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Interview with Author Justin Spring

Published Oct 8, 2010

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The New Haven Pride Center was lucky enough to chat with author Justin Spring, during his recent visit to New Haven. Spring is the author of the best-selling biography titled “Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), published in August 2010.

Why did you write Sam Steward’s biography? It’s not often one runs across a biography of an unknown person.

As a writer with an interest in American art and culture of the 1950s, I kept bumping into Steward’s name. In other people’s biographies, social histories, cultural histories, oral histories, monographs, and memoirs. And I already knew the name Phil Andros, his pen name, through my reading of gay pulp fiction and gay pornography of the 1960s and 70s. So when I suddenly realized that Steward and Andros were one and the same I got very excited.

What did you hope to do?

At first I simply wanted to know what had happened to his papers after he died. It took me about a year to track them down. But when finally gained access to that 80 boxes of material that no one else had ever seen – well, I realized that even though Steward was far from a celebrity, his life was of cultural importance. Simply put, the scope and magnitude of his work as an undeground writer was amazing – and so was the life he had lived. It was that point that I realized that I simply had to write about him.

Why?

Biographers rarely come across such exciting subject matter. Steward’s voice was fresh and unique, and, more important, his life experiences were unlike anything that has ever been written about up to now. Most important to me as a biographer was the fact that he was entirely, obsessively truthful about everything he had done. His papers consisted of a massively detailed confession. The fact that he had kept such phenomenal records of his experiences – sexual and otherwise – gave me the raw material for an incredibly story.

Did you have any particular personal reason for writing the book?

Well, partly to satisfy my own curiosity. Not just about Sam, but about the texture and trajectory of gay lives in the mid-twentieth century. Steward describes his various moments of sexual self-realization as few others have done, and he does so in the context of a particularly toxic and hateful period in American culture. His diaries in particular are amazing for that reason alone. I hope that someday they are published in their entirety.

Do you think Steward’s life story is typical of the lives that gay men lead during the 1950s?

No, that would be an enormous generalization. But at the same time one sees that there was not much room in American society for a homosexual man to live a settled domestic life with another man. Steward was sexually active with a very large number of men throughout his life, and he had very few intimate sexual relationships. Partly that was his own personality, and partly it was deterimined by the society in which he lived. A lot of my work in writing Sam’s life story consisted of figuring out to what extent his life story was shaped by the circumstances in which he lived, and to what extent is was shaped by his essential nature. Through him, though, I think one gets an incredible view of what men were getting up to sexually during that period. Because, as you’ll see when you read the book, many if not most of the men Sam had sex with lived as heterosexuals.

Did Steward think of himself as “gay”?

The word “gay” came into usage to describe some of the men who engaged in homosexual activity starting in the 1930s, but it only became a preferred term of self-identification among homosexually-identified males in the mid-1960s. I don’t think Steward ever cared for the term.

How would Steward have described himself?

I think he would have described himself as primarily homosexual in orientation and activity.

Why would he use such deliberate terminology?

In writing Steward’s biography I’ve tried to evoke the world before gay liberation -- a world with different understandings of homosexual activity, where understandings are demonstrated by word choices. For example, homosexuality was at that time considered a form of “perversion” -- but if you called a gay man a pervert today, he’d probably punch you in the nose! Sam had a poet’s sensitivity to language, and he was a pioneer in writing positively about his own homosexuality and the homosexuality of others. He did it through careful word choice – just as Kinsey did. Throughout the book I try to demonstrate how well Sam did it.

To many younger people this is all going to seem very strange. Speaking of which, how do you think Steward's life experience will inform the minds of the younger generation?

In his journals Steward reflects over and over again on living in a society that wants either to deny that homosexuality exists or else to condemn it as bad and wrong.  In his writings Sam gives us his life experience (and the experiences of other men around him) as they are collectively attempting to reconcile their essential sexual orientation – something, after all, that they were born with -- to a seemingly endless variety of pressures to conform: spiritual, legal, and professional pressures, and social pressures too. Conflicts of this sort remain with us to the present day, but they are nothing like as terrible as they used to be. For that reason, I think that anyone who has ever questioned his or her sexual identity – or cared about someone else going through that struggle - will find much in this book that looks and feels familiar.

