.

Interviewer: And by then it's still the same period of time approximately?

Michael Adams: It's the summer between my junior and senior year in high school. It was the week before my 17th birthday.

Interviewer: So then what happens? How do you name yourself?

Michael Adams: There were still vestiges of not totally owning up to it, primarily because there was the Catholic guilt going on and because I wasn't totally in love with him. Whether or not that was because he was gay and he loved me or it was because under any circumstances that wouldn’t have been my choice I don’t know. But he was the only outlet I knew. In those days there wasn't a gay/lesbian alliance at high school where you could attend a meeting.

As far as I knew he was the only one in the world that I knew. He was much more sophisticated than I was. By the age of 17 he was out and going to the bars in Detroit. He was going down to Toledo where you could, at the age of 18, legally drink what they called near beer. He was definitely adventurous in ways that I never could be.

Interviewer: That was bold for those days.

Michael Adams: I still wasn't ready to come out, but he prompted me. He introduced me to gay guys that he knew from Detroit.

Interviewer: Young also?

Michael Adams: Yes. We would be driving around Detroit and some guy would beep at him in a car and he'd say, "Oh yeah, there's Ralph. He's a famous rim-queen." And that's when I said, "What's that?" And then he told me and it was like, "No, no, nobody can do it." I was very naïve about a lot of that stuff.

Interviewer: So where does that lead in terms of the troubles that happened?

Michael Adams: So he was trying to convince me that there had to be homosexuals in the school.

Interviewer: Besides the two of you.

Michael Adams: Exactly. He was like, "It's common sense that we're not the only two." So then he pointed out this really attractive guy who was on the football team and said, "I have a feeling he is." I mean he would say this to me in a department store when a guy was helping me try on a sweater and said something and then we left and Ron said, "I think he's one of us, and that sort of thing. And I would like, "Huh? Really? What? Why?"

So he was pushing me towards… he was like, "Okay, if I can't have you," -- because he was ostensibly in love with me and wanted me to be his boyfriend, but basically he said, "Well if I can't have you, I'll at least get you out in the world and let you leave the nest," sort of thing. So then he pointed to this guy and he said, "You know we're going to have to be very cagy. Let's start sending him letters." So we sent him gay love letters.

Interviewer: Together?

Michael Adams: Together. I wrote them because I was on the school newspaper.

Interviewer: A career foretold.

Michael Adams: We would leave him signals and ask him to leave signals that he was getting our letters and understanding what we meant and kind of complying.

Interviewer: But you didn't identify who you were?

Michael Adams: Not until the very last. Finally we thought we've got to bring this to a head, no pun intended. We needed to make contact with him.

Interviewer: Did he respond?

Michael Adams: Yeah.

Interviewer: Did he respond to your letters by doing what you asked him to do?

Michael Adams: Well I think there were a couple things like, "If you're interested, wear such-and-such on Thursday," and he did.

Interviewer: And he did?

Michael Adams: Yes, yes. But he was also delivering the letters to his football coach who was taking them to the principal.

Interviewer: Of course.

Michael Adams: So we were ultimately caught.

Interviewer: Entrapment.

Michael Adams: Is it entrapment when we start the whole ball rolling? I don't think so.

Interviewer: Now do you think he was following the cues out of some plan to try to trap you?

Michael Adams: Yeah.

Interviewer: Yes, not in response to the attention?

Michael Adams: Oh no, no, no, no, no. We're probably lucky that he didn't meet us and beat the shit out of us.

Interviewer: Were both of you signing the letters?

Michael Adams: No, no, no. It was ostensibly under one person doing it because we thought two people doing it would have been too weird. Like this wasn’t, weird enough. Yeah, we thought that it would make more sense, but the fact that both of us were involved was a saving grace because then my parents were able to say to themselves, "Well it was just like this little prank that two kids do." It wasn't like one kid going crazy with lust for another. Do you know what I mean?

Interviewer: So how explicit were the letters?

Michael Adams: You know it's funny because in doing this, I really think I blocked them out of my mind, out of real shame that I did such a thing.

The letters were more purple than they were anything else. A friend says we should put me under hypnosis to see if I can recall the letters. But I remember one line that was something like, "If the Greeks had a god of something or other, masculinity or something, you would be it," or some ridiculous piece of crap. But it was that sort of adolescent prose from one who read too many books.

