Friday, October 21, 2011

Book Review: Secret Historian

Secret Historian
by Justin Spring
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

Recently I've been doing some research about the history of alternative sexuality in the 20th century. If that sounds like a pretty wide-ranging subject, it is, but I have a project in mind that's still a twinkle in my eye and I'm sort of feeling my way towards it. Anyway, each time I'm in a bookstore I've been combing through their sexuality and LGBT sections looking for anything that's vaguely historical. At one recent trip to a Barnes & Noble, I saw the book Secret Historian and thought... who the hell is Sam Steward. So I bought The Gay Metropolis instead and didn't give it another thought.

Until a few weeks later, when I was once again looking for books online. In the meantime, I had read an essay by Steward in Leatherfolk, a book about San Francisco's gay leather scene which includes a history section. Steward's essay covered the 1940s, the earliest period in the history section. It describes how he met Alfred Kinsey and became an unofficial contributor to Kinsey's research. Steward was set up on a play date with a gay sadist so that Kinsey could film a movie of them, all in the name of science. It was an amazing true story, and when I ran across Secret Historian again in my online search I was thrilled to learn more. I didn't know what I was getting into.

Secret Historian is 414 pages long, and it's an honest 414 pages. There's no big print or wide margins here. It is a thick, exhaustive description of Steward's life. Occasionally it might be a little too detailed, but most of the time it was utterly absorbing. Steward led an amazing, compartmentalized life which he recording in meticulous detail, as if he knew it would be interesting to posterity. He grew up in a repressed Ohio Methodist, but was already experimenting with gay sex before he left high school, including a tryst with silent movie star Rudolph Valentino. Steward's literary aspirations took him to Paris, where he was befriended by Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas, and became the lover of Thorton Wilder. Back in the States he taught English at Loyola College in Chicago, struggled with alcoholism rooted in his conflicted attitude about his sexuality, and kept meticulous records of his sex life, including a tryst with a young Rock Hudson in a department store elevator and a fetish for the sailors training at the Great Lakes naval station. These adventures, together with Steward's collecting of gay paraphernalia and his involvement with BDSM culture, attracted the interest of Alfred Kinsey, and Steward became an unofficial collaborator in Kinsey's groundbreaking study of human sexuality. Steward eventually became a tattoo artist, under the alias Phil Sparrow, at Navy Pier to have an excuse to interact with sailors and found it much more lucrative than teaching. In his middle years, he developed a close friendship many prominent gay men of his era, including Julien Green, George Platt Lynes and Glenway Wescott, but his attempt to get on Jean Genet's good side were never successful, and Steward's translations of his novels were unsuccessful. In the mid-'60s Steward relocated his tattoo shop to Oakland, California, where be became the unofficial tattoo artist of Sonny Barger and to Oakland Hell's Angels. He also began writing a beloved series of erotica novels, creating the literary alter ego Phil Andros, a young hustler on the make.

The only criticism I can make of this book is that it's a little bit too detailed. At times its tales of endless hookups gets a bit monotonous. But the book is well worth reading for the vivid description of the many worlds Steward traveled in his life -- the literary salons of 1930s Paris, the quiet desperation of a closeted academic, the seedy subculture of tattoos and motorcycle gangs, the middle aged writer of pulp erotica, and a lonely old age as a respected elder in San Francisco's gay liberation and the AIDS epidemic. It's an incredible life.

In the end, Sam Steward seems to become the prototypical gay man of his generation. Its a rather tragic life, all told. Steward accepts his homosexuality more than many -- he never marries or makes any pretense of heterosexuality -- but all the same he never manages to find enduring love, and seldom even achieves the fleeting kind. He seems to live his life with the assumption that this sort of relationship is unavailable to him, and that is the tragedy that many generations of gay men forced to live in the closet had to live. Nonetheless, there's hope in the fact that the tragedy didn't overwhelm Steward -- while lacking love, he still lived an extraordinary life, one that Justin Spring has set down in great detail in this book, and which we are all privileged to be able to read about, and remember.