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Samuel Steward is a little known ancestor but one worth knowing. Not as the crazy uncle in the attic but the strong headed gay cousin a friend of Alice B. Toklas until her death and a keeper of a stud file of all his sexual encounters.
After teaching popular English classes for twenty years, Steward became a tattoo artist in Chicago with a steady stream of sailors from the Great Lakes Training Center and later in Oakland, where he worked on most members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. With a love hate relationship with the Catholic Church, he was sexually a masochist with encounters that often left him bruised and injured.
His homes were virtual museums of homoerotic art that would have put him in jail if it had ever been raided, common among gay bars and bookstores. He wrote pornographic short stories and longer popular Phil Andross novels when such books were routinely banned. Fortunately, copies of his works are preserved in library archives. Unfortunately, they are no longer available.
He led a tortured life abusing alcohol and later barbiturates. Active sexually from the beginning, he was fascinated by young sailors and their uniforms. With frequent visits to Paris and an active few months at the Embarcadero Y in San Francisco, his early life centered on his life as a professor at DePaul in Chicago.
As he aged with more rejections in the bars he kept active paying straight men $5.00 for a blow job as well as continuing a sexual relationship with Thorton Wilder. His sexual relationships with a few hustlers continued for years. Justin Spring has captured his complexity and quirkiness in his biography Secret Historian.
Part of a community of gay and lesbian artists in Paris Steward idolized André Gide and shared his writing with Gertrude Stein, who encouraged him. There he had sex with European and American writers of gay prose. He was also part of the leather community in Chicago with Chuck Renslow’s various publications and “models.” Steward provided him with stories and Renslow provided Steward with a steady supply of models. Working closely with Alfred Kinsey, Steward shared detailed information about gay life as well as his motivations and fantasies. His collection of Polaroids is now part of the Kinsey Institute’s collection.
His Phil Andross novels portraying gay men as open, healthy and natural got the attention of Christopher Isherwood and Tom Gunn—one was the basis for the first gay porno movie with sound and color.
Along with Dirk Varden and Richard Amory, author of Song of the Loon, Steward formed the Renaissance
Group to lobby for gay writers. While their intentions were strengthening the hands of gay authors dealing with pulp paperback publishers who treated them badly, the group is an authentic predecessor of Lambda Literary Foundation.
Like me, Steward wrote critiques of gay pornography. Here’s an example that says something about him and more about the crap available to gay men before Stonewall:
If there is anyone who can successfully and single-handedly kill off homosexual pornography in the United States, that person is F.W.Love, master of the cliché , creator of the 8-year-old “hero,” developer of plot less, senseless stringing together of dull sexual encounters leading nowhere….Nothing he tries ever succeeds, but in every novel he attempts to include everything.
Through it all, Steward kept his stud file and journals, wrote books and essays and corresponded with Toklas and others.
He left a history unknown to most of us of times when America’s consciousness was riddled with McCarthyism and rampant homophobia and gay men and lesbians lived in the closet. Steward had no gay friends because he was uncomfortable with their flamboyant dress, preferring rough men who were physically and emotionally abusive. I suspect that was the result of homophobia in the church and elsewhere.
Being true to his passion Steward’s pornography helped pave the way for gay liberation. Much as he distrusted its early proponents, his writings and attitude have had a profound impact on our literature. He lived to be 82 years old, spending his last years writing as a recluse in his small cottage in Berkeley.
Steward’s life is a reminder to remain true to our sexuality, remember our past and never take our freedoms for granted.
Photo: Courtesy of The Estate of Samuel M. Steward