From Chapter 1: Wild-hog Wild
Two of Steward’s aunts moved to Columbus in 1926, selling their share of the Woodsfield boardinghouse in order to buy and run a boardinghouse that was just a short walk from the Ohio State University campus. They did so for the express purpose of seeing Steward and his little sister, Virginia, through their college years at OSU, for they had resolved to provide both children with the best possible university education despite their extremely limited income. Taking his last year at a public high school in
Columbus rather than in Woodsfield, Steward helped out at the new boardinghouse in whatever way he could; he also continued to write poetry and fiction, play jazz piano, and collect celebrity autographs and letters. Since many entertainers passed through Columbus on whistle- stop tours, he was now able to pursue them in person, simply by waiting outside their theater or else in the lobby of the town’s best hotel.
Steward was by now also having a good deal of casual sex, mostly with the undergraduate males with whom he shared his home. “My aunts’ house on Seventeenth Avenue had about eleven rooms,” Steward later recalled. “Six of the bedrooms were rented to two boys each, making a full house of a dozen young men. Over the years I managed to have about half the population of the place—some reluctant, some returning again and again.” Steward’s most remarkable sexual experience, however, happened as a result of his autograph- collecting* adventures, and took place in downtown Columbus.
Although Steward never mentioned the encounter in his published memoirs, he detailed its specifics in an interview he granted to a friend just four years before his death:
I had a friend at the best hotel in Columbus, the Deschler-Wallich . . . He called up one night and said, “Somebody has registered here. I don’t know whether you’d be interested or not. His name is Rudolph Guglielmo.” [sic] That was [Rudolph] Valentino’s real name, of course. And I said, “Oh, my God, I’ll be down in a minute.” That was July 24, 1926.
The great silent-film actor Rudolph Valentino was always assumed to be forcefully heterosexual, even while under attack by the popular press as a promoter of male effeminacy. Steward had long been in awe of him, for throughout the 1920s Valentino had been considered a top Hollywood star and a paragon of virility. Just six days before coming to Columbus, however, Valentino had been lambasted for his mannerisms in the Chicago Tribune, in what later became known as the “Pink Powder Puffs” incident.
Steward later described it in their meeting:
[Valentino] was returning from Chicago, where he had gone a second time to challenge the writer of that editorial that called him a “powder puff, who never showed up [for the duel to which Valentino had challenged him]. He was coming back on the train, and I don’t know why he stopped in Columbus, but there he was, absolutely incognito, because he would have been mobbed otherwise. So I went down to the hotel, my autograph book in hand, and knocked on the door, and he signed it . . . [He had been showering and wore only a towel but] he took the book and sat down and signed it. For a long time [after], there was the imprint of his damp palm on the page [of the autograph book]. He stood up . . . and I was about to leave, and he said, “Is there anything else you want? I’m very tired.”
I said, “Yes, I’d like to have you.” And then he really did smile… He reached over and pushed the door shut. I had it half open, my hand o the knob—I was about to exit—and he pushed the door shut with that hand, and with the other hand he undid his towel. And then he sat down on the edge of the bed.”
Though pressed by his interviewer, Steward declined to give any further details of the sexual encounter. But young Steward emerged from the hotel room not only with the autograph, but also with a swatch of Valentino’s pubic hair, which he subsequently kept in a monstrance at his bedside until the end of his life. The experience was all the more trenchant for Steward because within a month Valentino suddenly ruptured his appendix and died, aged thirty- one.
Though unable to discuss his encounter with high school friends, Steward memorialized this and other sexual experiences by keeping records and collecting memorabilia. Steward’s first sexual experience had taken place only two years before, but he already had a secret list of all his encounters that he had transcribed in coded notations, occasionally supplementing these notes with physical souvenirs that carried their own erotic charge. Through these collections of facts, figures, and objects, Steward was able to put the experiences into order, consider their relative importance (or unimportance), and, essentially, to daydream about his own risk taking sexual activities with a sense of both detachment and control. Through them he would enter a state of erotic reverie—one in which he saw himself not only as safe, secure, and very much at the center of his sexuality, but also as a daredevil, a risk taker, and a sexual hero—a young man both larger than life and impervious to its cruelties.
Purchase Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward here.