Interviewer: So what happens? What is the final thing that gets you caught?

Michael Adams: We had to decide whose name and number were going to be on the letter and in my greedy little way I decided I had to get the reward because I was doing all the work by writing the letters. Talk about hoist on your own petard. So we put my first name and my phone number.

Interviewer: So your home phone number?

Michael Adams: Yep. We were actually also communicating with him by telephone.

Interviewer: Already?

Michael Adams: Yeah, well along the way. So, again, all of that is really fuzzy. Did this last six weeks? Did it last a week? I don't know. But there were some communications. I think we would actually call his home and ask for him and talk to him.

Interviewer: So then what happens? The principal then calls you? Or you get called in?

Michael Adams: I got called out of history class around 11:00 o'clock in the morning. I remember that vividly. I think it was a Friday. The principal tells me nothing. He asked me questions like, "Do you go to church?" And it was a very short drive from the high school to my home, but we drove in his car and it was like I knew what this was all about, but I thought, "No, no, it can't be." And the cinematic moment that was absolutely true is that he turned the corner, and he was carrying a manila folder, and as we turned the corner the manila folder spills out all the letters that I had written. They were in the folder.

Interviewer: Onto the seat?

Michael Adams: Right between us. They were in between us. That’s when my imagination went into overdrive and I thought like Lucy Ricardo, "How do I get out of this one?" My mother was home. He took me in and they sent me to the other room. He showed her the letters and my father was called home from work and he basically said, "If it turns out you're gay, you will no longer be allowed in this school." I don't think he used the word gay. I'm not sure, but "If this turns out to be true..."

And that's when I said, "I know what this looks like, but I did this" -- and again, I'm not sure when I brought Ron in to kind of bolster my case, but I said, "I was seeking revenge on somebody who humiliated me in front of a girl I liked." Fast thinking, right?

Interviewer: Incredible. You thought this up on the spot?

Michael Adams: I did. I remember sitting in front of the TV while we were waiting for my dad to come home watching some game show or something, staring at the TV and thinking, "Alright, well it's got to involve a girl." And I had like five minutes to concoct this story. And it bought me time. Because I knew that any admission of guilt would get me thrown out of the school. In the fall of my senior year when I have all these irons in the fire in school; where I was in my own little way a big boy on campus. They would have sent me to the Shrine of the Little Flower High School, a Catholic high school.

Interviewer: Shrine of the Little Flower?

Michael Adams: Exactly, exactly. Where I could have had an affair with a priest. The priest is just sitting there waiting for the guys they send over from the public schools because they're queer boys. I knew that was not possible for me in my life. I could not imagine how I would explain that to my friends. I had to get out of it. I had to lie my way out of it, but there was never a moment when I thought I'll just say, "Yes, I'm having those feelings. Help me." Impossible, impossible.

Interviewer: So you cook up this story in the few minutes it takes your dad to come home?

Michael Adams: Yeah.

Interviewer: They must have known that you were lying.

Michael Adams: No.

Interviewer: They believed you?

Michael Adams: Yeah, because they wanted to. And the principal said, "Well that's all well and good, but you're not going to be allowed back in school until a psychiatrist gives you his seal of approval."

So I was kept out of school for several days and the principal said, "We'll tell the school that you're out looking at colleges," which people did occasionally. They would take tours of prospective colleges. "And then you'll be allowed back in when the psychiatrist gives his okay."

Interviewer: So then did you call your friend Ron and say, "This is the deal."?

Michael Adams: No, strangely enough. He called me. Our phone was in the family room where everybody could hear and I pick up the phone and it's Ron and he says, "I'm ready. I have rope, I have poison, I have whatever." He was ready to do a dual suicide. Now was he just being dramatic or was he serious? Probably a little of both, but he really thought the jig was up and we'd have to kill ourselves. Maybe he thought that was, again, totally romantic. I don't know.

Interviewer: It’s unreal.

Michael Adams: Here I was on the phone with both my parents in the room going, "I think I've got this covered, just don't do anything. I think we're going to be okay with this one." I don't know how I didn't crack under the pressure.

