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

4.03  ·  Rating Details ·  1,325 Ratings  ·  189 Reviews

Drawn from the secret, never-before-seen diaries, journals, and sexual records of the novelist, poet, and university professor Samuel M. Steward, The Secret Historian is a sensational reconstruction of one of the more extraordinary hidden lives of the twentieth century. An intimate friend of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder, Steward maintained a secret

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Hardcover, First Edition, 496 pages
Published August 17th 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Charles Dee Mitchell
Feb 23, 2011 Charles Dee Mitchell rated it it was amazing
In 1926, when he was 17 years old, Samuel Steward learned that Rudolph Valentino was checked into a downtown Columbus, Ohio, hotel under his real name, Rudolph Guglielmi. Already an avid autograph hound, Steward went to Valentino's hotel room, knocked on the door, got the autograph, gave the silent film star a blow job, and took home a snippet of his pubic hair. He kept the hair all his life in a monstrance bought at an antique store. That object now resides in a private collection in Rome.

Not m
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Korri
Last night, as I was thinking about my own career trajectory (or lack thereof), I read this line--

'whatever his previous failures as a literary novelist and man of letters, he might yet establish himself as a brilliant writer of homosexual smut.'

--and giggled to myself as I thought, 'That's what I want to do when I grow up!'

Samuel Steward was a fascinating man. It boggles the mind that his life could have stayed an obscure footnote in the biographies of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolkas or appe
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Grady
Sep 24, 2010 Grady rated it it was amazing
An Exceptional Book on Many Levels,

Reading SECRET HISTORIAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SAMUEL STEWARD, PROFESSOR, TATTOO ARTISTS, AND SEXUAL RENEGADE it is difficult to decide which is the more important - learning about a rather phenomenal man (Samuel Steward) whose life to date has been a well-guarded secret, or discovering one of the finest biographers writing today - Justin Spring. Spring is a seasoned biographer whose publications include 'Paul Cadmus: The Male Nude', 'Fairfield Porter: A Life
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Matt
Jul 26, 2012 Matt rated it it was amazing
Shelves: queer, reviewed
Extraordinary. Indispensable. Steward crossed paths with an enviable and astonishing array of literary celebrity, participated in a nearly unbelievable number of sexual encounters, and lived fascinating careers in academia, "tattoodling," and writing. I am thankful to Justin Spring for saving this man's life from obscurity. Born in 1909 and dead just a day shy of 1994, the evidence from his letters and writings paints a portrait that dispels the perceived victimology of gay men during this perio ...more
Dana
Oct 02, 2012 Dana rated it liked it
Shelves: gay
I don't generally read biographies, so I have nothing to compare this to, but it seemed a little too much like a re-telling of all Steward's sexual exploits without enough historical context or details about his life outside of his sexual encounters. I do realize that was the most significant thing in his life, but it wasn't the only thing. I would've liked to know more about his teaching, for one, or his friendship with Emmy, which spanned decades but was only mentioned in passing.
Robert Vaughan
Mar 26, 2016 Robert Vaughan rated it it was amazing
One of the most colorful lives that has been reconstructed diligently by biographer Justin Spring. Sam Steward lived a marginal life, and yet, like Zelig, was able to morph among the various personas he continued to re-create throughout his long life. Also equally intriguing was his note-taking and record keeping, which in an era like the 1950's, as a gay man inscribing a "Stud File" about his sexual exploits, well! Just read this fascinating biography.
Tim
Sep 23, 2012 Tim rated it it was ok
Shelves: queer, non-fiction
Interesting for its historical perspective on the life of a gay man in America from the 1920s through the 1980s. Steward spent 20 years as a professor at Loyola, then De Paul, universities. He left academia in his late forties to pursue a second career as a tattoo artist. Steward was a compulsive record keeper and diarist. His first-hand accounts of same sex interactions in the markedly diverse socio-economic worlds in which he moved, all of which were pre-Stonewall, were intriguing to read. Bey ...more
Joey Manley
Jan 02, 2012 Joey Manley rated it really liked it
Shelves: gay, history
Sam Steward, the subject of this biography, had sex with a lot of people, and documented every encounter on 3x5 index cards. The running count comes to a little under 1000. Some of those people were famous, like the masterful Rudolph Valentino (whose pubic hair Steward saved and incorporated into a mantelpiece trophy he made for himself), the odious Lord Alfred Douglas (Steward wanted his mouth "to go where Oscar's had gone," only to learn later that "Bosie" and Wilde had only mostly given each ...more
Alan
Oct 11, 2010 Alan rated it really liked it
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
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Tex Reader
3.0 of 5 stars – Detailed, Sad Study of One "Homosexual's" Life.

I am a fan of the gay history and experience, and for that this is a laudable record by Justin Spring of Sam Steward's life (aka Phil Sparrow-tattoo artist, Phil Andros-porn author), just as Steward's own writings were a unique and valuable documentation of his sex life and fantasies.

