An absorbing, meticulously researched biography of a man who is best known for his pre-Stonewall gay erotic fiction. Through passages that range from...moreAn 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 assignations (including sex with such celebrities as Lord Alfred Douglas). He befriended Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, as well as many gay authors and artists, some of whom ended up in his "Stud File." His carefully-kept sexual records fascinated Alfred Kinsey, who filmed him doing SM in 1952. When Steward turned in the 1950s from a career as a professor to a career as a tattoo artist (back in the years when this was a highly unrespectable calling), he eventually came in touch with a far more dangerous rough trade than had existed in his past. Steward spent his final years trying to convey to a new generation what gay life had been like from the 1920s forward.
"I don't know why [Rudolph Valentino] stopped in Columbus [Ohio], but there he was, absolutely incognito, because he would have been mobbed otherwise. So I went down to the hotel, my autograph book in hand, and knocked on the door, and he signed it . . . [He had been showering and wore only a towel but] he took the book and sat down and signed it. For a long time [after], there was the imprint of his damp palm on the page [of the autograph book]. He stood up . . . and I was about to leave, and he said, 'Is there anything else you want? I'm very tired.'
"I said, 'Yes, I'd like to have you.' And then he really did smile . . . He reached over and pushed the door shut . . . and with the other hand he undid his towel."
Mr. Spring doesn't flinch from the task of depicting Steward's sexual life (he does an excellent job of tracking down Steward's connections with hustlers and leathermen, for example), but perhaps because the sources that the biographer had access to were lacking in this area, I sometimes wished that he had said more about Steward's nonsexual life. For example, Mr. Spring speaks of the "remarkably warm friendship" that Steward had with Emma Curtis, a fellow teacher, and notes upon her death that, for over twenty years, Steward had been "sharing meals, seeing movies, and talking on the phone with her nearly every day." Yet she is rarely mentioned in the biography, which keeps insisting that Steward was incapable of intimate relationships with other people. Perhaps Mr. Spring merely means "with other men," for he documents many of Steward's letters and visits to Stein and Toklas, including a vivid image of Steward sitting by Toklas's bedside in her final years "as she slipped in and out of consciousness."
It is little touches like this that make the biography so moving. On a week in which I should instead have been doing research, I was unable to tear myself away from Justin Spring's tale of Samuel Steward's life.(less)
"Lieutenant Mowbray was still talking to Pickering on the telephone when he completely destroyed the peace of the Coast Guard Air Rescue station. Hold...more"Lieutenant Mowbray was still talking to Pickering on the telephone when he completely destroyed the peace of the Coast Guard Air Rescue station. Holding the phone in one hand, he boosted himself up in bed and pressed the red alarm button on the wall." The dramatic adventures of a commercial airplane flying from Honolulu to San Francisco. Written by an author who had piloted such flights, the novel contains vivid descriptions of air travel and navigational assistance during the period following World War Two, as well as memorable characters and a tension-filled plotline.(less)