Who Was That Masked Man?

Writer, professor, tattoo artist … not so daring now, but 60 years ago, it was another story. Scott McLemee on the lost essays of a wild one.

October 7, 2015

A novelist and English professor named Samuel M. Steward was fired by DePaul University in 1956 for the offense of running a tattoo parlor on Chicago’s Skid Row. He did not have the option (so readily taken for granted these days) of explaining it as full-immersion ethnographic research, nor did the fact that he’d practiced this sideline under a pseudonym, Philip Sparrow, count as mitigation. By then Steward was in his late 40s and had been teaching for well over 20 years, but his academic career was finished.

It was a moment of emergence, however, not of decline. Within a few years, the defrocked professor moved to California. His artistry with the ink gun put Philip Sparrow in demand among the Hell’s Angels, whose standards are rigorous and exacting to a degree academe never quite manages. (Being thrown out of the Angels can include relinquishing one’s tattoos, a process that sometimes involves a blowtorch.)

In the late 1970s, he went back to using his given name and under it published, among other things, a collection of letters from his friends Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. But use of a pseudonym seems to have permitted the flourishing of aspects of his creative identity that might have gone unexpressed. Besides his renown among tat connoisseurs as Philip Sparrow, he also wrote a considerable amount of pornographic fiction under the name Phil Andros -- which was kind of a meta pun, splitting the Greek components of “philanderer” (a man who has sex with a great many women) and repurposing them for gay use (“lover of men”).

He died in 1993 at the age of 84, leaving behind the papers that allowed Justin Spring to write Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a National Book Award Finalist for 2010. The big online booksellers show the fiction of Phil Andros to be available and in demand, although nearly everything Steward published under his own name has long since gone out of print. But the University of Chicago Press has now added something to his stature as an author by publishing Philip Sparrow Tells All: Lost Essays by Samuel Steward, Writer, Professor, Tattoo Artist, edited by Jeremy Mulderig -- who, by a nice bit of karma, happens to be an associate professor emeritus of English at DePaul University.

Occasionally a book’s subtitle all but defies the reader not to have a look, and in this case the photos of the author on the front cover alone are pretty striking, given Steward's resemblance to John Waters. The contents of the volume are selected from the column Steward wrote, under the Philip Sparrow byline, for the Illinois Dental Journal between 1944 and 1949.

So the publisher’s description says: I did not make it up, nor could I. While Justin Spring’s biography of Steward from five years ago had been widely and well reviewed, I had not heard about it, and so I suspected, for a moment, that Philip Sparrow Tells All was a prank, either by the University of Chicago Press or on it. The essays of a tattoo artist recovered from 70-year-old issues of the Illinois Dental Journal? Come on.

Exercising due diligence, I learned just enough to confirm that the author actually existed -- then decided to stop reading more about him. First, I wanted to read some of the essays themselves. The world is full of colorful characters who try to write, but eccentricity and adventurousness are not, in practice, qualifications for authorship. (To their credit they sometimes recognize this and offer to tell a writer their stories, in exchange for a share of the advance.) So I skipped the book’s introductory matter and the headnotes the editor had prepared for each piece and went right to Steward’s own prose.

The first selection, his inaugural column, was indeed written with the publication’s audience in mind: “The Victim’s Viewpoint: On Sublimated Sadism; or, the Dentist as Iago.” The tone or manner is approximately that of Robert Benchley:

“We have opened our mouth widely for many of these torturers, from Maine to Montana, and we are ready to swear that on more than one occasion -- as we have been approached, lying there helpless and trembling -- we have seen a diabolic gleam in their eyes as they reached for their tools. There is one certain prober, doubtless invented by Beelzebub, which they use when they begin their preliminary surveying. It is shaped vaguely like a sophisticated corkscrew, and is evidently intended to search out the secret places of one’s heart; we personally have felt it go even lower, and are sure it once left a scar on our right kidney. … but let us draw a curtain over this painful scene; even in thinking of it we have worked ourselves into a cold dribble.”