Spring's work is well-researched. While covering now familiar ground about the gay experience in the early to mid-1900's, this account of one "homosexu
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Patrick Santana
Jun 22, 2013 Patrick Santana rated it liked it
Recommends it for: gay men, queer historians
Recommended to Patrick by: jon barrett
There's a lot of fascinating material here in Spring's thorough examination of Sam Steward's life. Steward kept copious notes, journals, and photographs of his sexual adventures dating all the way back to the 1930s (Errol Flynn among them). Not only does the book give you a glimpse into this almost-lost world of gay life in the dark period of the 1930-1950s, but you also get this secondary layer of all the intersections of gay literati took place. Steward was friends with Getrude Stein, Alice To ...more
Karen Taylor
Nov 30, 2010 Karen Taylor rated it really liked it
Wow, what an amazing life, and an essential for folks interested in LGBT or leather history.

Justin Spring does a great job of letting Samuel Steward speak for himself through his letters and writings. I'm glad he does: Steward is a brilliant writer: witty, imaginative, erudite and far-reaching in his interests and his network of friends. HIs dedication to sex and sex-recording is fascinating and provided Dr. Kinsey with a wealth of information that continues to have an impact on our culture tod
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Aleix
May 15, 2012 Aleix rated it liked it
This book is meticulously researched and documented, and the writing itself is great but about a third of the way through it I began to ask myself why. The title and summary lead you to believe it is about a man with ideas ahead of his time who is involved with some of the 20th Century's most notable artists and transgressors (Kinsey, Gertrude Stein, Cocteau...) and that's not exactly true. While there are parts of the book that are about his involvement with these people,especially Stein, Tokla ...more
Courtenay
Dec 21, 2010 Courtenay rated it liked it
While this may be too salacious for some, it's really an interesting read about a fascinating life. I particularly enjoyed the interweaving of all of the significant literary characters of the day, Gertrude Stein, Thornton Wilder, Oscar Wilde, et al, and it brought me back to my college studies. Also mentioned numerous times was my favorite subject I wrote about in college: Sylvia Beach and her famous Parisian bookshop, Shakespeare and Co., frequented by all of these expats. This time period has ...more
Carmen
Jul 14, 2014 Carmen rated it liked it
Sam Steward is a fascinating guy. He's like Zelig - always miraculously involved with interesting people from Gertrude Stein to Alfred Kinsey to Sonny Barger. By the way, Sam Steward is most definitely a real person, even if you never heard of him before. Unlike any other pre-Stonewall personality I know, Steward's life really opened up previously undescribed worlds of homosexual communities, of tattooing, of pornography; all which he scholarly documented and detailed articulately .

The reason I
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Laurel
Jan 29, 2013 Laurel rated it it was amazing
About a third of the way through this 400 page biography I was wondering why it was voted by both Slate.com and the NYTimes as being one of the best non-fiction works of 2011. I was bored. But on reflection, and through the final third I "got it".

This is a meticulously crafted look at an extraordinary man, who history had seemed to forgotten. His story is both affirming and tragic. A definite must for those interested in the hidden life history of the educated gay male , beginning in the early
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Tosh
Sep 05, 2010 Tosh rated it really liked it
A remarkable world that Samuel Steward lived in. A collage professor turned tattoo artist who also happened to be a great sex adventurer - Justin Spring really captures the underground world of Gay sexuality and life in the 20th Century. But for that we have to be thankful for Steward's zeal for keeping track on all his sexual adventures. Steward built up an erotic museum of sorts - and this gentleman of pleasure is a wonderful figure in Gay social history. Essential read for anyone who is inter ...more
Sarah
Nov 03, 2015 Sarah rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Goodreads ate my long and thoughtful review so suffice to say i love this book and was immersed for over a week....this guy was amazing. He was a friend and confidant to Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, a beloved English professor, a talented and successful tattooist (mentored Ed Hardy, tattooed Kenneth Anger and bobby Beausoleil, was the tatttooist for the Oakland Hells Angels), worked with Albert Kinsey and contributed to his research on homosexual sex and lifestyles, and was a novelist....and ...more
Donald
Sep 22, 2011 Donald rated it liked it
I did not know who Sam Steward was, but I was familiar with his nom de plume, Phil Andros. Having just previously finished the biography of E.M. Forster (1879-1970), I found it quite interesting to find that Steward (1909-1993) had encountered some of the same people as Forster: most notably Alfred Kinsey and George Platt Lynes. They both lived through the repression and backlash that faced gays in the forties and fifties, but were still alive post-Stonewall. It is also striking how similar toda ...more
Ray
Jul 20, 2011 Ray rated it really liked it
Thoroughly researched non-fiction about a pre-Stonewall queer. Pretty amazing insight into a time and a way of being gay that was absolutely trailblazing. I also liked the author's construction of 20th century gay life as not simply being pre or post stonewall, but also pre or post Kinsey or pre or post McCarthy or related to the world wars.

