Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Importance of Being Yourself (and Loving It)

If I haven't posted anything in a while it's because I've spent every spare moment reading "Secret Historian", the phenomenal biography of a man I had never heard of: Samuel Steward (1909-1993)

Samuel Steward aged 16 

English professor, novelist, tattoo artist, sexual rebel, literary pornographer: Steward was all these things. He lead an extraordinarily varied and risqué life, befriending brilliant minds such as Getrude Stein, Alfred Kinsey or photographer George Platt Lynes, and seducing anyone from André Gide, Rudolph Valentino and Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar Wilde's lover) to Rock Hudson and hordes of sailors.

Getrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Steward's life-long friends

Photography by George Platt Lynes

Steward in a Polaroid with an unknown man

What is most striking about the biography, however, is the utter contrast between outside and inside. Through Steward's meticulous diary entries we gain an insight into a highly intelligent and creative yet ultimately lonely and depressed man. At first the reason for the unhappiness is  not quite clear. There is no doubt that society's repression of homosexuals in America - for pretty much all of Steward's life - was a factor. But then he did express himself sexually, and never seems to have felt guilty for his desires.

Mike Miksche, a sadist whom Steward paid for S/M sessions

The Stud File recorded every one of Steward's sexual encounters for over 60 years 

Instead, the issue was self-esteem. Steward never seems to have been at peace with himself, restlessly moving from one sexual adventure to the next, one vocation to another, courting danger and setting himself up for literary rejections, while not allowing himself to really value his talent for tattooing. How can you stop yourself from becoming bitter?

Steward in 1957, aged 48, with a tattoo he designed for himself

A tattoo made by Steward
One of Steward's pornographic novels, published under the pseudonym of Phil Andros. Cover: custom-designed by Tom of Finland
When he was in his twenties and depressed, Getrude Stein wrote him a letter, talking of 'the question of being important inside in one'. This seems to be the key. And something Steward never quite mastered. Sadly - or luckily - happiness is far removed from brilliance. 

No comments:

Post a Comment