My parents hated Ron anyway. That's when I said to them, "Look, I didn't do this alone, but I don't want to bring Ron into it. I don't think it's fair." And they were okay with that. But as I said, it allowed them to think, "Well two kids kind of being prankish and mischievous or revengeful is better than having one freakish son."

Interviewer: Right.

Michael Adams: So that helped them.

Interviewer: Talk about the psychiatrist. Do you remember that? What happened?

Michael Adams: I couldn't tell you what he looked like. So much is just a blank. Did my father take me? Did he wait outside? I don't remember any of that. But I do remember, again, thinking, "Alright, I've read enough about homosexuality to know it's all about loving your mother and hating your father." So I just kind of flipped them and said how much I admired my father and how much time we spent together. I didn't condemn my mother, but it was like she was not so present. I just created this whole thing.

Recently I've had a revelation about that though. I'll never know because I've gone through my life thinking this was the dumbest shrink in all history in that he took my word for it, because he reported back to school, "No, he's not gay. He's not a homosexual." I think he said, "He has the capacity for self-punishment," or something like that. But I got a clean bill of health. Somehow just in talking it out I’ve thought, "Maybe he knew exactly what he was doing. Maybe I didn't fool him for a minute." But he knew the consequences. Maybe he was gay himself. Or at least he was compassionate enough not to humiliate me. Now he's a hero.

Interviewer: So you get this sort of clearance, so to speak. And you go back to school. What happens with the football player? Does he just ignore you then and does everything just kind of go on?

Michael Adams: Yes. He deserves a lot of credit because according to the principal, if Steve, which was his name, spread the story, I'd still be out. All Steve would have had to say is, "Hey, you know that guy over there?" However, I think Steve would not have wanted to tell anyone that he was the object of some young boy's lust.

Interviewer: Right. It would indict him.

Michael Adams: Exactly. That's my five-cent psychological guess as to why he didn’t say anything. When you're that age in that era you know nothing about homosexuality. And he probably wondered, "Why me? Did they see something in me?"

Interviewer: Do they know something?

Michael Adams: Yeah. Because it seems like nobody went to him and said, "Well the story is that you humiliated him in front of a girl and that's what this is all about." So nobody was like weighing evidence.

Interviewer: So in buying yourself time, then that gave everybody kind of what they wanted; which was for it to all go away?

Michael Adams: Yes. Strangely Steve, the football player, started dating a woman that I was really close to.

She and I were talking and he came to pick her up or something and then just walked away. And she said something like, "Steve doesn't like you. I don't get it. Everybody likes you, but he doesn't seem to like you." But again, if he had opened his mouth I would have been in deep shit. And to his credit he didn’t say anything. I think it was shameful for him, too.

Interviewer: So what did your parents say to you as all of this is going on?

Michael Adams: We were not a communicative family. Like a good trial lawyer, you don't ask your child questions you don’t want the answer to.

So they said nothing. I mean they didn't say, "Have you ever had these thoughts?" Because I hung out with so many girls they were able to convince themselves that I was straight. I didn't have a steady, but not everybody did. I went to the prom with a girl. There are none so blind as those who will not see and that was written all over their faces. You don't want your kid to be queer, so you accept any scrap of evidence to prove that he isn't. So it was just like this chill in the air for a long, long time.

What's important to say, it was the time. Families did not have gay children. Gay people were the scum of the earth. They were in dark corners. They were waiting to jump at you perhaps, although, again nobody ever warned me that that was the case. Then, it was all best left unsaid.

Michael Adams Senior photo, 1965

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Conversation with Justin Spring about Samuel M. Steward

Justin Spring’s Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade

I wrote to Justin Spring after I finished reading his biography of Samuel Steward and the art book of Steward’s drawings and photographs. I still had a number of unanswered questions. He agreed to my suggestion of an interview by email.

Justin Spring

Q: How long did Secret Historian take to research and write?

A: I read my first Phil Andros book around 1987 and had been wondering about him for years, but the idea of writing about him only began in 2001 while working on my Paul Cadmus book.

Cover of My Brother, My Self by Phil Andros.
Courtesy Estate of Samuel M. Steward.

Q: Do you think Steward saw himself as all those different people, Sparrow, Andros etc.? Or did he use the names for convenience/secrecy?