You write in your book that Steward never had a long-term partner and that he never even lived with anyone.

Yes. He did have people stay with him briefly, but for the most part he lived alone.

What do you make of that?

Well, I think that like many writers and poets, he was an essentially a solitary person who shared the best of himself through his writing. I think he cherished the moments of intimacy he achieved through sexual activity; but I also know he was most comfortable on his own. Many artists and writers are like that; they need time and space to be left alone with their thoughts, and are most comfortable (and productive) in solitude.

Do you think he was incapable of living with another person?

I think he had a series of early life experiences that shaped his personality, and that perhaps made prolonged intimacy with another person very difficult for him. But I know he longed for that intimacy even though it was difficult for him to manage. He lived with that paradox.

Steward sounds like a sex addict, but you never explicitly describe him as one. Why not?

I thought it might be better to let readers draw their own conclusions about how much sex is enough sex. Plus - I am not anti-sex!

Why not just say he was a sex addict or sexual compulsive?

Because who is to decide such things? Shouldn’t they be left to the individual? Moreover in Steward’s case, sex was not just a pastime; it was his vocation. Exploring and describing his own sexuality in full - that was really his life’s work. Saying “Steward had too much sex” like saying “Madame Curie handled too much radium.” It may be true, of course, but in saying so, aren’t you missing the point of everything they did, everything they stood for?

Do you have any tattoos?

No.

Are you partnered?

Yes. I am a partnered gay man. My partner values his privacy however, and so do I.

Let's talk about the writing of the book. What was the most difficult part?

Selling it to a good publisher.

Why?

It was hard for editors to imagine a market for the book. Even my current editor, when I finally found him, felt that he was taking a risk.

Did he tell you so?

Not in so many words. But I sensed that if I didn’t deliver something extraordinary, the book contract would simply be cancelled. That sort of thing happens pretty frequently these days.

How was writing the book difficult?

Well, at first there was no clear roadmap to Sam’s life apart from a brief, elliptical memoir he had published in 1983. And while the pulp pornography he had written was extraordinary, pulp pornography is not something that is often discussed in literary biography. Given the perceived obscenity of the subject matter, I really wasn’t sure it could be.

Were you worried that the book would come across as salacious or titillating?

Yes. The question of tone was really what made writing the book so difficult. I was dealing with highly inflammatory subject matter that could so easily have bored or disgusted people – even those who are sympathetic to homosexuality. And of course not everyone is.

How did you find the right tone?

I rewrote the book endlessly. Also I edited it down from an original draft of 1,600 manuscript pages to the current 550. And I just happened to be in group therapy during those years with a therapist named Will Swift, who is also coincidentally a biographer. Together in my group of about ten guys, we would sometimes discuss the most difficult moments in Sam's life, and discuss as well some very touchy and controversial issues such as sexual addiction and sexual compulsivity. Each of the ten men in the group had a different viewpoint, and it was good for me to hear all of them.

Were you worried that readers and reviewers would think you were simply gossiping about a person’s private life?

Well, in one sense I was lucky: my writing about Sam's sexuality could never be interpreted as a betrayal, because he himself had fought all his life (and against terrible odds) to be honest about his sexuality in his writing. Moreover, he had devoted so much time and energy to reflecting upon his sexuality and noting down all its particulars. In that sense he was the perfect subject for an intimate biography. After all, he made his entire personal life transparent for his future biographer. Most writers and public figures don't do that; they protect themselves from that kind of intrusion. So - if the book is ultimately considered remarkable, it's in large part because I had the most remarkable of subjects. You can’t read Sam Steward’s life story without coming to a whole new understanding of American society and culture during the middle years of the last century. And you can’t read it without coming to a whole new sympathy for the lives and daily experiences of gay men.

