“I write for myself and strangers,” Gertrude Stein says on the opening page of The Making of Americans. I feel like I might be doing the same thing and for the same reasons. With Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the smiley-faced, super smart, married gay man winning over the hearts of the media and the voting public, who can write “In Praise of Shame,” as Bosie Douglas once did? Sam Steward could – and did.
Steward was at times a novelist, professor, tattoo artist, pornographer, masochist, sex researcher, and slut. I first heard of Steward when I purchased a copy of Dear Sammie, an edited group of letters from Stein and Alice B. Toklas to Steward, with whom they shared a long friendship. I have an abiding love for Stein’s writing and thinking. It has taken me to Père Lachaise and to 27 rue de Fleurus. She has followed me to Italy, where I once sat in a small room at Villa La Pietra outside of Florence reading her letters to the great aesthete Harold Acton. The window was open. It had stopped raining and the last-October sun broke through the clouds. I could see Fiesole in yellow at the top of the hill. In my hand was a letter to Acton from Alice, responding to one he had sent to Stein and her. In her spidery hand Alice wrote something like “I know Gertrude would have loved receiving your letter. She always enjoyed your visits, but she died a few days ago.” The note was not long. Very formal. And the writing filled with pain.
Sam Steward was a part of Gertrude and Alice’s international gang of misfits, artists, and faggots. He began having sex with men at an early age, including sleeping with Rudolph Valentino and Bosie Douglas, as well as numerous men whose information he kept in the “stud file” – a card catalogue of his sexual conquests that caught the attention of Alfred Kinsey. In his new work Underneath the Skin, John Kelly evokes the sexy underworld of queer life before gay rights, AIDS, and gay marriage. Justin Spring calls Steward a “sexual renegade.” Kelly brings Steward and his time to life. We can only speculate what would have happened if AIDS had not destroyed an entire generation of sexual renegades, leaving only those who wanted to marry. We can only long for “feasting among panthers,” as Wilde said.
Marvin J. Taylor is the founding curator of the Downtown Collection and the Marion Nestle Food Studies Collection at New York University.