A: They are pseudonyms, taken for reasons relating to privacy. Oddly enough, though, Steward enjoyed being known socially as Phil Sparrow. Many folks I interviewed knew him as Phil; and many letters in library archives are mislabeled as being from “Phil Sparrow.” That’s one of the things I had to contend with as I was doing my research.

Q: I’ve read that in researching your book on Paul Cadmus you came across Steward’s name and while doing research at Brown University you found that he was also the pornographer Phil Andros. Can you tell us more about that?

A: I was at Brown on an American Studies fellowship when I came across the pulp fiction archive and database at the John Hay Library. I had gone to that library to research beefcake publications I knew Paul Cadmus to have looked at and enjoyed. Since I’d never known Phil Andros’ real name I plugged it in to the database and out popped Samuel Steward. I subsequently looked up Sam Steward’s publications and was surprised to find he’d written a social history of tattooing, a memoir of his friendship with Stein and Toklas, and his own memoir, Chapters from an Autobiography. A few months later I had a fellowship at the Beinecke and looked up Steward’s letters to Stein and Toklas, and they were delightful. So was Chapters. From that point on, I was hooked. I had to know more about him.

Q: Who told you about Michael Williams, the literary executor?

A: I did a lot of detective work to track him down – cold-calling people whom I did not know, and who might or might not have had information for me. Ultimately there was a rare book and manuscript dealer who gave me his name. But even after I had the name, I had a hard time getting in touch with Williams. It took a long time for us to meet.

Q: Is Williams a librarian? He is barely mentioned in the book. How did he know Steward?

A: He’s a former schoolteacher and retired corporate librarian who now does a lot of volunteer work. He had met Steward at a book signing and began helping him at the bungalow towards the end of Steward’s life. The two became good friends. When Steward’s chosen executor suddenly died of AIDs, Steward needed someone to take over, so he asked Williams. This was just three months or so before Steward died.

Q: Please tell the story of coming to San Francisco and the 80 boxes.

A: Williams had met with me in New York and suggested that if I came to San Francisco he would show me what he had. He didn’t indicate that there was much and I don’t think he was sure I would come. I had the opportunity to take a business trip out there to see an artist’s work at a gallery, and so I took three extra days there, and during that time I showed up as we had arranged. Williams had been good enough to bring everything down from the attic and place it in a spare room for me to look at and photograph. It was an enormous amount of material.

Q: Were the boxes arranged in any order? Or was it just how Michael had packed them when he was cleaning out the cottage in Berkeley?

A: There were some rough storage boxes but for the most part Williams had simply stacked things on shelves and laid them out on the floor. His “eighty boxes” (I am quoting here from his recollection of what he had moved to San Francisco from Berkeley) had been mostly unpacked. There was no particular order to anything, and there were no 80 boxes in the room. It was just a whole lot of material, some of it boxed and some of it not boxed. It was not an appealing sight. To be frank, it looked to me like a big dusty mess, and a whole lot of work waiting to be done. On top of that, much of it stank. So upon seeing it for the first time I really had no idea what I had found. Then I began poking around and saw the visual materials and they shocked me and interested me, both sensations at once.

Q: Did you reorganize the materials?

A: After Michael and I had discussed the situation – this took several months -- I decided to return to San Francisco and spend the better part of a week placing the materials into special archival boxes, which I then shipped to myself in New York, at my own expense. (The materials remained his property; I only had the use of the materials for the writing of the book.) The materials were not organized to begin with, so “reorganize” is not the word for what I was doing. After I took delivery of them, I began a slow, painstaking, multi-year process of reading through and roughly cataloguing the materials for my own use.

Q: How could you store so much material in a New York apartment?

A: I didn’t. My partner and I share a country home, and that was where I had them delivered. In order to work with the materials I had to spend several months creating a finished workspace in the basement -- and that renovation work included purchasing industrial shelving to hold the boxes and installing a dehumidifier to make sure there would be no mold. But we had to do it; I was driving my partner crazy. We had first tried to store all the boxes in the guest bedroom but that proved impossible whenever we had a guest. And anyway I needed to keep all these things in a secure space.

Q: Did it take long to see how to organize the book?

