Sam Steward, the subject of this National Book Award-nominated biography, had sex with a lot of people, and documented every encounter on 3×5 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 other handjobs), and the as-yet-undiscovered Rock Hudson (“ex-Navy, v. good looking” was Steward’s note about this encounter, which took place in the elevators at Marshall Fields when the two of them were co-workers there).
Sex wasn’t the only thing he did with his life, though it was maybe the most consistent thing he did with it. He actually had several careers, each of which was accomplished enough to have satisfied most people, in its own way.
Steward’s first career, as a young novelist, earned him entree into the inner circle of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (and through them, just about anybody else you’ve ever heard of during that era who was working in literature and/or the visual arts). He never lived up to the expectations of his literary set, though, fizzling out after a promising first book. Those expectations were very high, though, and most young novelists never even reach the heights that Steward managed to reach in the first flush of his promise. Who among us can lay claim to the friendship and patronage of a figure as important to the history of art and literature as Gertrude Stein?
Then he taught college for twenty years. At DePaul, he was a popular professor who (we learn later) had a profound effect on his students, causing many of them to choose lives as artists, thinkers, and creators. But Steward himself hated the gig, becoming addicted to “uppers” and alcohol during the course of his tenure there.
Next he became a tattoo artist, becoming the “official” tattoist of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang at the height of their notoriety, and eventually, under the nom de needle of “Phil Sparrow,” mentoring two of the most influential figures in the art-form, Cliff Raven and the ubiquitous Ed Hardy.
His sexual documentation became a major source for Alfred Kinsey‘s landmark studies on sexuality in America, and he developed a deep friendship with the man.
Late in his life, encouraged by the more-frank sexual discourse going on in the country, partially caused by Kinsey’s work, Steward wrote some of the most influential of the early gay “pulp” novels, the Phil Andros series.
Then [SPOILER ALERT] he died, cramped and alone in an apartment filled with his hoard of books, papers, letters from famous people, and sexual memorabilia. Most people, until now, have never heard of him. Strike that: most people still have never heard of him.
Spring’s prose is never sensationalistic, which, one imagines, was a difficult feat, given the subject matter. A little sensationalism might have helped a bit. Like the people Steward surrounded himself with, I found myself getting bored toward the end, after the sex ran out, and Steward turned into an old crank organizing his neighborhood into anti-prostitution watches while he let his lap dogs piss all over his belongings. That’s when the flatness of the prose became evident (it had been flat all along, but who cared — you know — given what it was describing). But I’m an evil bitch like that, like most gay men are, and am perhaps a bit too afraid of my own impending decline and fall, like, again, most gay men are, to read about Steward’s with anything other than mild, maybe guilty, disgust.
If, like me, you have an interest in pre-Stonewall gay male sexuality, or if you just want to read up on one of the most strangely well-connected figures in the 20th century (and either look forward to, or can handle, reading lots and lots of descriptions of anonymous and semi-anonymous sexual encounters), then, yes, you should pick this up.
On a personal note: thanks to Steward, I find myself (via Steward’s editor at St. Martin’s, who was also my editor) connected by only two degrees of separation to some of the most famous people of the 20th century — actors, artists, bikers, writers, Manson family murderers, etc. — many of whom he had sex with! Why does this make me happy? I do not know why it makes me happy.