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


  1. Thank you for this. I'm about halfway through Secret Historian and I received my copy of The Obscene Diary today.

    I think that both Samuel Steward and Justin Spring should be recognized as heroes of the gay community. :)

  2. fabulous! listening to the audio version, such secret history,