A: Yes.

Q: What was your greatest surprise in going through the material?

A: Its coherence; its lack of inherent contradiction. I had the same luck with Steward that I’d had with Fairfield Porter: he was a man who habitually told the truth. So there is an astonishing integrity and wholeness to the materials.

Q: Since Steward was involved in one way or another with so many famous people would you call him a star fucker?

A: No. Apart from his chance encounter with Rudolf Valentino and his several would-be sexual adventures during summer of 1937 – when he sought out a number of older literary men he admired and respected for their writings and their place in cultural history (but only in one instance had sex) – Steward did not pursue celebrities for sex. It is true he had sex with Rock Hudson; but that was before Rock Hudson became Rock Hudson. Hudson was at that point Roy Fitzgerald, a young man working as holiday help in the gift-wrap department at Marshall Fields.

Reliquary holding Rudolph Valentino's pubic hair.
Courtesy Estate of Samuel M. Steward.

Sam Steward (right) with Sir Francis Rose (center) and his adopted "son," Luis in 1952.
Courtesy Estate of Samuel M. Steward

Q: Do you think Steward wanted to advance the idea that many straight identified men engage in homosexual activity? Perhaps with greater incidence that Kinsey suggested?

A: Steward created a testimony of his lifelong sexual activities. He wasn’t promoting an agenda in doing so, merely giving the facts of his sex history. That is the brilliance of his work. If it is a history of having sex with many straight-identified men, that’s because Steward preferred that kind of man, pursued that kind of man, and had success with that kind of man.

Moreover if you look at the way in which Kinsey came up with his data you’ll see (as Steward saw, and so many other people have since seen) that his data is accurate in a way that no anecdotal evidence or individual life experience could ever contest or contradict.

Q: Was Steward’s record keeping just a kind of uncontrolled obsession? Or did he foresee the day that somebody like you (or Kinsey) would find the material?

A: I wonder why you think that Steward’s record-keeping qualifies as an “uncontrolled obsession.” What is “uncontrolled” about it? And what is “obsessive” about it? Some people keep diaries of their bathroom habits; some people keep diaries of the books they read; some people keep diaries of their sex lives. I don’t think there’s much more to it than that.

Kinsey encouraged Steward to think that his sex records had the potential to help in the cause of sex research, and he urged Steward to do the best possible job in recording the data. So what began as a hobby and a personal record-keeping project ultimately turned into something much more serious.

I think Steward always hoped that his data would be of use to sex researchers; and I suspect that towards the end of his life he may have lost hope that it would. But I can’t say for sure. Sam never wrote about it. Then again, he did not give the Stud File and other remaining materials to the Kinsey Institute in his will. He might have, but he didn’t.

I have often thought that Steward had a biographer in mind in leaving behind so much self-documentation. Whether or not he did, I’ve always felt lucky to be that biographer.

The Stud File.
Photo Justin Spring.

Q: Do you see yourself as a Kinsey-like character? You express no judgment and you also seem to value the incredible record keeping and daring photography.

A: Like Kinsey, I value Steward’s life testament very highly. And yes, I do think Kinsey was brilliant, and yes, I’d like to think that my biography of Steward will ultimately be considered valuable to sex research. But no, I didn’t consciously try to emulate Kinsey in the neutral stance I took towards Steward and his life-choices. And I am unlike both Kinsey and Steward in that I am neither a collector nor a data-collector.

Incidentally, I don’t think I “express no judgment” in the writing of Sam’s story. The tone I take is measured and compassionate, and that in itself is a judgment on behalf of Sam’s importance, and the validity of his experiences. That being said, I didn’t do it consciously; it just seemed the best tone to take in the writing of the book.

Q: I am curious about Steward as a spiritual person. He was Catholic for a time, considers returning to the faith, and then fibs that he has done so to appease Alice B. Toklas. Do you think he connected his sexual life to a spiritual life or saw them as distinct?

