Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Review: Secret Historian by Justin Spring

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 478

Drawn from the diaries, journals, letters and sexual records of the novelist, poet, and university professor Samuel M. Steward, this biography is a reconstruction of one of the most bizarre lives in modern gay culture.

An introvert English professor by day, sexual renegade by night, Steward was an intimate friend of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder. He also claims to have had sexual relations with a number of famous, or soon-to-be-famous, men, including Rudolph Valentino and Rock Hudson.

For most of his adult life Steward kept a detailed file of each sexual contact, of which there were well over eight hundred, and included the most intimate details of each encounter. As he grew older, he was drawn more into picking up rough trade, and enjoyed BDMS relations with his partners, where he always played the submissive role. Steward hooked up with Alfred Kinsey, and his sex file was instrumental in Kinsey’s landmark sex research.

He finally fled the academic world to make his living as Phil Sparrow, a tattoo artist on Chicago’s notorious South State Street. There he was able to meet a steady stream of sailors and rough trade, and kept the back room jumping. Later in life, during the early 1960’s, Steward moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and through his Tattoo parlor in Oakland, became friends with many Hell’s Angels. Once in California, under the name of Phil Andros, he wrote a number of pro-gay pornographic novels and short stories.

Steward published three significant nonfiction books in his later years: Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos, a social history of American tattooing; Dear Sammy: Letter From Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, a memoir of their friendship; and Chapter from an Autobiography, a memoir of his life and times.

This book should have been titled “The Life and Times of an Underground Slut.” Through his twenties and thirties, he averaged a sexual contact every forty-eight hours, and he was convinced gay men had no business being in relationships. Keep in mind this was decades before Stonewall and gay liberation. Later in life, he enjoyed paying straight hustlers to force him into submission, and even had a one-page typed sheet explaining what treatment he expected of them.

Although I neither approve or normally enjoy reading about such behavior, it is a tribute to the author that I kept turning to the next page to find out more. This is an extremely well written biography. Sometimes funny, often times shocking, always vivid. I couldn’t put it down. Justin Spring is a huge talent, and even makes the most mundane topics seem interesting.

More interesting than Steward’s personal life, was the times that he lived, where being caught with another man could land you in prison, and many a man fell prey to blackmail. It was times when all gay men were driven deep underground, and even the mere suspicion of being gay would lose you your career. The author presents a fly-on-the-wall account of American homosexual subculture and persecution. It does make one appreciate how far we’ve come in fifty years.

This book is a journey, a long one, but well worth the time and effort. I can highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about gay life prior to Stonewall, or simply read the remarkable tale of a man who threw caution to the wind and lived the life he craved.

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