LAWRENCE – Robert Allerton, once dubbed “Chicago’s Richest Bachelor,” was a gay man who began a romance in 1922 with a student named John Gregg, 26 years his junior. To hide this risky relationship, they referred to each other as father and son.
In 1960, after nearly four decades together, Allerton legally adopted Gregg.
“They are fascinating because they are so abnormal. It’s not that most people have, ”said Nick Syrett, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Kansas.
“But I like the idea that they complicate our story of what queer couples look like in the past. And they complicate the story of what any type of couple looks like to this day. “
Syrett explores this uniquely fascinating story in his new book, “An Open Secret: The Family History of Robert and John Gregg Allerton” (University of Chicago Press). He writes that the years of Allerton’s (1873-1964) life span “an arc of nearly a century in which homosexuality was first discovered, diagnosed, pathologized, and persecuted in American culture”.
Part of the challenge the professor faced in compiling this biography was that the Allertons – who first met when Robert was 49 years old and John 22 years old – did not leave any letters or correspondence between the two , also because they were always together.
“Most of us in a relationship don’t write down notes and leave them over the dining room table, which can then survive. We talk to each other, ”said Syrett. “So the historian loses all substance of their conversation. It forced me to reconstruct some of the processes using the existing sources. “
Although forced to adopt a covert lifestyle, they were not exactly the showcase for progressive social reform.
“They were basically quite conservative,” said Syrett.
“They were Republicans. Sometimes they were racist and anti-Semitic. They were certainly products of their time and class. In their social environment, they did not want to have an open conversation about the fact that they are a same-sex couple. “
The decision these men made to become father and son reflected a moment when homosexuality was re-viewed as a problem that existed in the United States. Doctors had diagnosed it. Legislators tried to criminalize it. The police arrested couples after they were caught having sex.
“So they meet at a time when homosexuality has received a lot more attention, but in all sorts of bad ways,” he said. “They are certainly able to understand who they are, what they are, what their love for one another means, but this is exactly the moment when they could never be public.”
This dilemma is compounded by the fact that Robert Allerton is already extraordinarily wealthy and well known. Since he reports regularly in newspapers, he has to explain what he does with his time. Hence, the couple required an immediate explanation.
“From that point on, they just stick with this story,” Syrett said.
“What’s more interesting is that in the course of the 20th century, more and more gay people are coming out, being political, being activists, standing up for themselves… but Robert and John have no part in that. They never get on board on this project because they are too engrossed in their father and son stories. “
Syrett first encountered this hidden story at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign while researching his first book, The Company He Runs: A History of the Fraternities of White College (University of North Carolina Press). The Allertons donated their lavish home and all of their papers to UIUC.
“Several books have been published about their property – like large coffee table books with lots of pictures – because the grounds on the property are beautiful, as is their Hawaii property. But nobody has written extensively about their relationship and they rarely have a conversation about the history of queers because they were never considered that easy, “he said.
Now in his fourth year at KU, Syrett has explored topics ranging from maturity and masculinity to fraternities and queer history. His books also include “American Child Bride” (University of North Carolina Press) and “Age in America: Colonial Times to the Present” (New York University Press).
“Many advocates in the era of the equality movement have made these arguments that gay people are allowed to marry, but the argument in general has been because they are like straight people. I think that’s partly wrong because straight people aren’t all the same either, ”Syrett said.
“Here we have a situation where one person is much older than the other. The old man is the rich man in control of the purse strings, but the younger takes care of the older in a way that is truly like a son and a father. They show us that there are many ways people can form lifelong partnerships, and they are not all perfect, egalitarian couples. “
Top photo: University of Illinois Archives