Steward with Alice B. Toklas in 1952.
Courtesy Estate of Samuel M. Steward

A: Steward began life as a Methodist and I think that it was his Methodist conscience and love of truth that stayed with him all his life, even as he converted to Catholicism, fell away from it, and then struggled in later years with the uncertainty that comes with loss of (multiple) faith(s). His diaries and journals are full of spiritual self-questioning as well as ethical self-questioning. More than anything else, he despised hypocrisy – and it was the hypocrisy of Catholicism that most galled him, not simply the difficult and contradictory ways of the many priests he encountered. His writings, which are confessional in nature, seem to me very closely bound to the perennial self-questioning, or “examination of conscience,” that is part of the religious impulse. But he was not as forthcoming in his writing about his spirituality as he was in his writing about his sexuality. In that regard he was reticent; private. Without a doubt, however, he loved truth, and that love of truth does seem to me to have a spiritual dimension.

Q: If I understand correctly there will be at least three published pieces of this adventure. The memoir “Secret Historian,” the visual material “Obscene Diary,” and then Steward’s own writings, which may be published in the future. Can you tell us about those?

An Obscene Diary The Visual World of Sam Steward by Justin Spring

A: FSG could not allow me many illustrations in Sam’s biography, and yet I felt that his visual work is of great importance to understanding the man that he was. I didn’t want simply to push that work aside. So I asked a friend if he would consider doing an art book of Sam’s work, and he agreed.

Polaroid of wall mural in Steward's Chicago apartment.
Courtesy Estate of Samuel M. Steward

As for the anthology: I had originally hoped to bring out the anthology in time for the biography, but there have been so many other things I’ve had to do to promote the biography that I ultimately had to set it aside.

I was originally going to publish the anthology with Alyson, a gay publisher Steward had worked with, but they wouldn’t issue a fair contract, and ultimately I told them that they couldn’t have it – in part because so many other writers were coming forward to say that Alyson had delayed their publications and in some cases never printed the books at all. A few months later they shut their doors. I now plan either to publish the book using LighteningSource, a print-on-demand company, or else to place it with a University Press. I’d like to bring it out when the paperback version of Secret Historian is published, about 9 months from now. I still need to write the index, the notes, and the introduction for the book. Like so much of my writing on Steward, this is labor-intensive and basically unpaid work.

Q: Since the art book costs $150 and only has 1000 copies printed it won’t be widely consumed unless there is a show at the Sex Museum. Is that going ahead?

A: The art book is in fact selling well and will probably sell out within the year. It is a limited-edition book, more like an artwork than an art publication. We didn’t anticipate that many folks would want it at that price; but my original hope in creating the book was that in making it, I would be making the material available to interested researchers and writers who might not otherwise have access to the Steward visual archive. The book is actually being published at a financial loss; it was never conceived of as a money-making endeavor. We created it because it was the right thing to do, and because my friend, David Deiss, had the financial resources to undertake the project.

To my knowledge, yes, the exhibition is going ahead at the Museum of Sex in New York. I’m waiting for the contracts from them. The Museum would like to open the show in February 2011 and to have it run for six months. Incidentally we are not sure we will sell the visual arts book at the Museum yet.

I’m also in discussion right now with Matthew Higgs at White Columns Gallery in New York about the possibility of a contemporary-artists’ response to the biography and archive. But that show is still very tentative, and wouldn’t open for more than a year. Still, it seems to me a good way of getting Sam’s story out into the greater world.

Q: What happens now to all these drawings, photographs, and ephemera? Your memoir has changed the value of this collection.

A: It will be given in its entirety to an archival special collection, possibly Yale, or the New York Public Library, or UC Berkeley, or Cornell, or the Kinsey Institute. But only after the Museum of Sex Exhibition has come and gone, and only after careful negotiations, which might involve a third party to facilitate the transfer. Those negotiations haven’t begun yet and they won’t begin anytime soon.

Q: As the author you are rarely visible in Secret Historian except when you are annoyed at Yale or the Kinsey Institute for putting obstacles in your way. But can I ask how this book changed you?

A: When I started the book ten years ago I had a lot of unanswered questions about male sexuality and the evolution of gay consciousness in 20th century America. Some of these were personal questions and some of them were social and cultural. For ten years I did my best to answer those questions by working with Steward’s life story, doing so with the idea of sharing what I had learned with others. So I grew and learned, and I like to think I became more compassionate as a result.

Q: A biographer like you is in a kind of strange position. There will be only be a finite number of projects in a lifetime because each one takes so long. How do you decide which project to take on?

