At first Steward occupied the booth on Wednesdays and weekends, Webb the rest of the time. But as Steward established himself as the superior craftsman, customers in search of tattoos began abandoning Webb in favor of Steward. In retaliation, Webb put the word out that Steward was homosexual. “In those days,” Steward later wrote, “you had to keep it hidden. Otherwise [you either risked a beating, or else] would be bartering blowjobs for tattoos.” (Faced with a sudden influx of “barter-boys,” Steward simply told them they had the wrong man, and directed them across the street to a grotesquely ugly and alcoholic tattoo artist named Shaky Jake.)

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 I finally gained access to those 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 underground writer was amazing – and so was the life he had lived. It was at that point that I realized 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 determined 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!

 

I see.

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, professional, and social pressures. 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 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 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” is 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 1600 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 is only when you see the whole body of work together that you really understand what he was getting up to.

 

What did you like least about writing Steward’s 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 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….

 

What do you like best about 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.

 

 

I have seen more of the Middle East than I ever expected a kid from a small town in Southeast Texas would see. I won’t pretend that my time there has been completely positive, but it has been eye opening. Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia… they all start to bleed together, a mixture of people in ghutras and thobes and burqas speaking a harsh language I have never managed to figure out. It’s not a slight to the region or its people, but it is the acknowledgment that it is not the magical land of the Aladdin and Scheherazade of our imaginations. The romanticized world of the Arabian Nights gets lost somewhere between the airport and your destination.

I took off from Washington DC this time with my usual sidekick, Sam, and another comic named Katsy, an upbeat, sassy black woman from Los Angeles. Katsy was on, always. I technically didn’t meet her until we got to Kuwait, but I quickly realized that the pressure was definitely not going to be on me to have to entertain people off stage. She couldn’t be turned off or unplugged. Her mouth was a machine of energy and stamina, her thoughts projectiles launched at anyone that passed. Questions, answers, ideas, laughter – her food had to turn sideways and tiptoe to get in around the words when she ate.

I don’t know that I ever found out exactly how old she was but it became the subject of discussion over the two weeks. Comedians tend to latch on to one thing and drive it into the ground, and with Katsy, that thing was her age.

Initially she couldn’t remember our names, changing our identities from Sam and Slade to Quincy and Slam Bam. Someone fired off an Alzheimer’s joke and it spiraled out of control from there.

“You can talk about my age if you want,” she said, “but it just means that I’ve seen things you haven’t.”

“Yeah. Like the 1800’s,” I said, rolling around in the back seat with laughter.

A day later the three of us, along with our security escorts and a Sergeant named White, climbed on board a boat – a heavily armed 30 foot Army SeaArk – and headed out into the Persian Gulf. Once we cleared the harbor and got out into open water, the pilot turned around toward us. “You want to drive?” he asked.

“I’m going first!” Katsy yelled and sprinted to the driver’s seat.

“You better hold on,” Sergeant White said, and we did.

Katsy hit the throttle and the bow of the boat shot ahead. Not content with simply going fast and straight, she hit a comfortable speed and then threw the boat into a hard turn, almost tossing our Marine escort in the Gulf. She pulled down on the lever and then hammered it forward again, cutting through the rolling wake left by the bow as it slid sideways through the water. Waves rushed onto the open deck in the back where we held on to the rails and roof and attempted to stay on board.

She spun the boat into another donut and then circled back through it again. The cameraman fell down. More water gushed on board, soaking us below the waist. Her yells echoed over the sound of the engine as White came crashing into me. We hung on.

“When is it my turn?” Sam tried to ask.

“Woooooohoooooo!” screamed Katsy from behind the wheel as she punched it again.

We held on longer until the call came that it was time to go back to port. “So wait, no one else gets to drive?” I asked.

“Sorry, we have to get you guys back for the show. You can bring it into the harbor if you want though. You just have to keep it under five knots.”

“Thrilling,” I replied.

I didn’t know it then, but I would soon long for that cool ocean spray. We were leaving for Iraq in the morning and as we sat around at dinner that night we had hopes of an uneventful travel day. Katsy, however, wasn’t ready to move on to the next day yet.

“You like how well I drove that boat!” she said, rubbing it in.

“If by ‘drove’ you mean ‘filled with liquid’, then yes. You’re a natural” I replied. “How about you go re-drive my coffee cup?”

“You’re just jealous,” she said, and I was a bit.

“It’s cool. Just wait.”

