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Dynamic Range

Sam Steward, secret sexual historian

Sam Steward at Phil's Tattoo Joynt on S. State Street in 1956 or ’57. (Photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum)

Samuel Steward started his career in the 1930s as an academic, teaching literature at DePaul and Loyola and writing novels that garnered reviews from The New York Times. Through his work and correspondences he made friends and sought mentorships with some of the 20th century’s leading literary figures, including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

But Steward lived a secret, bifurcated life well-known to gay men in an era before Stonewall and gay liberation, certainly before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or the token gay best friend of sitcom TV helped normalize gayness in the public eye. He was a focused, energetic, and beloved professor by day, but after-hours he dedicated himself to an increasingly intense series of clandestine sexual encounters with other men, and detailed his secret sex life in thousands of pages of diaries over the course of his life.

Among Steward’s most detailed records was the “Stud File,” an alphabetized card catalogue with a different index card for every sexual conquest.

Take, for example, the entry under Gugliemi, R., for the black and white film star Rudolph Valentino, who Steward tracked down for an autograph by posing as a high school newspaper reporter. Steward kept a lock of hair from Valentino’s nether regions that remained by his bedside for the rest of his life.

Then there’s the entry for Hudson, Rock, the actor who later became one of the first prominent figures to publicly admit he had AIDS. Steward claimed to have had sex with Rock Hudson in an elevator at Marshall Field’s.

As a teenager, Steward discovered a copy of Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion, the first objective study of gay men that did not portray homosexuality as a disease, or as immoral. A traveling salesman had accidentally left the book in his aunt’s boarding house, and perhaps as a result of reading it, Steward did not have the same sense of shame or self-loathing that may have plagued others of his generation.

His detailed personal records became invaluable primary source material for pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, with whom Steward formed a close friendship. The two men never slept together, but Kinsey did observe orgies at Steward’s home. You know, for research.

We know much of what we know about Sam Steward now thanks to the efforts of writer Justin Spring, who uncovered the Stud File and another 80 boxes of documents and memorabilia in what he describes as a veritable “Ali Baba’s cave of homosexual record keeping” in an attic in San Francisco. (The material had been abandoned there by Steward’s executor, following Steward's death in 1993.)

Spring compiled the material into a biography - Secret Historian (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2010) – that details Steward’s life from his early years in Ohio to his later years in Chicago, Milwaukee, and finally Oakland.

In those later years Steward pursued one of his other great passions: tattooing. He opened a tattoo shop at 638 S. State Street, and then another one in Milwaukee, after Chicago raised the minimum age for tattooing to 21 and Steward lost most of his younger clients.

In the audio above, biographer Justin Spring explains the relationship between Steward’s tattoo art and his sexual exploits, and traces how the polymath ended up as an out, gay man who was also the official tattoo artist for Hell’s Angels.

The audio does contain material that may not be appropriate for younger or more sensitive listeners. But it’s as fascinating and as deliciously devious as it sounds.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Justin Spring spoke at an event presented by the Chicago History Museum in September. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.

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