Every once in a while I will interview someone whose life experience totally blows me away. Samuel Steward was one of those men. He was an absolute masterpiece of living. He was born in 1909 in a backward and isolated section of Ohio. He stayed there until 1927, when he moved to Columbus to attend Ohio State University. It was here that Mr. Steward's life really began to change. It was at Ohio State that he began to explore his sexuality a bit more fully. Through a strange set of circumstances he became a protégé of Gertrude Stein and remembers her and Alice B. Toklas fondly. He also lunched with Thomas Mann, knew André Gide and Lord Alfred Douglas, and was a lover of Thornton Wilder. Happily, Mr. Steward was also a keen observer and was a veritable goldmine of anecdotes.
Returning to the States he became a professor of English at universities in both Washington and Chicago and spent the next twenty years in academia. Then in 1954 he abruptly became disenchanted with the world of teaching and stopped. Following his career in the academic world Samuel Steward did about the last thing anyone ever expected him to do and became an accomplished tattoo artist. Under the name Phil Sparrow he worked as a dermographer in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Oakland.
During this time he also began his diverse writings. In the next thirty-five years he released mysteries, non-fiction, literary fiction, erotica, memoirs, the works. Some of his titles include Understanding the Male Hustler, $tud, Dear Sammy, Murder is Murder is Murder, Chapters from an Autobiography, Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos, Parisian Lives, etc. as well as his seven erotic novels under the pseudonym/alter ego Phil Andros, which include My Brother, The Hustler, The Greek Way, and San Francisco Hustler.
One of the most amazing things about him was that he straddled all these worlds so perfectly. He was an intellectual . . . and he loved the sailors and trade and docks. He put erotica on equal footing with his literary fiction and did not put any one part of his life experience on a higher level than any other part. I found that wonderfully inspirational. He was like a smutty Auntie Mame . . . only instead of life being a banquet, it was an orgy in a tat parlor.
We talked in the summer of 1993, and by the time this piece was published in January of 1994 he had passed away. It was a very pleasant conversation. He was just as interesting as he sounds . . . and pretty frisky for 85.
[Steward's third mystery novel starring Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, mentioned near the end of the interview, was never completed.]
Keehnen: Hello, Mr. Steward. How are you?
Steward: That depends. Is this going to be a friendly interview or an antagonistic one?
Keehnen: Friendly, I assume.
Steward: Then call me Samuel.
Keehnen: Okay, Samuel. I'm curious, what were your impressions of being gay during the Depression?
Steward: Life was very secretive. Everybody was in the closet. There were no marches, no organizations, nothing like that. We lived under an umbrella of ignorance. People were convinced that there were such things as queers, but that they all lived in New York or Paris. People were convinced that if you were in your right mind, then you certainly would never consider falling in love with someone of the same sex. It was beyond belief. We had to be very careful in those days, but in the end I think we had more fun.
Keehnen: How exactly did your relationship with Gertrude Stein come about in 1932?
Steward: It happened while I was in college. I was taking courses from a guy named Clarence Andrews, who was kind of a romantic figure. He had written a book called The Innocents of Paris. It was the vehicle for Maurice Chevalier's first American movie. Mr. Andrews would go to Paris and sink down into the life of the city for six months, and then he'd come back and teach for six months. He died very suddenly in 1932. I knew that he had gone many times to Gertrude Stein's salon because he talked a lot about her. I knew Gertrude Stein would never find out about his death, so I wrote her a letter and she responded. We wrote back and forth. I actually didn't meet her in person until 1937.
Keehnen: I know you've written an entire memoir, Dear Sammy, which contains both the letters and also your personal reflections on Ms. Stein. What was your overall impression?
Steward: Oh, I liked her very much. I adored her. I was upset by her reputation; she was a giant of literature. She was amazing. I was in my late twenties and I was trembling. She was in her sixties. However, I found her very warm and almost maternal towards me. My impression was she was not quite sure of herself and wanted to have the admiration of even a young squirt like myself.
Keehnen: What would you two do together?
Steward: Oh, we had lots of fun. She was full of little tricks. We liked to take long walks and talk about literature. My God, she was a fine person.
Keehnen: It sounds like you have some wonderful memories. You also remained a close friend of Alice's for twenty-one years after the death of Gertrude. How was Alice different on her own?
