Legendary poet, novelist, and university professor Samuel Morris Steward also known as Phil Andros and Phil Sparrow was born on this day in Woodsfield, Ohio.
Born into a Methodist household, Steward converted to Catholicism during his university years, but by the time he accepted his teaching position at Loyola University he had long since abandoned the Catholic Church.
Steward led one of the most extraordinary (and unknown) gay lives of the twentieth century. He was intimate friend of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder, Steward maintained a secret sex life from childhood on, and documented these experiences in brilliantly vivid (and often very funny) detail.
After leaving the world of academe to become Phil Sparrow, a tattoo artist on Chicago’s notorious South State Street, Steward met famed sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in late 1949 and subsequently became an unofficial collaborator with Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research. During his years of work with the Institute, Steward collected and donated sexually themed materials to the Kinsey archive, gave Kinsey access to his lifelong sexual records, introduced him to large numbers of sexually active men in the Chicago area, and provided him with large numbers of early sex Polaroid photographs which he took during the frequent all-male sex parties he held in his Chicago apartment. He also allowed Kinsey to take detailed photographs of that sexually-themed apartment. He ultimately donated a large numbers of drawings, paintings and decorative objects that he himself had created to the Institute.
In spring of 1950, at Kinsey’s invitation, he was filmed engaging in BDSM sex with Mike Miksche, an erotic artist from New York also known as Steve Masters. After Gertrude Stein, Kinsey was Steward’s most important mentor; he later described Kinsey not only “as approachable as a park bench” but also as a god-like bringer of enlightenment to mankind, thus giving him the nickname, “Doctor Prometheus.
During the early 1960s, Steward changed his name and identity once again, this time to write exceptionally literate, upbeat pro-homosexual pornography under the name of Phil Andros. initially doing so with the Danish magazine Eos/Amigo. Some of his early works described his fascination with rough trade and sadomasochistic sex; others focused on the power dynamics of interracial sexual encounters between men. In 1966, thanks to changes in American publishing laws, he was able to publish his story collection $TUD with Guild Press in the United States. By the late 1960s, Steward had started writing a series of pulp pornographic novels featuring the hustler Phil Andros as narrator. Unlike modern gay porn, Steward’s was exceptionally well written to the point where some characters spouted Shakespeare while they screwed handsome young men. His descriptions of sex are among the most graphic in the language.
During his final years in Chicago, Steward befriended beefcake photographer Chuck Renslow, owner of Kris Studio, and Renslow’s partner, Dom Orejudos, the homoerotic illustrator also known as “Stephen” and “Etienne.” Renslow would later go on to open The Gold Coast, Chicago’s first leather bar, and to found IML, or International Mr. Leather, a yearly gathering of leathermen from around the world.
But there was a downside to Stewards life. that came with enormous physical, professional and psychological costs. The frustration from living in a closeted era combined with his obsession drove Steward to alcoholism which he eventually overcame. He suffered through long periods of dark depression, loneliness and self-destructive behavior. Dangerously violent characters and sex fascinated Steward, and his overtures and adventures frequently landed him in the hospital.
In his later years Steward’s abilities as a writer were compromised by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a barbiturate addiction.
Samuel Steward died at the age of 83 in Berkeley, California and left behind over 80 boxes full of drawings, letters, photographs, sexual paraphernalia, manuscripts and other items, including an autograph and reliquary with pubic hair from Rudolph Valentino, a thousand-page confessional journal Steward created at the request of the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and a green metal card catalog labeled “Stud File,” which contained a meticulously documented record on index cards of every sexual experience and partner.
The attic full of items contained a secret history of a little-documented strand of gay life in the middle decades of the 20th century. Steward’s experience stands in stark contrast to the familiar story of furtive concealment and persecution in the period before gay liberation. As new biographies of artists and writers like E.M. Forster detail the effects of sexual repression on their work, Steward’s history shows what a life of openness, when embraced, entailed day to day.
As Joshua Spring, whose biography “Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade” states so eloquently: “He paid the price for being himself, but at least he got to be himself.”