Samuel Steward, Teacher, Writer, Tattoo Artist


Samuel M. Steward, Teacher/ Writer/Tattoo Artist

Steward Residence: 2016 Ninth Street

The talented and charming Samuel K. Steward began his career as a novelist, professor of English at Chicago’s DePaul and other universities, and an editor of the World Book Encyclopedia. His admiring letters to Gertrude Stein in the early ’30s led to a close friendship with her and Alice B. Toklas. “Sammy” periodically visited them in France, shared artistic insights, and befriended many in their circle.

Fixated on his sexuality, Steward documented affairs with an lengthy train of lovers, including Rudolph Valentino, Rock Hudson, Thornton Wilder, Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar Wilde’s lover), and Andre Gide’s nubile Arab lover. He developed a close friendship and shared his notes and photos with sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.

In the ’50s, after nearly 20 years in academia, Steward reinvented himself under different aliases as a tattoo artist (Doc Sparrow) and gay pornographer (Phil Andros). His tattoo craftsmanship achieved such renown that he was chosen to secretly tattoo King Frederick IX of Denmark.

In 1964 Steward moved west, settling into a Berkeley cottage behind a house on Ninth Street near University Ave. Repelled by student activism, the “scruffy barrel-bottom scrapings of the ‘60s,” he called Berkeley the “Land That Time Forgot.” Steward opened a tattoo shop, near the Hells Angels motorcycle gang headquarters and the Oakland naval base, at 1727 San Pablo Avenue. He befriended the Angels and became their “official” tattooist (1967–71).

The stress of alcoholism, drug use, and depression took their toll on what he called “My happily wasted life.” Steward died in poverty, leaving 80 boxes of letters, photographs, sexual paraphernalia, manuscripts, and a reliquary containing one of Rudolph Valentino’s pubic hairs. While claiming that he never had “a love affair,” Steward’s “Stud File” meticulously cross-referenced approximately 5,000 sexual experiences with over 800 people during a 50-year period, including locations, coded descriptions of anatomy, and observations of his various activities.

Contributed by Robert Kehlmann, 2013

  • Sparrow's business card from The Tattooists by Albert L. Morse (1977).

  • Samuel Morris Steward (1957), Wikimedia Commons.

  • Sparrow ad from The Tattooists by Albert L. Morse (1977).

  • Steward’s biography, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2010).

  • Stud File, photo Ruth Fremson, The New York Times.

More information:
Justin Spring, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York (2010).
NY Times book review
Albert Morse, The Tattooists
Alfred Kinsey, NNDB

Photo credit abbreviations:
BAHA: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Assn.
BHS: Berkeley Historical Society