What is Steward’s greatest achievement, in your opinion?

He created a lifelong sexual testament, one which took many forms: data and statistics; diaries and journals; fiction; visual art; journalism. It only when you see the whole body of work together that you really understand what he was getting up to.

What did you like best about writing the biography?

Experiencing Sam’s many adventures – social, literary and sexual – as if they were my own. He was a very mischievous man with a great love of adventure. Plus he was funny as hell. I laughed a lot while reading his diaries.

What did you like least about writing his life?

I experienced a lot of sorrow for him and through him, particularly in his later years. He was a very lonely man for much of his life, despite being popular and loved. There were weeks and months during the writing of the book that I was profoundly depressed by what I was experiencing daily on the page. Sam endured a lot of rejection during his life, particularly as a novelist and writer. By the time the gay liberation movement came along, nobody of the younger generation wanted anything to do with old guys like Sam. Younger gay men saw the gay men of the previous generation as closet cases and cowards. It wasn’t true, of course, but that’s how they saw it.

What did you like best about Sam Steward?

Well I’d like to say it was his sense of humor, which was wonderful, but really it was his honesty. Sam really told the truth about everything. He could take the most painful, the most deeply personal things and simply lay them out for his reader. There’s a rare clarity to his writing. You could easily overlook that kind of clarity, or take it for granted. But believe me, it’s rare – particularly when the subject is sex. And Sam did it every time.

What did you like least about him?

His self destructiveness. Sam had a very promising adolescence and early adulthood, but by his middle twenties he was spending the better part of every day drunk. Literally in a stupor. He sabotaged his university career and his literary vocation by drinking, and he destroyed a number of good friendships as well. He also harmed his body. His looks and vitality were compromised, and so was his intellectual development.

What about his emotional development?

I think Sam was emotionally damaged by the early childhood experience of losing his mother and being essentially abandoned by his father. Added to these traumas was his inability to fit into the small-town world around him or to be the angelic little boy his adoptive aunts wanted him to be. He realized and wrote about this later in life: he knew he was in many ways a very closed-off, narcissistic person. He also knew that his narcissism and his alcoholism were linked, and that the alcoholism made the narcissism worse.

You write a lot about his alcoholism.

Yes. It’s very much part of his personality. Like many alcoholics, Sam was aware of his self-destructiveness even as he was self-destructing, and he wrote about it very well, particularly in describing the drinking years.

Do you feel that his sexual activity was self-destructive?

Well, I guess I would have to say that, at the very least, his compulsion to have sex so much – and with so many strangers -- and often in ways that resulted in physical harm to his body – used up an awful lot of his time and energy. Particularly after he got sober. In a way, he substituted one compulsion (sex) for another (drinking). The compulsive nature of his sexual activity – he was constantly seeking out anonymous sex – really kept him from getting on with his writing. It was repetitive and time consuming, and he would get lost in sexual pursuit in the same way a drinker gets lost in the bottle. He didn’t just lose whole weekends having sex – he lost whole month-long vacations!

How is that kind of sexuality self-destructive?

Not so much self-destructive as deeply distracting. You have to remember that Sam was a very gifted literary novelist whose first novel received a glowing review from The New York Times. And he was a wildly popular professor whose classes were always oversubscribed. If he’d wasted less time on drinking and anonymous sex he might really have become famous. On the other hand, the written record he has left behind of his sexual activities is so utterly extraordinary and so utterly unique that I can hardly say that I’m sorry he chose to spend so much of his life having sex. Because he did it mindfully. That’s one very big difference between the drinking and the sex. The drinking led nowhere. The sex led to the writing about sex, and the record-keeping, and the art, and the photography….

So how, in the end, did you sell the proposal to a publisher?