A: In Sam’s case, he basically chose me. Or, to put it another way: He was too interesting not to write about. Fairfield Porter was similar in that regard. And I hope I’ll be that lucky again. But I should add that in both instances I chose figures whose lives were not considered the least bit “saleable” as biographies. And in fact in both cases I wrote the book despite being told it was not possible even to sell the project, much less make money at it.

Q: Do you know what the next one is?

A: No, not yet.

Sailors in Steward's tattoo shop.
Courtesy Estate of Samuel M. Steward

Towards Building Our History

The Secrets of Samuel Steward

For me, one of the many interesting things about Samuel Steward—novelist, professor, tattoo artist, pornographic writer, and friend of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas—is the role secrecy played in his life. If he were young today, he might not need to be so secretive about his sexuality and his passions, and then some of the pathos in his life might be missing. And yet he pushed the boundary of secrecy as far as the time allowed. He kept meticulous records of his various activities, as if he hoped that one day they might be found. Alfred Kinsey, the sex researcher, gave legitimacy to Steward’s record keeping. Several years after his own death, Steward was lucky that a brilliant biographer, Justin Spring, found his collection of materials and was able to share the tale of his entire courageous life.

A young Steward.
Courtesy Estate of Samuel M. Steward

I first heard of Sam Steward in the late 1970s when I bought Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. In college, I read everything about Gertrude and Alice, although very little of Gertrude’s own work. Truth be told, I wanted the life around the literature more than the literature itself.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein in her garden at Bilignin by Sam Steward.
Courtesy Estate of Samuel M. Steward.

I heard that Steward was a retired professor living in the East Bay, and then somebody said he also wrote pornography and had been a tattoo artist. And whatever tenuous connection I had to Steward disappeared. After I read the book, I loaned it out and never saw it again.

Dear Sammy Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas by Samuel M. Steward

Then his name came back when a biography was published this summer. There were a surprising number of book reviews about this tale of an eccentric gay man who lived most of his underground adult life in Chicago and the East Bay.

I bought Justin Spring’s Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade and couldn’t put it down. Much of Steward’s life in the Bay Area took place only a few miles from where I grew up and where I now live. I was so fascinated by this gay life so different from my own that I bought the visual diary that is a companion volume for those who want to know more and are willing to part with $150. A few years ago, I could have been arrested for owning An Obscene Diary: The Visual World of Sam Steward. Also organized by Justin Spring, this volume contains several drawings, hundreds of personal Polaroid snapshots (most are of a sexual nature), and a few illustrations of Steward’s ephemera and his now famous “Stud File.”

Anchor Tattoo Shop on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland.
Photographer unknown, courtesy Ed Hardy.

Location of Anchor Tattoo Shop today.

Sam Steward in front of his rear cottage on Ninth Street in Berkeley.
Courtesy Estate of Samuel M. Steward.

A recent photo of the gate to Sam's rear cottage on Ninth Street in Berkeley.

Justin Spring is like an extension of one of the driving characters of the biography, Alfred Kinsey. Spring knows that Steward’s recordkeeping and sexuality is of historic interest, and he withholds judgment, other than to share the evidence of a fascinating life. In a way, he finishes what Kinsey began. While he does admit that Steward is a troubled man, he does not attempt postmortem pop psychology on his subject. He tells the man’s tale with incredible detail and compassion.

Aren’t most biographies existential in some way? They give meaning or purpose to a life. In this case, it is a life full of amazing stories, but perhaps a life that didn’t fulfill the early literary promise of Steward’s well-received first novel, Angels on the Bough.

Spring remains fairly invisible throughout the book except when he is annoyed with the challenges he encounters in the labyrinthine bureaucracies of the Kinsey Institute and Yale’s Beinecke Library. All of this material would probably still be in an attic if it weren’t for Spring. He has applied considerable research abilities, discipline (he seems a stickler for accuracy), and his ability to structure a story. In this era of personal writing and revelation, that is no small accomplishment. And he also knows how to shape a narrative into a compelling story.

As the recent struggle for LGBT rights shows, the struggle is far from over. A key part of this long arc is being a witness to our own history. By sharing Steward’s life, Justin Spring has not only made an enormous contribution to queer history, but also given hope to people who have felt their identity dismissed or marginalized.

