Justin Spring, biographer of an outrageous life, to read Thursday
Samuel Steward led a life so outrageous as to defy belief. But he did lead that wild gay life, and biographer Justin Spring chronicled it in Secret Historian, The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist and Sexual Renegade. Spring will read from his new book at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14, at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center.
Spring specializes in 20th-century American art and culture. He is the author of numerous monographs, catalogs, museum publications and books, including Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art and Paul Cadmus: The Male Nude.
In Steward, he discovered a biographer’s dream, complete with a detailed life history in a San Francisco attic filled with a enormous collection of Steward’s papers, diaries, artwork, photos and personal effects. Spring spent nearly a decade piecing that life together.
In a nutshell: Steward, born in Ohio in 1909, began his escapades at 17, when he allegedly met silent movie icon Rudolph Valentino. In his diary, Steward claims Valentino gave him an autograph and, after an intimate moment, awarded him some souvenir pubic hairs.
Perhaps Steward invented the encounter, but from his odyssey and exploits are well documented. He was an English professor at various universities, including DePaul and Loyola in Chicago; a tattoo artist (learned from legendary Milwaukee master Amund Dietzl); and a connoisseur of social and sexual encounters with everyone from sailors to celebrities. Alice B. Toklas (with whom he corresponded for 20 years) and her partner, Gertrude Stein, were among his famous acquaintances.
He carefully documented hundreds of his sexual conquests in a Stud File. The meticulously typed, library catalogue-like cards therein contain such entries as “Dan, Hell’s Angel (address) December 29, 1967 only HA I’ve ever had, tho tattooed dozens of ‘em. Don’t want any more.”
Were it not for the 80 boxes of papers, artwork, photos and, of course, the Stud File, Steward’s life would have faded into the obscure gay past. But the man was as obsessive about record keeping as he was in his pursuit of men. Through those records, Spring gained insight into the America of pre-Stonewall gay intelligentsia, blue-collar tattoo parlor patrons and beyond.
Admission to the Thursday-evening reading is free, refreshments will be served and all persuasions are welcome. Copies of Secret Historian will be on sale, through Outwords Books, and the author will sign copies. The Cream City Foundation’s Joseph R. Pabst LGBT Infrastructure Fund, Boswell books, Outwords Books and PrideFest, Inc., are supporting the event.
The Milwaukee Gay Arts Center is located at 703 South 2nd Street, in Milwaukee’s historic Walker’s Point neighborhood. For more information call 414-383-3727 or visit the MGAC website.