* * *

The room where we waited was a thousand degrees and it was constant. For thirty-six hours things had been tedious and stagnant in a way that only Iraq could be. We managed to get in one amazing show at the Kuwaiti Naval Base before our itinerary was lost in an avalanche of unscheduled detours. Manifested on the wrong flight into Iraq out of Kuwait, we ended up in Balad, a place we were not supposed to be until the end of the week. A quick nap later found us waiting for a flight into our original destination, Kirkuk. Two shows had already been cancelled, and after a quick unscheduled guerrilla show in the dining hall we got orders to fly again in the morning.

I remain baffled at why the country of Iraq is so hotly contested. I understand the oil argument now, but not the reason people ever managed to want to live here in the first place. It is alien and dry, with powdery brown dust settling on everything that isn’t perfectly vertical. The hazy air is translucent tan at best, opaque at its worst. And the heat – dear God, the heat – is incessant. It hit 130 degrees the day before we left. I’m pretty sure all those suicide bombers blow themselves up just to cool off.

So in Kirkuk that next morning, we waited. You fly at 0930 they told us. Everything is always military time, which means automatically translating it in my head. If it’s higher than noon, subtract twelve. It is awkward. 0930 is now cancelled they said. Just a few more hours. The air conditioner was broken. There might have been a small fan somewhere but it was defeated by the open door at the end of the room, as if the sun had banged away at the gates until the building simply gave up.

You’re new flight is at 1330 they said. The dust was too thick to fly in. Visibility was zero. They couldn’t get the rotaries in the air with the sky like that. Even bubbly Katsy was beaten at that point and lay motionless on a bench. In that heat your soul cooks to medium well. 1330 came and went. 1700 was now our next possible fly time but the air was so thick outside that you couldn’t see across the parking lot. We were nowhere near where we were supposed to be and another scheduled show was cancelled while we sat there. All we could do was wait, but the only thing that came was more sun.

* * *

Blackhawk helicopters are quite possibly the coolest pieces of machinery I’ve ever seen in my life. My last time through Iraq, I took them everywhere. They look like sharks, if sharks flew in pairs and had massive guns hanging from their skin. At night the insides glows green and if you look hard enough through the darkness you can just barely make out your companion helicopter as it hovers next to you in the black sky. The desert air, regardless of the time of day, slips hot through the open sides as you cut your way across the landscape. Occasionally, flares flash green and white as they break a target lock. It is intense.

As the rotors slice through the air they generate a massive current of air that circulates clockwise. It whips downward and blows directly into the open back window on the right side of the chopper. It blows hard there. Very hard.

* * *

We eventually made it out of Kirkuk and headed to a forward operating base called Warhorse. An hour after landing we hit the stage. Outside and under halogen lights, the bugs swarmed around us as we told our jokes. A sea of soldiers in fatigues and reflective belts laughed in front of us, making the dust and the waiting over the last few days worthwhile. I like these people, I thought to myself. Good, said Life. Get used to them.

Three days later found us still there. Another dust storm, another missed flight, another day in that godforsaken brown powder. The Muslims can pretend that they defend the region for religious reasons, but even they at some point would have to admit that no god, Allah or otherwise, has come anywhere close to caring about that hell hole for some time.

There was the dust and then there were the flies. Lots and lots of flies. They hovered and buzzed and landed on everything, their bodies stuck to traps in black masses, while thousands of others swarmed, still alive and hungry. I expected the river to turn to blood next, but there was no river. I sat there, hoping a flight would leave before the other eight plagues hit.

We arranged an additional show at the DFAC, the dining facility, on Warhorse. Sometimes you hear stories from other comics about the flawless shows where everything goes exactly like it should and you step off stage to roaring applause and a standing ovation.

This was not one of those.

The ambient roar of a thousand people conversing and the clanging rattle of contracted Iraqi nationals pushing metal carts of food swallowed our jokes as they limped out of a sound system that barely reached forty of the hundreds of sets of ears in the dining room. It was like screaming into a jet engine. Halfway through his set, Sam made the comment that he deserved a Purple Heart for surviving that show. He wasn’t kidding.

* * *

Eventually they managed to schedule a chopper out to Warhorse to pick us up. My new best friend, Sergeant Nethers, had arranged a nice little diversion in the event that we were unable to get out after all.

“If the sand doesn’t break, I’ve got you cleared to go out on an MRAP and shoot the .50 cals,” he said.