Actually the sale of the proposal was an against-all-odds kind of story. In truth it was not a commercial proposal, because nobody had ever heard of Sam or cared about him.  My agent, Charlotte Sheedy, was initially very enthusiastic about the proposal and sent it out to ten editors. But all of them were afraid to take it on - and one actually took her to task for peddling smut. This hurt me, because that particular editor was an old friend and work colleague of mine.

Anyway after ten editors, my agent wanted to call it quits, and she called me into the office to say that further circulation of the proposal would be damaging to my reputation. I went home very dejected (and a little angry) and chatted with my friend Francine Maroukian, who writes for Esquire Magazine. She begged me not to let go of the project, but rather to bring it around to magazine editors. She said that once it had been published as a magazine story, some editor at a publishing house would see its potential and buy it.

So - I asked around for introduction to magazine editors.  My agent put me in touch with Doug Stumpf at Vanity Fair, and I went over to Conde Nast for a talk. I brought my laptop and gave him a slideshow of all the things I'd found in the Steward Archive in San Francisco. And he said, "Wow, this is amazing!"  But then after a moment he said, "-- but we could never publish it here, the magazine is too conservative. So - what would you like me to do?" 

I thought for a moment and said "Find me a person who might help get it published."  So he put me in touch with two people - an editor at The New Yorker, and the head of marketing at Farrar Straus and Giroux. The New Yorker editor couldn't handle it, said it was too extreme. The head of marketing at FSG however invited me to come down and give him the same presentation I'd given Doug.

It was a stressful experience; this was at the old FSG offices, which were very claustrophobic. We sat in a hallway and I gave him the slideshow. He was amazed, and said so, which I thought was good. But then he said, "I'm not an editor, so what would you like me to do?" And I said, "Well find me the person at the publishing house who could take on a project like this." He nodded and said he would think about it.

When I got home there was a message from Jonathan Galassi on the answering machine.

To make a long story short, I brought the laptop down to his office, gave him the slide show, and again there was the same shocked expression. His first response was, "I don't know if FSG could ever publish something like this." The next response was, "Let me think about it."

In restrospect there were three things that worked in my favor. First, I'd just published a biography with Yale Press a couple of years earlier about Fairfield Porter, a painter who loved poetry and wrote wonderful criticism. The poet James Schuyler had lived with the Porter family for nearly a decade. Galassi had been Schuyler's editor at the end of his life and has continued to publish Schuyler ever since. So he knew I'd written sensitively and well about sexually delicate subject matter (a bisexual affair), and well about poetry too. And of course Galassi is one of the top poetry editors in the world.

The second thing that worked in my favor was Sam's own writing. Sam had started out as a poet and literary novelist and he wrote beautifully and distinctively and with amazing clarity even when describing the most complicated emotional responses relating to sex. And just enough of it had been published that Galassi had a good sense of what the texture of the life story might be like. Also, late in life Sam had been published by Don Allen, the legendary poetry and fiction editor who had made his reputation at Grove Press. Galassi had a lot of respect for Don Allen and was fascinated at the unlikely connection between Sam and Don.

The third thing that worked in my favor was that Galassi had been working at Houghton Mifflin when that publisher had come out with DEAR SAMMY, Sam's memoir of his friendship with Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. And while Galassi remembered that as a fine book, he had had no idea that it had been written by a tattoo artist and pornographer -- since Sam had concealed all that information from Houghton Mifflin.

So...after taking a long look at me, and a long look at my subject, and taking a night to think about the matter, he had me back a day later and said, "Okay, let's give it a shot."

Selling the proposal was an agonizing experience that took about six months all told. But when I said as much to Francine a few days after I got my contract, she told me to get real. "Sure it got rejected, but after that, all you did was take it uptown to Vanity Fair and downtown FSG," she pointed out. "You know, most writers have to work much, much harder to sell a story or a book."

So that's my story about selling the book. It very nearly did not got sold -- or written.

But it all worked out well in the end!

Yes. Of course, I then spent seven more years writing the book!

The New Haven Pride Center thanks Justin Spring for his time and consideration. For more information about "Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade", visit www.secrethistorian.com.

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