Alfred Kinsey – the sexologist who 62 years ago turned American morals head over heels (position sound familiar?) – said that “sex is an ocean.”
We’ve been swimming, backstroking – naked to be sure – in that ocean ever since; so much so that these days it seems we’ve lost sight of the shoreline.
Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” published in 1948, offered the then-shocking statistic that 37 percent of the male population had gay sex with orgasm.
I shared Kinsey’s oceanic observation with a playwright friend, Harvey Keith, who wrote under the pen name of Kercheval Devonshire, after the Grosse Pointe streets he grew up on and auditioned for varying, center-stage, campy parts.
Harv quipped, “Yes, Dear Heart, and we’re making our umpteenth crossing.”
Most of Harv’s crossing was done Off Broadway. He’s remembered if at all today by two plays that were briefly staged: “Run Children Run” and “Shoes at the Door.” Harv – Heaven’s Actor’s Equity bless him with angelic roles – alas, ocean crosses no more.
(I still sail gaily on in all kinds of weather, even if it means going by raft, rowboat, or occasionally by hand-pumped inflatable dinghy. That I rarely get blown into port or docked for even a modicum of gay cruise boarding doesn’t mean I’m not ship shape. Try me.)
The same year that Kinsey’s groundbreaking study of male human sexuality appeared, a new photographic innovation also hit the market: The Polaroid Camera. It was quickly put to innovative documentary and pornographic use by a DePaul University English professor, Samuel M. Steward (aka pornographer Phil Andros), recently part of an “In The Life” TV special.
(I need not point out that current technology has greatly facilitated hand-held “advances” in camera erotomania, both for rank amateurs and randy professionals in ways dreamed impossible in Steward’s time. What these techno/homo/photo pluses – and the Internet – have done to Post Office snooping and prosecution is another interesting story.)
Steward (1909-1993) is the subject of a new, well-written, amazingly researched biography – the title tells it all – “Secret Historian: The life and times of Samuel Steward, professor, tattoo artist and sexual renegade,” by Justin Spring. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. $32.50.)
Following the death of his mother and crass abandonment by an alcoholic father, Steward was raised by three religious aunts. He indulged himself early on with a thumb-nosing, zealous sex life. As a teenager he began documenting his encounters in diaries, journals, and eventually a file system numbering 750 cards, with thousands of contacts, and many succinct and humorous details.
Conquests include 1920s actor Rudolph Valentino (whose public hair Steward adoringly kept in a, golden-halo’d altar monstrance), “Our Town” playwright Thornton Wilder (a ten-year hush-hush affair for prissy Thornton), and an up-and-down back elevator encounter with Rock Hudson, when the actor-to-be was working in a Chicago department store.
And, just for the hell of it, Steward tracked down Oscar Wilde’s snobbish lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, then 63, and bedded him. Steward thought piss-elegant Bosey a lousy lay.
Steward was friends with Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas, visiting them regularly in Paris, recording many happy conversations. A highly popular DePaul University English professor, he was fired for also being Phil Sparrow, a tattoo artist, working South Chicago at a time when only sailors, convicts, and Hells Angel types got tattoos.
He and Kinsey became friends in the 1950s. Kinsey was fascinated by Steward’s seemingly nonstop sex life, and Kinsey’s Institute took motion pictures – its first such filming venture – of Stewart engaged in ardent S/M bottoming. Certainly, an academic no no for DePaul.
“Sexual Renegade” provided me with vicarious summer reading, as I rearranged lounge chairs on my own mental ocean liner. Ship ahoy! All hands on deck. Sink or swim. Any portly in a storm.