“Who’s shooting cows?” Katsy asked, wide eyed.

“We just met her yesterday,” Sam and I said simultaneously.

“I’m gonna get you, Slam Bam. Watch,” Katsy shot back, making us all laugh.

“I didn’t forget about the boat, you know. You have one coming.”

“Uh huh. Try it,” she said, and we laughed some more.

Thirty minutes before we were supposed to follow Nethers out to shoot the .50 caliber, word came that our bird was inbound. “Grab your gear,” someone said. “You have to go. Now.”

As I put on my vest, Katsy shot past me. She wants to be first on the chopper just like on the boat, I realized. Well, cool. How perfect, actually. I eased in behind her in the queue as the rest of the passengers lined up. They opened the door leading out top the helipad and we marched out in single file. Only as we approached the chopper did I move in beside her.

“Take the good seat!” I yelled over the wind and sand, and motioned with my hand toward the back right. “I’ll take the one facing backwards since I’ve flown before! You take the good view this trip!” I wasn’t completely sure that she’d heard me until she slipped over into the seat I had indicated. She gave me a quick thumbs up.

“You’re welcome!” I yelled.

We buckled our four point harnesses as Sam and a group of soldiers piled in after us with their gear. We were packed in tight as we levitated off the pad and into the baking desert sky. “Your turn to hang on!” I said, and winked at Katsy.

At 150 miles per hour the wind tore into the cabin like a rabid dog. She tried desperately, hopelessly, to cover her eyes. Her cheeks vibrated as the burning air clawed at her face. She squinted and turned her head, but it was everywhere. The gale pried her mouth open and ripped her gum from under her tongue, where it hovered for a brief moment before it bounced off a soldier’s helmet. She tried to bury her head in the corner but the wind found her. It rocked her back and forth and made her skin quiver and flap.

I cackled across from her, my camera snapping picture after picture while I tried not to hyperventilate with laughter. It was totally worth the wet blue jeans.

You Can See That Here

* * *

We ultimately made it back to Kuwait in one piece and on time after several unscheduled stops. We spent a day at a base dubbed “Mortaritaville”, so named for the relatively ineffective daily shots lobbed over the wall by insurgents. We marched up the ramp into C-130’s and fought the engines as they hummed and pushed blistering air at us across the tarmac. We sat huddled in our rooms waiting for the all clear after a warning siren went off at another base. “Just wait for the boom,” we were told. “If you don’t hear the boom, it’s not good.”

“Wait, what’s it mean if I don’t hear it?’ I asked.

“That means it hit you.”

Climbing on board our flight back to DC, I was exhausted. As we drew close to the States, I watched the sun rise through the window somewhere over Newfoundland. At 40,000 feet, things fall into perspective. Staring down through the cobalt blue and orange tinted clouds you could make out the twinkle of city lights. As people shook themselves awake seven miles below me, I wondered what they were doing.

Somewhere down there, someone was rushing to get to an office so they could yell at people for not pumping out enough of some trivial product or another. People were neglecting their families to race after a paycheck that would only buy more things that probably wouldn’t make them as happy as time with their family would have. From the air, it was so easy to see how worthless a lot of our efforts are. I remember hearing a story about a businessman and fisherman somewhere in Mexico, a story that I can’t quite recall now but that I am certain sums up my feelings as I stared out that window.

Then I thought of the soldiers that I had just performed for and just how tough the conditions can be, not only for them but for their families back here in the States. I was there for two weeks and was worn out from the heat and the early mornings and the cramped conditions. What our soldiers have chosen to do, for years on end, makes them nothing short of amazing to me. They’re heroes.

I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know if our presence in the Middle East is good or bad. I don’t know if it changes anything on a grand scale. The global aspect of our efforts over there aside, I know that I’ve met individuals that have made an impact on a personal level with the people of Iraq, and that’s where it counts.

A real impact, too; not one that seems insignificant when viewed from a distance. I spend a lot of time wondering if I’m doing the right thing or if I’m in the right place or if I’m not supposed to be somewhere else with someone else doing something else. The one thing I got while staring out that window was that it doesn’t really matter as long as I’m happy.

There’s a world where bombs go off and people carry guns and other people will blow themselves up because God told them to. It’s a world where life can end abruptly and without warning, and I don’t want to spend any more of mine than I have to chasing something unnecessary and useless.

I am grateful to those men and women that put themselves in that situation so that I don’t have to.

Hooah!