A short piece about Sam Steward and Homo File

by seth / October 10th, 2012 / Posted in: Artists in Residence, CounterPULSE, Seth Eisen.

By Edward Guthmann

-Freelance writer and former SF Chronicle film critic

Thanks for your wonderful “Homo File.” It’s very inventive and smart, and I felt it captured a lot about Sam very accurately. Also liked the casting of your lead actor as Sam. Would love to see how it develops.

I knew Sam for a few years, probably starting in ’78. I was in my twenties, writing for a local gay rag, the Sentinel, and also occasionally for the Advocate. I think we must’ve met when I interviewed him at the time “Dear Sammy” came out. After that I’d visit him periodically at his little cottage in west Berkeley (the neighborhood was low-rent but not, as Justin Spring wrote in “The Secret Historian,”  a “slum.”) I remember his dachshunds and cuckoo clocks; his dapper moustache, turtlenecks and air of Old World gentility. I remember the thick atmosphere of exotic memories he’d surrounded himself with. I remember him complaining about his neighbors, a household of “unreconstructed hippies” who played the Grateful Dead too often and too loudly.

He wasn’t getting around much. He didn’t own a car, and I remember that going to San Francisco on the bus was exhausting for him. There was a sadness in him, deep regret about not accomplishing more as a man of letters. I remember he called himself “a minor literary figure” and I remember his tales of befriending his literary heroes by writing them. He had a formula for currying a friendship through letters: flatter the writer, but not too much; say something intelligent and specific about their work; and never ask for favors.

Sam was very lonely as an old man. I’m sure he missed his friends, most of whom were gone. I’m sure he missed being part of the game: the great sexual hunt, the conquest and the exhaustive documentation of that conquest that absorbed most of his life. I don’t know if he regretted not settling down with someone; maybe he figured it wasn’t in his nature. But I remember how, when I once lamented the loss of a promising love, he chastised me. “But don’t you realize, Edward?,” he said in a harsh tone. “The life of the homosexual is the life of the butterfly! Relationships don’t last.”

In retrospect that sounds like a line from from “The Boys in the Band.” I don’t know if the bitterness in that statement was the result of pre-Stonewall oppression, or specific to Sam’s own history of intense sexual obsession. I know he disliked being old. He was in his early 70s, which , 30 years ago, seemed much older than it seems now.  He said once, for dramatic emphasis, “After all, I’m NINETY” — as if 70 were so ancient that he might as well have been 90.

It was amazing to discover “Secret Historian” and to see what a thorough and intelligent job Justin did with it.  I was thrilled for Sammy to be remembered and validated. He would’ve been surprised — and deeply gratified. It was the kind of recognition he always yearned for, even if it was less for his writing and more for his pioneering perambulations and the varied, extreme, sometimes self-destructive choices he made.

 

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