Q & A with ‘Secret Historian’ author

Q & A with ‘Secret Historian’ author
Sam Steward washes the windows of his tattoo parlor in the South Loop circa 1956 photo courtesy of the Sam Steward estate
Q & A with ‘Secret Historian’ author
Sam Steward washes the windows of his tattoo parlor in the South Loop circa 1956 photo courtesy of the Sam Steward estate

Q & A with ‘Secret Historian’ author

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Sam Steward

“Secret Historian” is a biography of Sam Steward, who has surely earned his place alongside Captain George Streeter and Big Bill Thompson as one of the most intriguing characters in Chicago history.

To call Sam Steward gay would be to mislabel him. Steward enjoyed having sex with men, but he came of age in a time before the word gay had found its modern meaning.

When Steward moved to Chicago in the late 1930s to teach at Loyola, homosexuality was still very much illegal in Illinois.

But rather than shy away from his sexuality, Steward embraced it.

By day Steward was an English professor at Loyola and later DePaul, who had published a well-received first novel. By night he was drinking to the point of blackout, seeking out dangerous sexual encounters and keeping detailed track of his sex life for Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

As he wrote and traveled, Steward encountered the likes of Thornton Wilder, Thomas Mann, and Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas. He also developed a lasting friendship with Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas. He eventually left teaching to become a full-time tattoo artist in the South Loop.

But central to Steward’s story is his sexual record-keeping, which he saw as his life’s work. Steward’s records are a testament to gay life in a time when it was otherwise hidden.

I wanted to know more about Steward’s Chicago connections so I spoke by e-mail with Steward’s biographer, Justin Spring.

What would be 3 or 4 essential stops on a tour of Sam Steward’s Chicago? He lived at 4915 North Glenview, in an apartment overlooking St. Boniface Cemetery, and at 5441 North Kenmore Avenue, yes?

Yes, those two addresses still exist, and I visited them while researching Steward’s life. There are photographs of both places on the “Secret Historian” page on Facebook.

To that list I’d also like to add the Pacific Garden Mission at 646 South State Street, right near Steward’s tattoo parlor, which I visited while researching the book—but recently the Mission has moved to a new space!

Likewise the Chicago Eagle at 5015 North Clark Street, once the Gold Coast Chicago’s first leather bar, has now closed its doors. But for adventurous souls, the Man’s Country Bathhouse is still in operation right next door. Chuck Renslow gave me a tour of the place while I was researching Steward’s life; it’s an old-style bathhouse of the sort Steward used to frequent during the 1940s.

Steward studied drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and loved visiting the Art Institute.

He also worked for years at the Lyric Opera of Chicago at 20 North Wacker, appearing as a supernumerary in many ballets and working as a curtain boy for the opera company.

He re-wrote the World Book Encyclopedia in the offices of the Quarry Company, in the Pure Oil Building at 35 East Wacker Drive, one of the most beautiful old buildings in Chicago.

He used to sometimes drop by the Clark Theater at 11 North Clark, which had all-night movies and attracted a sex-seeking crowd; but that was razed in 1974. For a similar experience though I would recommend the Bijou, which features an extraordinary collection of vintage porn.

The best place to see artifacts from Sam’s days is surely the Leather Archives and Museum, at 6418 North Greenview. It was founded by Sam’s friend Chuck Renslow, and contains extraordinary work by Renslow’s partner of many years, Dom Orejudos. It also has a number of works by Sam in its collection– including a painting by Sam of Orejudos, and an extraordinary collection of erotic books and magazines.

You describe 1930s Chicago as rough and lawless. Steward considered himself a native after he got held up on LaSalle Street. How risky was what he was doing at that time– propositioning straight men, many of whom were thugs?

This was at a time when gay men weren’t lawfully allowed to meet– there were no clubs, no magazines, and no internet. So cruising people on the street was one of the only ways for men to connect with other men. So Sam took his chances. His preference for tough guys sometimes got him punched out for propositioning them. But there were other dangers too, since the police had a very profitable shakedown racket going, in which they would arrest a guy for indecency (even if he was doing nothing) then propose a bribe to let him off the hook. There were also blackmailers who would threaten to expose homosexual men to their employers or family. So the risks were many, and they were not just physical.

What did the librarians at Loyola and DePaul say when you told them about your book? How did they react when you asked them for help with researching his life?

There was nothing scandalous in their public records, and the librarians I spoke with didn’t know who he was, so there were no raised eyebrows. Both institutions did have detailed records of his course offerings though; and I was able as well to find articles about him in both school’s student newspapers. He was a hugely popular teacher who taught a very heavy course load on a wide variety of subjects. The papers of Morton Dauwen Zabel at the Newberry Library also had correspondence between Steward and Zabel which showed that Zabe– who was the head of the Loyola English Department and a formidable scholar– liked him very much.

What were some of your favorite details– either about Steward himself or his experiences of Chicago– that you were unable to fit into the book?

His stories of life in and around the tattoo parlor on South State Street are really extraordinary. So too are his stories of various dalliances in and around his Chicago apartment during the 1940s, as catalogued in his letters to Sgt. Bill Collins. I’d love for the full journals and letters to be published someday so that other people can have that full, day-to-day experience of his life.

Steward wrote a novel about Chicago, which you portray as being a very dark depiction of homosexual life in this city in the mid-20th century. How else does he characterize the city in the book or in his journal writing at the time?

It’s a lost manuscript, so all I know about it comes from letters and from Steward’s own writings. It featured a lot of street slang, and described rough sex with criminals and tough guys, and ended in a castration. I still hope it will someday be located in the Kinsey Archive.

Steward was an extra in ballets at the Opera House here in Chicago and you say that he liked the ballet at least in part because it was a place to meet other men with homosexual interests. He also visits the Turkish baths in Chicago and met men at Marshall Field’s. What other cruising spots in Chicago does Steward talk about in his journals that are not mentioned in the book?

Bughouse Square in front of the Newberry Library was famous for many years; so was the Clark theater; and so were a few of the Chicago beaches. There were also the Indiana Dunes in summertime, for guys who wanted to get out of town and go nude.

Who would you want to play Steward in a movie version of his life?

Hmm. I used to think Johnny Depp would be great, but now I think James Franco might be better—Sam had the same charming face and slight build as Franco, the same mischievous smile.

To learn more about Sam Steward’s life, listen to an interview with Alison Cuddy and Justin Spring on Eight-Forty Eight, click here.