Steward spent his early career as a college teacher. He was fired from a
position at Washington State University after administrators deemed his
first novel, Angels on the Bough (1936), too racy. He then moved to
Chicago, where he taught at two Catholic universities, Loyola and DePaul.
Throughout this time he kept extensive secret diaries, journals and statistics
of his sex life, while he tattooed sailor-trainees from the US Navy's Great Lakes Naval
Training Station, as well as gang members and street people out of a tattoo parlor on South State Street.
A colleague at the university introduced Steward to Dr. Kinsey in 1949, not long after the sex
researcher had published his groundbreaking Sexual Behaviour In The Human Male.
Kinsey's revelation that a sizeable portion of the population had engaged in
homosexual activity "simply blasted this damn country wide open," Steward later
recalled, adding that gay men regarded Kinsey as a saviour. Steward became an
unofficial collaborator, providing Kinsey with information about the homosexual
cruising scene and the nascent leather-S/M subculture.
Steward had gotten interested in S/M in his twenties. At the time, there were no
specialty leather stores, and he bought his first leather jacket from Sears. Kinsey
"went hog wild" over the small assortment of whips and other gear Steward had
commissioned from a local saddler, and insisted on having everything duplicated for
his own collection. On one occasion, Kinsey arranged for Steward and a sadist from
New York City to visit his institute in Bloomington, Ind., where the two men were filmed
engaging in S/M for three consecutive afternoons.
Even before he met Kinsey, Steward had been a compulsive record-keeper. Over the years,
he documented 5,000 sexual encounters with 800 partners, including a brief affair
with Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder, a fling with Lord Alfred Douglas, and
211 encounters with a woman named Emmy. Although he saw a few hustlers on a regular basis
for many years, he never had a long-term lover. "It would be nice, you know, to have
a man around the house," he once wrote, "but if not, you settle for a dog."
By the early 1950s, Steward had grown frustrated as a tea cher, describing DePaul
as "a kind of co-ed religious kindergarten" and the student body as
"cowed, clannish, and conformist." As a sign of his "anti-intellectual revolt,"
Steward - who played bit parts with various ballet and drama companies - decided
to get a small tattoo for a role. He soon left teaching and became a tattoo artist
himself, working under the name Phil Sparrow.
Steward's working-class clientele opened his eyes to "a much more vibrant and vital
life than I'd ever had up to that time." Tattooing took much of his time away from
socializing at gay venues, but that suited him fine, since sexual prospects now walked
into his South State Street shop. "I didn't have to go cruising," he recalled. "They all
came to me." Steward had many sexual liaisons in his shop's back room, often
with men who did not identify as homosexual. "[I]t was a lot more natural
than the phoney middle-class morality that I had been familiar with," he later told an
After Illinois raised the legal age for getting a tattoo, Steward moved to
Oakland, Calif., in 1965. Although he continued to work as a tattooist for a
few more years, he devoted an increasing amount of time to his writing.
Steward garnered the most acclaim for gay male erotica written under the
name Phil Andros ("lover of men"). With titles like $tud, The Greek Way,
and Different Strokes, many of the tales relate the adventures of the
narrator, Phil, a young hustler (based largely on the real-life experiences
of Steward and his acquaintances). Unlike the guilty, self-pitying
homosexual characters typical of the era's literature, Phil was exuberant
and unapologetic. According to the late author John Preston, Steward was "a
pilgrim reporting on the multi-faceted mysteries and fantasies of a sensual
experience that contradicted the mass-market concepts of the unhappy,
guilt-ridden, tragicomic homosexual." In the 1980s, Steward wrote a series
of mystery novels (including Murder Is Murder Is Murder) featuring Stein,
Toklas, and a gay writer modelled after himself.
Steward died in 1993 at the age of 84. Men like Steward "who were willing to
be themselves when doing such was dangerous and illegal," says author and
leatherman Jack Rinella, "paved the way for you and me to live our lives
openly and proudly."
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on
health, sexuality, and politics.
For further reading:
Kissack, Terence (editor). 2000. "Alfred Kinsey and Homosexuality in the '50s: The
Recollections of Samuel Morris Steward." Journal of the History of Sexuality.
Steward, Samuel. 1977. Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas
Steward, Samuel. 1990. A Social History of the Tattoo with Gangs, Sailors,
and Street-Corner Punks, 1950-1965 (Haworth).