Samuel Morris Steward: Chicago Gay Activist and Historian

Updated on July 21, 2016
Early 1950s portrait of Samuel Steward.
Early 1950s portrait of Samuel Steward. | Source

Samuel Morris Steward was a college professor, writer, editor, tattoo artist, and pioneer of Chicago’s gay and lesbian movement. Steward was born July 23, 1909 and died on December 31, 1993, and was at times through his life known by the nom de plume of Phil Sparrow or Phil Andros. Through the middle of the 20th century, Steward documented gay life through a meticulous collection of diaries, photos, artifacts, correspondence and interviews, beginning in the 1930s.

Born in Woodsfield in southeast Ohio, Steward graduated with a Ph.D. from the Ohio State University and took brief teaching positions at Carroll College in Helena, Montana and Washington State University before landing in Chicago in 1937 as a professor at Loyola. Dismissed from Washington State partly as a result of his sympathetic depiction of prostitutes in his well-received 1936 novel “Angels on the Bough,” he began correspondence and friendship with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas just as his double-life sexuality in Chicago began to occupy an ever-larger part of his life and crowded out his literary ambitions.

Through the late 1930s and 1940s, Steward maintained a precarious balancing act between his role as a respectable college professor and aspiring writer during the day, and his often dangerously provocative sexual exploits at night. In an era where homosexuality itself could mean jail, disgrace, beatings, and even death, Steward chose a sometimes lonely and uneasy path that somehow managed to narrowly avoid disaster while being true to an essential part of his humanity.

When the pressure of maintaining a double life became excruciating in the mid-1940s—and after he was hospitalized from a mugging and beating as a result of an encounter in an alley—Steward resigned from Loyola to become an editor at the World Book Encyclopedia. In the late 1940s, he became a close confidant to author Thornton Wilder and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.

Samuel Steward outside his South State Street tattoo parlor in the late 1950s.
Samuel Steward outside his South State Street tattoo parlor in the late 1950s. | Source
Transient on South State Street's Skid Row in the early 1940s.
Transient on South State Street's Skid Row in the early 1940s. | Source
Burlesque theater on South State Street, 1941.
Burlesque theater on South State Street, 1941. | Source

The climate of the postwar years led to an explosion of activity in and around the seedy burlesque houses, transient hotels, and tattoo parlors of Chicago’s South Loop, and Steward found himself drawn in. By the early 1950s, Steward had taught himself tattooing, and opened a shop at 655 South State Street across State Street from the Pacific Garden Mission--- even as he taught literature during the day at DePaul. In one interview, he referred to himself as “the Mr. Chips of the tattoo world.”

As a tattoo artist, Steward took the name Phil Sparrow, and called his shop Phil’s Tattoo Joynt, lending a distinctly old English literary quality to his trade. For more than a decade, he was a fixture on the South Loop Skid Row, plying his trade, living his life as he chose, documenting his experiences in graphic detail, and seeking out eligible partners in his diaries and a card catalogue called the “Stud File.” In 1964, as the postwar fashion of tattooing receded, he re-located to the East Bay near San Francisco, where he became the preferred tattoo artist to the Hell’s Angels and augmented his income by writing erotic gay pulp fiction under the pseudonym Phil Andros.

Following Mr. Steward’s death from a heart attack on New Year’s Eve 1993, author Justin Spring sought out the executor of Samuel Steward’s estate and was given access to 80 boxes of diaries, letters, drawings, photos, and artifacts collected over more than 50 years of Steward’s life. The result is a groundbreaking biography called, “Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade,” nominated for the 2010 National Book Award.

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