Very sad too. Samuel Steward did not lead a very happy life.
Rick
Jun 17, 2011 Rick rated it it was amazing
A look at someone who truly lived life according to his own terms...at times when it was very difficult to do so. Moving, arousing, astonishing, and unputdownable, this book chronicles one of the 20th century's most fascinating lives.
Michael
Jul 30, 2012 Michael rated it it was amazing
DA BESS
Edwinnaarden
Feb 25, 2017 Edwinnaarden rated it really liked it
An interesting book and it shows how quickly things can change. It is quite amazing to read how much has changed in the last 100 years. It placed me in the time period and I wonder what my life would've been like had I lived then. In spite of a lot of the bad things in the world at the moment I think I'd prefer to stay whereand as I am. :)
Gerry Burnie
Feb 20, 2011 Gerry Burnie rated it really liked it
"Gerry B's Book Reviews - www.gerrycan.wordpress.com

It’s difficult to know what to say about Secret Historian by Justin Spring [Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010]. It is the type of story that overwhelms while you’re reading it, and stays with you long after you set it down. Moreover, while I liked and admired Justin Spring’s writing, and the nostalgic look at the twentieth century, I disliked the principal character, Samuel Steward, as being disturbingly egocentric and self-serving.

Having said
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Dusk Peterson
An absorbing, meticulously researched biography of a man who is best known for his pre-Stonewall gay erotic fiction. Through passages that range from humorous to poignant, Justin Spring uses admirable detail to build up a day-to-day portrait of Samuel Steward. Steward emerges as a man of many facets, who was considered a prime candidate in the 1930s for entrance into America's elite circle of literary authors, but who spent much of his energy instead on "rough trade" and other sexual assignation ...more
Scott
Nov 18, 2012 Scott rated it liked it
Shelves: lgbt
Samuel Steward was a literary figure I have never heard of but was willing to explore him because of the actual title of this biography. How can you miss out on reading about such hobbies under one man? As homosexuality (a.k.a. both Phil Sparrow and Phil Andros as his life evolves down different paths - all influencing each other in his life's work) becomes more socially acceptable and represented through activism, visibility, art, literature, etc...Steward himself removes himself even further f ...more
Nicole
Oct 05, 2012 Nicole rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This biography is not for everyone but for those willing to put aside Puritanical notions of morality or are willing to read a novel that contains depictions of homosexual acts, underneath you will find the story of a fascinating individual. Samuel Steward was a gay man who came of age in the 1920's, realizing as a teenager that his sexual interests were exclusively that of the same sex. This knowledge and acceptance appeared to come early and in an era when no-one spoke of homosexuality and eve ...more
JOSEPH OLIVER
Apr 06, 2013 JOSEPH OLIVER rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: gay, history, biography
I stumbled across a reference to this book on a blog and decided to give it a shot. Having an interest in unrecorded or unknown history I thought it would be interesting despite the fact that I had never heard of the man – even casually – nor had any interest in those obsessions that filled his life. I was interested in the fact that he was a man with a brain who decided to live out his fantasy life even if it did mean he had to take the disdain of those around him outside his immediate circle.

T
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Spotsalots
Sep 20, 2012 Spotsalots added it
Shelves: biography
As with Susie Bright's memoir, I had been meaning to read this, so it was lucky chance that the two books were relatively near one another in the library shelving. In this case, I didn't know a great deal about Samuel Steward ahead of time beyond that he had been a writer, tattoo artist, and kept detailed records of his sex life.

This is a carefully researched book and an interesting one. Steward's many-faceted life (friend of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; Kinsey contributor; tattooist to t
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Miguel
Sep 01, 2014 Miguel rated it it was amazing
Secret Historian, The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, professor, tattoo artist and sexual renegade, is one of the best biographies I've ever read. The allure of the book owns largely, of course, to the extraordinary life of its subject. But the author's effort is also out of the ordinary. Dealing with a rich documental collection, Justin Spring makes a very close reading and a careful and complete examination of what was Steward's life, and how Steward lived it.

In other words, we know not only
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Justin Spring is a New York based writer specializing in twentieth-century American art and culture. He is the author of many monographs, catalogs, museum publications, and books, including the biography Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (Yale University Press, 2000) and Paul Cadmus: The Male Nude (Universe, 2002). He has been the recipient of a number of grants, fellowships, and awards, including a ...more
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“George was an atheist, and so am I. But how I long now for an afterlife - a world of light or of deep dazzling darkness, where he and the others we've lost reside, unscathed, forever accessible - to have tea with, to talk nonsense with, to reinvent the world with” 9 likes
“Man’s chase after happiness is a feverish and unceasing thing. As we grow older, we search more frantically for it than formerly—and it can be found no longer. “If I were just as happy now as I was then,” we say, and sigh. But the truth is that few men have more to their account than a dozen hours of happiness—a fragment here and there out of the dull and sullen roll of life…How much happier man would be were he only to realize that a state of unhappiness or frustration or despair is the usual thing, the lot of nearly all men nearly all of the time! The frenetic reachings would cease, the compulsions disappear, the nervous chase smooth itself into a serene and contented acceptance.” 0 likes
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