Wednesday, August 17, 2016

SAMUEL STEWARD: A Montana Surprise

Carroll College

Wilbur Werner was a respected lawyer in Cut Bank, MT, the white part of Glacier County next to the Blackfeet Reservation. I'm using him as a marker for this story.   Devoutly Catholic, which meant highly ethical, he was trusted by Bob Scriver and a tie to the Montana Historical Society which was in Helena, as well as a tie to the Lewis and Clark aficionados.  Carroll College is the Catholic college there and Werner’s brother was high in the church hierarchy, a matter of great pride.  He was admiring of Blackfeet culture.  If you wanted something respectable and conscientious done, you went to Werner.  If you wanted to win, you went to John P. MooreAl Racine drew cartoons of disreputable characters in jail calling for Moore.

When it came time for Bob and I to consider divorce, we went to Werner, who talked us out of it even though he didn’t approve of a marriage with a quarter-century age difference between us.  A year later the inevitability returned and the good Catholic lawyer advised me that you can’t make people stay married.  Probably I needed the divorce more than Bob did.  Werner became my divorce lawyer, Bob hired John P. Moore, and the transcript of the divorce is very brief.  I wasn’t there and Werner wasn’t either. (His wife was dying.)  Bob paid for both.  

Wilbur Werner

By the time Bob died, Werner had retired and moved to Arizona or the estate would have been handled quite differently.  As it was, a trust fund managed by that lawyer (worse than Moore) was legally justified by a small bursary for student artists.  Carroll College had given Bob an honorary degree.  It’s a respected university.

Now turn the page.  I’m reading “Secret Historian” by Justin Spring, a biography of Samuel Steward, “Professor, tattoo artist, and sexual renegade.”  I read the second chapter, about Steward’s academic career, with my mouth hanging open.  His first job was at Carroll College!  According to Spring, Steward and the president of the College went to bed together at least once and Steward had other liaisons with priests.  At the same time he began a long letter-writing friendship with Gertrude Stein who coached and critiqued his work from Paris for many years.  I don’t know which claim surprised me more.

Samuel Steward

Steward spent a summer working as an information clerk in Glacier Park.  (I’m imagining him at the Big Hotel in East Glacier where today some people are openly gay.)  This would be in the middle Thirties which Bob remembered as a fairly Bohemian time.  What is presently a restaurant was then a rollerskating rink and dance hall.  Charlie Beil was participating in mock shootouts in the streets and the Carberrys were exhibiting their Blackfeet artifact collection on tables in a storefront.  (The objects eventually ended up in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning.)   

There’s no comment on how Steward got along in Glacier Park, but I suspect he found friends, particularly at the fancy-free school run by Winold Reiss on St. Mary’s Lake.  Clare Sheridan, the sculptor and diplomat related to Winston Churchill’s wife, wrote about her summer sojourn in the colony, learning to carve logs from Winold’s brother, Hans Egon Reiss.   Hans carved the wooden Indian statue that still stands in the Big Hotel.  He was quite a handsome man.

Hans Reiss' Wooden Indian

Steward’s next academic job was in Pullman, which was not a happier location, but while there Steward wrote “Angels on the Bough” a title which echoes for us with “Angels in America.”  He didn’t send it to the big publishing houses in Manhattan, but rather took it to Caxton Publishers, which still today specializes in Northwest history books.  

Angels on the Bough” was praised, even compared to Virginia Woolf, but got him fired because of the disease of one of the characters, “a homely young secretary who picks up men in the street” and contracts a disease — not HIV but syphilis, nearly incurable in those days.  Steward went on to Loyola where he did excellent work but began the alcoholism that darkened his life.  (I wonder what Werner thought about the medical opinion that Lewis died of syphilis as did most of the rest of the company.  Clark was evidently the only person not infected.)
Samuel Steward AKA Phil Andros or Phil Sparrow

By the end of his life, Steward had created many personas, the most famous being Phil Andros and Phil Sparrow.  For many years he had a tattoo parlor on South State street in Chicago that catered to the sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.  Then he moved to San Francisco where he was the official tattoo artist for the Hell’s Angels.  He’s famous and feared for his card file of men he slept with, complete with ratings of their prowess.  He corresponded with Alfred Kinsey, sharing photos, art, and writing.

There has been no rush to claim Steward as a Montana writer, not even by the women writers with allegiances to Pullman or, as far as I know, by the gay groups now formed out in the open, who seem to define themselves as gay-but-respectable.  The underground ones are more likely to get into drugs and cruising — that’s why they’re underground.

Joseph Kinsey Howard

Looking at the photos of Steward, I’m reminded of photos of Joseph Kinsey Howard, a fine journalist and historian, author of “Strange Empire” the best and maybe earliest book about the Metis who formed Red River communities along the Medicine Line, and tried to make them into a nation.  He was a committed foe of corporate exploitation, fighting the Anaconda copper snake.

It has been suggested that Howard, who lived with his mother until her death and never married, was gay.  He has that little pencil mustache, you know.  I’m not sure it matters.  He died at age 45 in 1951, breaking the hearts of the little community of families that summered in log cabins up Blackleaf Canyon near Choteau, but took his place as an honored key figure in Montana literature.  

I’ve never tried to compare Howard’s writing with anyone’s, much less Steward’s (which I haven’t read yet), nor have I considered the parallels between living as a gay man or living as a Metis man, not quite sure whether to identify as Native American or white and uncertain how to mix the two.  Maybe “Fancy Dancer” comes close to doing that, also including the Catholic factor which all along has complicated the situations.  (Steward converted to Catholicism in college.)

It seems that Montana writing is most often focused on the entitled heterosexual white man who is challenged by the environment and his own drive for success.  The women writers have discussed what that does to female lives, treating them as workhorses and brood mares, and making survival difficult for a single “unowned” woman.

Gay literatures and personalities are sometimes bitterly at war with each other.  Because I’m looking at the category — presumably defined by homosexual desire — from the outside I see how different the actual people are from each other.  Those intense but contradictory drives are expressed in different ways and then shaped again by the larger cultural environment it presses against.  So to some, “gay” means sex is love and always wonderful, while to others sex can be risky and even depressing.  To some “gay” means economic crippling while to others it’s not a problem, even an advantage.  Some blame and hate women, while others are easily friends and treat them as sisters. Some love adolescent males just as some men love adolescent girls, and in fact the culture lifts up both as the most desirably erotic.  Love of preadolescents is problematic everywhere because it is involuntary for the child and damages maturation.

The result of the schisms show up in the fight to resolve AIDS, even to diagnose people to stop them passing the virus on unknowingly.  Best goal, of course, is a vaccine.  How does one vaccinate against a virus that destroys the mechanism of generating antibodies?  It’s as difficult as developing a vaccine for stigma against minorities.  But gay men would be a more formidable force for good if they could agree.  Their talent, money, power and connections are world-wide, often effective.

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