Friday, July 15, 2011

Field Trip Friday: The Museum of Sex

Last August I recommended my readers check out the biography Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade. Steward was one of those fascinating gay men whose life on the margins of society during much of the twentieth century was so meandering and unpredictable that it reads more like fiction than fact. A constant chronicler of his sexual life, he managed to bed (among the hundreds and thousands he obsessively tracked in a ‘stud file’ of three-by-five cards) were celebrities like Rudolph Valentino, Rock Hudson, and Thornton Wilder. He was a illustrator fascinated by the art of tattooing, a writer who gained a late-in-life notoriety under the pen name of Phil Andros, and an all-around fascinating pervert who made even Alfred Kinsey gawp in wonder.

I recommended the book highly when it came out and still do, not least because it was written by one of my blog’s readers, but because author Justin Spring managed to craft a fascinating narrative of a life that’s usually overlooked and neglected, but which, when examined, proves to be overflowing with all kinds of literary and sociocultural interest.

Well. Last night I put on some clean duds, hopped on Metro North, and headed into Manhattan to the Museum of Sex, because Justin very kindly invited me to an opening night private party for an exhibition of Steward’s memorabilia. "Obscene Diary: The Secret Archive of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist and Pornographer" is the name of the exhibit, and I’ve got to tell you guys, if you’re in the metropolitan New York area, take an afternoon or evening and visit the place. It was easily the best exhibit in the museum.

It was a little crowded last night—the freely-flowing alcohol served by muscled boys in Speedos had something to do with it, methinks—but I managed to spend a good hour walking around the gallery, looking at the original manuscripts of Steward’s earliest writings, the cards from his stud file (including the celebrity encounters, with their secret codes outlining exactly what the pair did), the drawings, the tattoo designs, the books, the reams of explicit photographs from the guy’s infamous orgies. There’s definitely a lot of obscene material there.

And frankly, all I could think, while I moved through the crowd, was, I wonder what all my crap would look like, nicely framed and under glass?

Justin, who’s the exhibit’s curator, managed to track me down among the crowd and talk to me for a few minutes—which only confirmed my belief that he’s a hell of a smart man and, by inviting me, has exquisite taste in his friendships. He confided that the installation was finished only minutes before the doors opened that night, and that the paint was still drying on some of the walls even as we spoke. If you’re reading this, Justin, thanks for being not only a gracious and handsome host, but a learned gentleman, as well.

Take the day or weekend off and have a little field trip, guys. It’s well worth it.


  1. Rob - a very nice post about you at the exhibit and meeting Justin. You are, indeed, an all-around nice guy which come through very clearly in your writings. Thanks for sharing. Anonymous IV

  2. I finally got round to reading Justin's book earlier this month (after sitting on shelves for months!) and it is a wonderful book, a beautiful and engaging text that I can't recommend enough. Wonderful news about the exhibition - it needs to do some sort of global tour!

  3. even if I failed to notice that you had recommended Justin's book, I read it earlier this year and found it a page turner. Rarely have I seen someone so obsessed with sex (except you my favourite blogger), making friends with so many celebreties.
    I was in Paris last weekend and paid a visit to Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas's grave (among others) who happened to be one of his closest friends.
    Justin did a tremendous literary work producing this book and I deeply envy you being acquainted with him.
    Please keep up your outstanding work.
    Love from France

  4. Anonymous IV,

    Aw, thanks. I can enjoy my Friday all the better for that comment.

  5. Chris,

    It's a good book, right? The exhibition just made it spring to life for me.

  6. Frenchie,

    'Page-turner' describes it well. And the book's been getting so much attention, too. Well-deserved, all of it. I'm glad you enjoyed it as well.

  7. Thank you for the post my friend. I cannot go but just the way you said how it was in there must be very interesting and nice to watch.
    You are always interesting to read even when you talk about art and other stuff.


  8. Rob & Readers,
    Alas, I am now on the west coast, otherwise I'd be on the next bus to Manhattan to see this show. Spring's book is a fascinating read on so many levels. I'm still amazed at Steward's many accomplishments. Great work on Spring's part both for preserving a strand of cultural history and his engaging narrative. As readers will know, this story could have been lost to history. Steward was isolated at the end of his life and wasn't able to take care of the archives that were still in his possession. Spring and others managed to help out on this.
    On a similar note, the homoerotic illustrations by Harry Bush were almost lost under conditions similar to Steward's. A good portion of Bush's illustrations were saved and published by a very determined John F. Carr. The scope of Carr's book is nowhere near Spring's effort or level of scholarship. Nevertheless, another small piece of gay sexual history has been saved. My take home lesson is that it's up to us to take care of our 'elders' and preserve their stories. On that note---for your readers, historians or preservationists who are interested in preserving a significant part of Manhattan's gay sexual history---Lou Maletta's story is waiting for a biographer.

  9. Dennis,

    That's a fascinating sidenote, there. Thanks for speaking up about Bush's illustrations. I love when I learn something from my readers.

  10. Rob,

    I was going to write you months ago to recommend Sspring's book. I should have known that a perv like you would already have uncovered it. :)

  11. The State of NY called MoSex's application for tax exemption a mockery. The Catholic Church spluttered that it should include a "death chamber" acknowledging how many have died from STDs. What makes the establishment snort must be *very* interesting ;-)

  12. Rahinpa,

    Hey, the author himself brought it to my attention! I didn't have to go uncovering anything!

  13. 2:41 Anonymous,

    Doesn't the Catholic church kind of depend on sex for continuing its population of adherents?

  14. Rob:

    Who knows? I am still trying to get how bread is not bread, wine is not wine, and 3 = 1 ;-)