One of the mysteries of Paris Was A Woman: Who is the charming elderly gentleman who looks like Dirk Bogarde in Death In Venice, and who talks with some rather intimate knowledge (and a bit of tender malice) of Gertrude and Alice?
He reports a racy remark Alice made one day when Gertrude was intrigued by the fact that Nathalie Barney, salonnière exceptionelle, got all those women lovers? After all, like Gertrude herself, Barney was in her sixties at the time and still going at full speed…
Samuel M. Steward, who had been a young gay darling of Gertrude and Alice, overheard Alice cracking a joke right out of the book of gay etiquette. Barney, Alice said, was finding the women at the basement of the Galéries Lafayette, in the Ladies room…
I have repeatedly addressed the topic of sexual liberties between Gertrude and Alice (and certain friends) in these columns: see the très naughty Christmas poem Alice wrote to Gertrude in my post 16; or reflections about Alice's roles in Gertrude's life in post 17. In post 15, I introduced my late friend Samuel M. Steward with the stunning roses he tattooed on the back one of his clients and lovers. Now everybody can be introduced to Sam thanks to a biography — a remarkable book about a remarkable man.
Secret Historian: The life and times of Samuel Steward, professor, tattoo artist, and sexual renegade, by Justin Spring, is a subtle, brilliant, playful, elegant and compassionate portrait that does full justice to its subject. Spring has saved a huge archive of erotic writings, drawings, photographs and collected materials from the oblivion of an attic and turned his research into a page-turner. There are the ambitions that made the young writer dear to Gertrude Stein (see Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas); the life-long sex obsession that made him dear to Alfred C. Kinsey (for whom Sam became a prime gay informer and sexual performer); his tattoo shops in Chicago and Oakland (with Hells Angels as clients); Steward’s “Stud File” with notes and details on his nearly 1000 lovers; and finally the pornographic stories and novels written under numerous pen names that made him dear to innumerable gay readers because of his undying belief in the joy of sex and his high-risk rebellions against pre-Stonewall American pruderies.
When Sam became my friend and informant for my photobiography of Stein, he was already old, sick and weak, but delighted by any chance to still serve his beloved Gertude and Alice. He was proud of holding out for the 5-hour-marathon of interviews by film maker Greta Schiller for Paris Was A Woman, in 1993, shortly before his death. It slyly amused him that he who had befriended Stein in the thirties and was still alive, was framed by a bouquet of a dozen roses looking over his shoulder at the camera.
P.S. An exhibition from the Samuel Steward Archive will be arranged by Justin Spring this coming March, at the New York Museum of Sex.