Steward: She came out of the shadows after Gertrude died. She always made herself kind of invisible when Gertrude was alive. She looked upon herself as a kind of custodian, secretary, cook, etc. for Gertrude. After Gertrude's death in 1946, she came into her own, but she always made it a goal of her remaining years to keep Gertrude's memory alive. She asked me to do what I could to keep Gertrude's memory green as well. I've done that, I hope.
Keehnen: Besides Gertrude and Alice you also knew André Gide, Thomas Mann, Thornton Wilder, and Lord Alfred Douglas. Did you ever have incredible imposter syndrome? Weren't you overwhelmed sometimes by the company of these legends?
Steward: Yes, in a way. Back in those days you could write to a person you admired, and if you knew how to write him or her a proper letter, you got an answer. The best way I discovered was if you wrote them appreciatively about their work without asking for an autograph. When I did that, I generally got a response. It was kind of a game in the twenties with our crowd at the university.
Keehnen: Would you mind a few quick reminiscences?
Steward: Not at all.
Keehnen: Let's start with Lord Alfred Douglas.
Steward: He was certainly not the beautiful young man Oscar Wilde described. He was in his late sixties when I met him and he showed all the ravages of an ill-spent youth. His hair was thin, his face was covered with a network of wrinkles, he had thin, pursed lips and a very egotistical air, as though the whole British Empire depended on what he had to say in verse and in ordinary speech.
Keehnen: You were also lovers with Thornton Wilder at one point.
Steward: Yes. Thornton Wilder was afraid of sex, and unfortunately I was put in the position of outing him, but I never did it until after he had died. We were lovers in Zurich. He was very secretive about his homosexual inclinations, but they were definitely there. We had quite an experience. Thornton always went about having sex as though it were something going on behind his back and he didn't know anything about it. He was more than a little afraid of it, I think.
Keehnen: What about André Gide?
Steward: Gide was quite open about his homosexuality. In fact, he once gave me his handsome and beautiful young Arab that he brought back with him from North Africa for an evening. As a note, Gide also had a satin covered circular bed which was certainly unusual in 1930s Paris.
Keehnen: And Thomas Mann?
Steward: I felt I was on Olympus. It was a rainy day and I'd been invited to have lunch with him and his family. The entire family was there, even the dog. But I had two hours with him in his upper room. Nothing happened, of course, but I sensed he was a kindred spirit and not just from his writing; Death in Venice is completely homosexual, and The Magic Mountain had many of the same elements. It wasn't until thirty or forty years later when his dairies were published that his full bisexuality was revealed.
Keehnen: Who would you consider the greatest genius of them all?
Steward: Beyond question Thomas Mann, though Gertrude was certainly no slouch. He had an aura about him and Gertrude had that too, that atmospheric disturbance or something.
Keehnen: You were a university professor for twenty years before dropping that to become a tattoo artist under the name Phil Sparrow. Why the change and why the change in that direction?
Steward: I was teaching a freshman class. I had a little trick of firing a lot of questions at the class to find out what their background was. One of the questions was "Who is Homer?" It was a mixed class of forty, and not one had ever heard of Homer. Can you imagine? Then I asked how many knew how to change a sparkplug, and about thirty hands went up. So that day I decided that maybe it was time for me to think about leaving higher education. I wanted to get as far away as I could. That was tattooing. The mysterious and dark side of tattooing attracted me as well.
Keehnen: Was tattooing a sensual experience for you?
Steward: Yes, it was, as a matter of fact. Very good. I read a book by Albert Parry called Tattoo. He was a neo-Freudian and looked upon tattooing as a sexual act because of the insertion of fluid. That aspect was something I wanted to investigate.
Keehnen: What tattoos do you have and where do you have them?
Steward: Tattoo artists have to have one; if we didn't, people would think we were queer.
Keehnen: We couldn't have people thinking that.
Steward: No, absolutely not. So I have a garland of flowers from one shoulder point to the other with a big rose in the middle over my breastbone.
Keehnen: What do you think of the current tattoo renaissance?
Steward: There used to be a tattoo renaissance every so often, or at least the rumor of one, every year when I was in the business. There really is one going on today. One thing about it that scares the hell out of me is the danger, because of the amount of blood involved and the needles, of passing on AIDS here and there.
Keehnen: The only solution is to be sure you go to a reputable artist.
Steward: Yes. I know very well there are a number of disreputable artists who pay no attention at all to antiseptics. They are a hazard. On the other hand, there are many that are extremely careful.
