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'Secret Historian' Samuel Steward was a sexual renegade

SECRET HISTORIAN:The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade, by Justin Spring. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 478 pages, $32.50.

To his English students at Loyola and DePaul universities in Chicago in the 1940s and '50s, he was Dr. Steward. To the legions of sailors who made appointments at his tattoo parlor, he was Phil Sparrow. To those who read his gay pornographic novels, such as "$TUD" (1966) and "My Brother, the Hustler" (1970), he was Phil Andros. To his adoring friends Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, he was Sammy. To Alfred Kinsey, whom he met in 1949, he was an invaluable resource in studying the sex lives of gay men, particularly those drawn to sadomasochism.

Though his names and professions changed, Samuel Morris Steward (1909-1993) remained a consistent, obsessive record-keeper, creating a green-metal card catalog called the "Stud File," with 746 index cards cross-referencing and detailing every sexual experience and partner (including Rudolph Valentino, Thornton Wilder and Rock Hudson) from 1924 to 1974. Poring through Steward's archive - which also includes a 1,000-page diary he kept for Kinsey, XXX-rated drawings and photographs - Justin Spring brings to life a man whose candor and unwavering commitment to sexual pleasure open a window on gay (and intellectual) life in the mid-20th century. Though not as acclaimed as the lavender luminaries he either bedded or befriended, Steward can now be heralded as one of the most vibrant, infinitely connected men of his time. One imagines "Six Degrees of Sam Steward" being played at gay bars and academic LGBT conferences.

Though Spring, who's written biographies of artists Fairfield Porter and Paul Cadmus, admires his subject's complete honesty about his desires and "his unwillingness to submit to a form of social oppression he knew to be unjust," he doesn't demur from describing Steward's self-destructive side and grim senescence. Steward's literary ambition - he wrote a story collection and a novel in his 20s - was frequently derailed by his alcoholism. (He eventually gave up booze.) His penchant for rough, dangerous sex landed him in the hospital, or robbed, more than once. In his final years, living in Berkeley, Calif., and inhaling bottled oxygen, he occupied a filthy bungalow that smelled of dog waste (his two dachshunds were never housebroken), nightmarishly crammed, Collyer Brothers-style, with all of his priapic mementos.

A passage from Steward's journal helps explain his predilection for self-sabotage: "Why can't I lead a dull and happy and carefreelife? The answer, I suppose, is that I'd rot; I have to have excitement, even at the price of ruin." But Steward also found lifelong guidance in advice Stein gave him in a letter from 1938: to explore "the question of being important inside in one." Immersing himself completely in his obsessions - whether sex and its documentation, tattooing or writing (in both high and low genres) - Steward found his significance in honoring his libidinal and creative impulses.

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