Something like this essay probably appeared at in every college humor magazine in the country at least once per issue for a decade on either side of its January 1944 publication date. It seems well-enough done for what it is; the best that might be said for it is that the author cleared his throat.

An abrupt shift in topic and style comes with the following piece, “On Cryptography,” published that October -- a sprightly introduction to a matter of great wartime interest. The title sounds like an allusion to the essays of Montaigne, and where the Iago reference in his debut seemed arch and contrived, here Steward’s use of classical and contemporary references (e.g., calling Suetonius “the Walter Winchell of ancient Rome”) proves both humorous and apropos. The next month’s column “On Alcoholics Anonymous” -- explaining the principles of an organization just beginning to catch the public’s attention -- comes about as close to memoir as possible without violating the distance implied by the authorial “we.”

It’s a remarkable progression in just three essays, and it doesn’t end there. With the measure of safety provided by a pseudonym -- and also by the less-than-mass circulation of the Illinois Dental Journal -- Steward experimented with the comic, personal and confessional modes of the casual essay in ways that might have been difficult to risk otherwise.

After sampling enough of the book to determine that the columns were of interest in their own right, rather than as the supplement to the author’s biography, I started reading Jeremy Mulderig’s introductory material. It clarifies a great deal, beginning with the essayist’s venue: Steward was attracted to his dentist, who happened to be the magazine’s editor. Its more typical fare was articles with titles like “Important Considerations in Porcelain Veneer Restoration,” but a column written from a nonprofessional vantage point seemed worthwhile, if only for variety. The dentist accepted Steward’s offer to write for the journal, though not, it seems, his other propositions.

After writing several pieces for “The Victim’s Viewpoint” (the column’s title for most of 1944), Steward decided to reboot it as something more wide-ranging. Which explains the nine-month gap between the first and second selections in Philip Sparrow Tells All, and the marked change in the writing itself. Including just one piece from the column’s beta version seems like a wise choice on Mulderig’s part. The wit and whimsy of dentistry as seen from the patient’s-eye view must have been stretched pretty thin after a couple of months.

Many of the columns take on a more humorous quality when you know that the author had a sex life active enough to impress Alfred Kinsey. And no doubt that will be a selling point for the book. But the tension between overt statement and implicit meaning can have effects other than amusement, and in the case of one essay, that tension seems especially powerful.

Published in February 1945, it anticipates the difficulties ahead as American society tries to reabsorb returning servicemen (and vice versa). Here is one passage:

“Only those who have been shot at can love and understand each other. We at home can never comprehend the powerful fraternalism that unites the men who belong, by reason of their experiences, to the ghostly brotherhood of war. When death is behind a bush that trembles, when it explodes in burning phosphorous to kill the friend who was joking a moment before, when it surrounds you with bodies black with flies and bloated by the sun until they at last explode, when your foot slides upon the stinking decayed intestines of a thing that was once a man -- only then, after the bony fingers have inscribed the membership card with your name, and you have looked into the fearful emptiness of the sockets in a fleshless skull, are your dues paid and you yourself a member of the League of War. … They have their own code of morals which we cannot possibly understand, and which will baffle and dismay us utterly. They will be startled and chagrined by what they will consider our indifference, but is really only our own inexperience slowly woven around us in our geographically and emotionally isolated chrysalis.”

Meaningful enough as these lines are on the most manifest level, they take on even more significance in the light of Alan Bérubé’s Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (Free Press, 1990). Bérubé showed how important the experience of the war was to the formation of a sense of gay identity and community in the United States.

Steward himself was a Naval enlistee but did not see combat. There is an ambivalence, intimacy, pain and sadness to the essay that can be felt by a reader who knows nothing about the author. But it seems clear that the traumatized fighting men he depicts weren’t sociological abstractions but friends and lovers.

It bears reiterating that the name under which he published the essay, Philip Sparrow, was the one he later used as a tattoo artist -- and the one he preferred to go by for some while after being expelled from the groves of academe. It was the identity he assumed at the limits of permissible expression. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”


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