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Monday, Oct. 11, 2010

‘Secret Historian’ Reveals Life of Samuel Steward

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Though the fight for gay rights continues, it is heartening to know that we live in an age when the topic has entered the public discourse. Not long ago, gays and lesbians were subject to such shame and misunderstanding that most homosexual relationships were hidden from the public eye. A scant amount of literature exists on the lives of gay men in the early 20th century, but a newly released biography uncovers one man’s extraordinary hidden life. Secret Historian, by New York-based writer Justin Spring, reconstructs the life of Samuel Steward, shedding light on a unique gay man in an era filled with deep prejudice.

Samuel Steward was an avant-garde personality who perpetually reinvented himself, first as a college professor and later as a tattoo artist (his tattooing moniker was Phil Sparrow). He was also the author of some of the first “gayrotic” novels (under the pseudonym Phil Andros).

Steward may have limited his time in different personas, but he certainly did not curtail his sexual liaisons. From the time he was a teenager he was engaging in casual sex with the college men that rented rooms in his aunt’s boardinghouse, where he lived. Steward kept highly detailed notes on each of his alleged 746 sexual escapades in a methodically organized compendium (something that proved extremely helpful to anthropologist Alfred Kinsey, who found Steward to be a very willing subject for his 1950s sexual research).

Steward’s meticulous records, alongside the secret, never-before-seen diaries and journals presented in Secret Historian, portray a vividly moving portrait of a truly remarkable man.

Author Justin Spring specializes in 20th-century art and culture and has held fellowships at Yale, Brown, Radcliffe and Amherst College. Spring will appear at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center on Oct. 14 at 6 p.m. for a reading and book discussion on Secret Historian.
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