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

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  1,663 ratings  ·  231 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

Hardcover, First Edition, 496 pages
Published August 17th 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Average rating 4.06  · 
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 ·  1,663 ratings  ·  231 reviews

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Charles Dee Mitchell
Feb 23, 2011 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
Sep 23, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
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
Jul 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reviewed, queer
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
George K. Ilsley
Aug 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating book about a fascinating character whose adult life spanned the 1930's to the early 90's. Truly one of those "truth is stranger than fiction" characters, Steward's story intersects with Kinsey and with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, as well as with a raft of others. Can't quite say enough about this book. It’s all too incredible.

Inspired me to read "Dear Sammy", which is a memoir of Steward's time with Gertrude and Alice, and about 100 letters from them to him.
Sep 24, 2010 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
Joey Manley
Jan 02, 2012 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
Jul 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A really interesting and well-written biography of someone I had never even heard of before picking this up. I always enjoy pre-Stonewall queer history, and, okay, this guy's life spans Stonewall, and wow, did he ever do a lot of stuff. He was an English professor whose writing career never really took off (his dream was to move to Europe and be a writer and that never really happened), and so he turned to tattooing, and then when that dried up he ended up writing gay porn novels. Under the pseu ...more
Oct 02, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: lgbtq
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 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. ...more
May 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating read about a fascinating man who would have remained almost unknown if not for Justin Spring's diligent research.

While there's a lot of things Steward did in his life that I don't condone, I am going to be the first to admit that he is a man I truly admire, for his honesty in the time period he's lived in is truly exceptional. To pay homage to one of his letters in the book, he really was a man who let himself feel freedom. He did what he wanted to do whether that was being an Engl
Abradon Williams
Feb 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What a life!!!
Oct 11, 2010 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
Apr 06, 2013 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.

Jeffrey Powanda
Sep 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: gay
Fascinating, meticulously documented biography of Samuel Steward, a gay writer and a scholar, who obsessively recorded his sex life for decades (during much of the 20th century), as well as produced numerous journals, diaries, letters, essays, photographs, paintings, drawings, and tattoo sketches throughout his strange, varied life.

Steward was many things: poet, novelist, university professor, Kinsey sex researcher, tattoo artist, and pornographer. He was competent in all of these things, excell
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
Jun 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
One of the most fascinating books I've ever read. Speechless (review-less.) Read if you dare. SALACIOUS!. And really well written. ...more
Sep 05, 2010 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
Feb 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: lgbtq
A must read for anyone (especially gay men) who want to witness the social, literary, cultural world we live in today bloom and grow in the life of one man. Maybe because I identify with Mr. Steward so much that I'm having a hard time putting into words anything more concrete about him: his unwillingness to censor his life definitely puts him on my list of heroes. His humor puts on the list of people that I wish I could've known.

Justin Spring accomplishes what he sets out at the beginning of the
Jun 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A look at someone who truly lived life according to his own 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. ...more
Mar 28, 2020 rated it liked it
The key to understanding the value of this biography of Samuel Steward is in the title, “Secret Historian.” While it may be hard for today’s generation to understand, living an openly or even partially open gay life from the nineteen twenties to the fifties was an opening to harassment, extortion, unemployment and violence. The publishing world, terrified of strict obscenity laws, avoided almost all gay content in books, except when heavily coded. Laws and attitudes would gradually change in the ...more
Isaac R. Fellman
Feb 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An upside-down, in-the-margins chronicle of a lost or missing life. A haunted book. An indictment of the failures of professionalized archiving (this is a pretty small part of the book, actually, but as a queer archivist it’s the part that keeps me up at night). I am dazzled by Spring’s scholarship and his portrait of a fascinating, deeply damaged, proud, talented man searching in unforgiving times for some sort of honesty. Reminds me of Julie Phillips’ groundbreaking biography of James Tiptree, ...more
Isabella Schmidt
Jul 30, 2020 rated it liked it
It was a really very well researched biography on the life of Stewart. I just felt, personally, that it focused so heavily on sex and his sexual escapades that I found myself continually asking “so what?” a question that did not get answered until the very end of the biography.
I very interesting look into an example of what life was like for gay men in the 20th century
Patrick Santana
Jun 22, 2013 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
Jim Coughenour
Aug 18, 2010 rated it really liked it
I knew I was going to enjoy this biography from its first page. Spring writes, "I first came across Steward's name in the gay pulp fiction archive and database at the John Hay Special Collections Library at Brown University..." The gay pulp fiction archive?! Immediately readers know they're in for a ride.

Samuel Steward (aka Donald Bishop, Thomas Cave, John McAndrews, Phil Sparrow, Ward Stames, Phil Andros) was a poet, novelist, Catholic English professor, tattoo artist, gay pornographer, friend
Karen Taylor
Nov 30, 2010 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
May 15, 2012 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
Dec 21, 2010 added it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Jul 14, 2014 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
Jan 29, 2013 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 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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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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