Book Bitches
2 min

Sam Steward, the sexual superhero

Author gave up a tenured job as a university professor to become a tattoo artist and pornographer

In a recent column on queer superheroes, I forgot to include real-life sexual superman Samuel Steward, who gave up a tenured job as a university professor to become a tattoo artist and pornographer. In America! In the 1950s!

Steward kept index cards and Polaroid shots of the many, many men he slept with (bikers and sailors and soldiers, oh my!) and by the end of the 1940s become a valuable interviewee for Alfred Kinsey, who relied on much of the data Steward had collected for his groundbreaking work in sexology. At one point, Kinsey’s team even filmed Steward in a BDSM session with Mike Miksche (hey, that name sounds familiar). There was little Steward wouldn’t do for science.

First and foremost, however, Steward was a writer. He was close friends with queer literary giants like Gertrude Stein, Christopher Isherwood and AndrĂ© Gide and after producing a couple of novels early on in his academic life, he would enjoy a long and happy career of writing mystery novels, travelogues and witty and exciting porn stories under the name Phil Andros, whose 1960s/1970s books like Stud and Shuttlecock ranked alongside the illustrations of Tom of Finland in popularity. Maddeningly, these books are all out of print today but Steward himself has been rediscovered of late, thanks to Justin Spring’s Secret Historian in 2010, a hit biography and National Book Award finalist. 

Spring has contributed the forward to an odd but engaging new book that reveals Steward’s literary life in the awkward years leading up to quitting his university career and working with Kinsey. Steward had been having sex with Thornton Wilder throughout the 1940s and the famed playwright urged him to write for magazines as a way to make money. As it happened, Steward was nursing a crush on his handsome dentist Dr Schoen, who was editing the Illinois Dental Journal and needed more content. For the next few years, Steward wrote charming essays on a wide variety of topics under the name Philip Sparrow for a loyal audience of dental professionals. In his introduction, Spring asks, “ . . . why, given his obvious wit, his fine prose style, his erudition and intelligence, was he publishing such finely crafted essays in a so hopelessly obscure magazine?”

An unanswerable question, but the steady magazine work kept Steward afloat while he struggled to overcome his alcoholism and decide whether to continue teaching. His work with Kinsey inspired him to take the leap into becoming a full-time tattoo artist and pornographer.

Steward eventually settled in San Francisco, becoming the official tattoo artist to its Hells Angels chapter and a mentor to younger artists like Ed Hardy. While never identifying as a leatherman himself, Steward was instrumental in the San Francisco leather scene, working on the early issues of the famed Drummer magazine and eventually earning a place in the Leather Hall of Fame

Shortly before he died in 1994, Steward gave a final interview at the age of 85 to journalist Owen Keehnan, who told Steward he’d lived “a magical life.” Steward was flattered but said, “No. I just did it without looking over my shoulder.”

Here’s to a magical 2016.