The next entry will be a conversation with author Justin Spring.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Introduction to Queer Sage

Even as a toddler I had something to say.

When I thought about this blog two years ago, it was kind of simple. I wanted to interview LGBT people that I met who had interesting stories about coming out and surviving. Instead, I focused on my other blog about design and faith, my various writings about architecture, and my paid work. While the blogs are personal, they don’t link much of my own personal history to the life I have now.

Over the last two years, my thinking about sexuality has continued to evolve. There are several reasons for this: some are personal and others are more political. On the political front, there has been an enormous amount of news about gay marriage and its legalization. This appears to be a step forward. There has also been the likely repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Another apparent step forward. At the same time, there have been several stories about young queer youth committing suicide. With so many hateful new voices from the Republican right getting louder, it is important to support political changes so the larger goal of gay equality can be met. And so kids won’t be bullied and people can live—and hopefully, live a more joyous life. As the late activist Harry Hay would say, to be gay is to be radical.

The recent publication of Justin Spring’s Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade was the catalyst to get this blog going. (More about that book and its author in the next few entries.) We no longer have to be secret in sharing our histories.

Don't buy that sweet pose. Loved the sandals.

The nuances in some of these discussions can get lost because the last gasp of the hegemonic order is so violent, so cruel. It certainly is not safe to be out in many parts of the country, indeed the world. That’s why we are drawn to larger cities like New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. It’s safer.

I am often drawn to the spaces in between, whether it is the built form of the city or political arguments. In the case of gay marriage, I fear that in the desire to be accepted, we are imitating a deeply flawed institution. Of course I understand this is about choice—we want the option, and right now we don’t get to choose marriage. My musing doesn’t change my political point of view on the subject; it just throws the personal into greater relief.

One reason to question marriage as an institution has been that oft-stated argument that it has been the structure to keep women oppressed. From chattel to housewives to working women/housekeepers/children minders. But there is a more subtle and difficult argument and that is the one about monogamy.

Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man's World by Alan Downs

Although Alan Downs’ Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man's World is not a fantastic read, Downs makes some important points about gay men and their development. (I am hesitant to write about other sexual minorities, because I think their experiences are vastly different from my own.)

This deep disapproval we feel from our parents and/or community becomes our center. And recognition becomes like an addiction. Indeed, it can get easily mixed up with chemical and other addictions.

The Parents. Philip Larkin’s poem comes to mind.

Choosing monogamy is like drawing a line in the sand. We understand where we stand. It’s easier that way. Rather like when you are a child and you are finger painting with a limited palette or any one color. With unlimited choice, it can become a mess. But back on the other side of the line, many monogamists end up having huge fights, divorces, and endless drama because they find it too difficult to remain faithful in practice.

There are several advantages to coming out relatively early in your late teens or early twenties. It’s one less secret to carry around. I was constantly taunted in high school, but the bullying, if that’s what it was, didn’t make me want to kill myself. Indeed, I just thought that all those idiots would end up on a production line or in an office, and I would be fabulous. For me, the root of depression did not lie in what teenage boys thought, but rather in the deep disapproval of my parents, so deep that it rarely found a verbal expression. Once, when I was about 16 or 17 and still living at home, my father said something like, “I hope you don’t end up gay. There are a lot of them at work and none of them are very happy.” I snapped back, “It doesn’t look like anybody ends up very happy.” It closed the conversation. While he disapproved of my sexuality, he also knew I suffered from depression and didn’t want to see me unhappy. He was born in 1919, and by 1974 his family didn’t make much sense.

The Parents on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1990.

The purpose of this blog is to make sense of those distances and maybe to help minimize them. We have to hear our own stories, our own advice. We will move closer to healthy and equal lives if we are not so distant within our own selves.

One of my favorite parts of Justin Spring’s new biography of Samuel Steward is when he quotes Gertrude Stein writing to Steward. on January 12, 1938, “…the question of being important inside in one…” In the afterword Spring writes “That question of self-respect was (or the lack of it) was, of course, intimately connected to his sexual identity.”

I think that’s what I want to explore here.

Fashion forward in the 60s with a Nehru shirt