Tom of Finland front cover

Tom of Finland front cover

By F. Valentine Hooven III
Published in 1993 by St. Martin’s Press

Recently I was talking to a leatherman.  I call him a leatherman not because was he dressed in leather, but because he embodied that perfect combination of humble confidence and grace. He was, in may ways, the personification of an idealized leatherman. Atop his head was an amazing leather hat which perfectly framed his countenance and vice versa.  As I complimented his hat, I mentioned that it made him look like he had stopped off the page of one of Tom of Finland’s drawings.  He responded thoughtfully, “we all look like that on the inside.”  It was a comment immense in both its beauty and insight.

If you only recently came out from under a rock and are completely unfamiliar with Tom of Finland’s work, he was, and still is, the best and most famous artist of gay erotica.  His work is known for his highly stylized depictions of flawless hyper-masculine figures such as laborers, cops, and, obviously enough, leathermen.

Hooven’s biography traces Tom of Finland’s life beginning with his childhood in rural Finland to his death. I don’t know much about the background of this book’s author other than that his name shows up as the author of a book devoted to Beefcake magazines of the 50s through 70s.  Were I more motivated, I might seek him out and find out more about him. Regardless, Hooven’s prose is reminiscent of the Weekly Reader.  In some ways that easy writing style makes the book light and easy to read.  In others, it makes the makes the book, and by extension, its subject seem a bit lightweight.

One of the book’s surprising highlights was the Tom of Finland’s service during World War II.  I never really considered Finland’s participation in the war and the war’s affect on Finland before reading the book.  While I don’t know enough about gay sexual expression during the war to accept or reject the veracity of Hooven’s descriptions of clandestine gay sexual encounters during the war, they were both plausible and compelling. The rest of the book traces Tom of Finland’s career as an artist from his work as a graphic illustrators to his transformation as a fulltime erotic artist, finally culminating in Tom of Finland’s recognition as an outstanding painter.

Though Hooven discusses Tom of Finland’s career as an advertising illustrator, a more detailed description of his advertising work would give the reader a broader picture of Tom of Finland’s artistic influences and background.  Another detail of Tom of Finland’s life that seemed to merit more discussion was his relationship with his long term partner Veli.  Despite being portrayed as a protective confidante when Tom is taken advantage of in his business dealings, Hooven depicts Veli as little more than a minor character in Tom of Finland’s life. Providing a more complete picture of who Tom’s life partner is and how he interacted with Tom would provide a greater insight into both Tom and his works.

Hooven also declines (fails?) to discuss Tom of Finland’s family.  One wonders if he were out to them and, if so, how they reacted to his sexuality.  Also, were they aware of his art and success?  If so, were they proud or ashamed? If Hooven knows, he doesn’t tell the reader.

Even with these minor omissions, Hooven’s work provides a fine insight into the life and work of Tom of Finland and anyone interested in erotic artists, BDSM history, or gay and/or leather iconography will enjoy this book.