Keehnen: In 1990 your book Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos was released. In your opinion, what is the reason and basis for most of our bad boy fantasies?
Steward: I think perhaps it's the assertion of the masculine status. It's very difficult because it's a complex subject with many motivations going on. I couldn't answer without spending a great deal of time trying to unravel it all. Who knows? Half the time people don't know exactly why they are attracted to something anyway.
Keehnen: In 1936 you were fired as a teacher for writing Angels on the Bough, a book deemed "questionable." Are you shocked by the slackening of censorship over the past 57 years?
Steward: That particular college was under the control of an autocrat who was a fundamentalist, at least in his narrow-minded viewpoints. Personally, I'm not shocked because I never believed in any sort of censorship. We've always had a struggle between those who want to say everything and those who want to say nothing. Currently, we are fighting a more subtle form of censorship called political correctness. You even have to say it correctly or you're damned. It's nothing but an extension of McCarthyism. But censorship just seems to be one of those things ingrained in the American spirit, and I deplore it.
Keehnen: Was there more behavioral freedom in the 1930s with social restrictions or in the 1990s with community limitations, assimilation, political correctness, etc.?
Steward: Owen, that is one of the great paradoxes of the twentieth century, but there was much more freedom in the 1930s under the umbrella of ignorance.
Keehnen: You've also written seven erotic novels under the pseudonym Phil Andros that chronicle in the first person the exploits of a fictional hustler.
Steward: I've been on the politically incorrect list ever since the Phil Andros novels. A hustler is against the Noble Ideal of Homosexuality, which is the abbreviation for The National Institute of Health as well. When I wanted to write about a hustler, it wasn't politically incorrect; that happened somewhere along the line a few years ago.
Keehnen: Besides the novels, your 1991 book Understanding the Male Hustler is a fictional discourse between yourself and Mr. Andros. Why the pseudonym and that format? Is he a separate entity in your mind?
Steward: Yes, I suppose he is. I didn't use the pseudonym to hide anything. It's a joke. In Greek "Philos" is "To Love" and "Andros" means "Man." I got the idea to pretend he was the author and perpetrator from Edgar Allen Poe. He always puts his short stories in the first person to make them more believable.
Keehnen: What do hustlers represent to you?
Steward: I made Phil Andros a hustler in those stories because of his easy entry into any level of society. He can go see a judge as easily as he could see a surfer. The availability of hustlers to all segments of society is what attracted me. I didn't have too much experience with hustlers at all until I got the tattoo shop.
Keehnen: Okay, the pseudonym Phil Andros was a joke. Why did you use Phil Sparrow as your dermotographer name?
Steward: Partially for my own protection. I overlapped my last two years of university teaching with my first two years of tattooing. I used Phil Sparrow to keep that life hidden from my academic life. They would not have looked very favorably on that method of moonlighting.
Keehnen: I bet you're right. Academic question: what do you consider the difference between literature and pornography?
Steward: There is a great difference between literature and pornography. There is not much difference between erotica and literature. I hope I was writing erotica, and the fact that those novels, which I wrote in the early 1970s, are still in print and still selling seems to be a good indication that they were erotica.
Keehnen: What are you working on now?
Steward: I'm on my third Gertrude Stein mystery. There is already Murder is Murder is Murder and The Caravaggio Shawl. I haven't titled this one yet, Owen.
Keehnen: Did you set out to lead a mythical or magical life? Did you look out some window in Ohio when you were 21 and say, "I'm going to do a bunch of crazy stuff."
Steward: No. I just did it without looking over my shoulder. And thank you, I am so flattered that you would call it a magical life.
Keehnen: Are you kidding? It's amazing! You've done so much. I admire how you've made so many incredible changes in your life.
Steward: Well, I thank you.
Keehnen: Where do you see the community heading? Any speculation on what lies ahead?
Steward: I think twenty or thirty years from now, heterosexuals will overcome their innate revulsion about fellatio, and maybe they will overcome the same for cunnilingus.
Maybe twenty or thirty years from now they'll allow gays in the military who will even be able to announce their sexuality.
Keehnen: Do you have any final parting words of wisdom?
Steward: I'd like to say that I ought not to give advice. Perhaps the lines of Matthew Arnold in "Dover Beach" are truest to the point I would make: "Ah love, let us be true to one another."
Keehnen: That's a wonderful sentiment and great advice. Thanks so much for talking with me, Samuel.
Steward: You're welcome.