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Nick Syrett publishes biography of same-sex couple who lived as father and son

Monday, May 03, 2021

The Allertons at dinner. Black and white photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives.

LAWRENCE — Once described as “the richest bachelor in Chicago,” Robert Allerton was a gay man who in 1922 began a romance with a student 26 years his junior named John Gregg. To hide this risky relationship, they began referring to each other as father and son.

In 1960, after nearly four decades together, Allerton legally adopted Gregg.

Nick Syrett“They are fascinating because of being so anomalous. It’s not like most people did this,” said Nick Syrett, a professor of women, gender & sexuality studies at the University of Kansas.

“But I like the idea that they complicate our history of what queer couplehood looks like in the past. And they complicate the history of what any kind of couple looks like even today.”

Syrett explores this singularly intriguing tale in his new book titled “An Open Secret: The Family Story of Robert and John Gregg Allerton” (University of Chicago Press). He writes that the years of Allerton’s life (1873-1964) span an “almost-century-long arc during which homosexuality in American culture was first discovered, diagnosed, pathologized and persecuted.”

'An Open Secret' book coverPart of the challenge the professor faced when assembling this biography is that the Allertons – who first met when Robert was 49 and John was 22 — left no letters or papers of correspondence between the two of them, in part because they were always together.

“Most of us who are in relationships don’t write down notes and pass them across the dinner table that can then survive. We talk to one another,” Syrett said. “So all the substance of their conversation is lost to the historian. It forced me to reconstruct some of what’s going on, based on the sources that do exist.”

Despite being compelled to embrace a covert lifestyle, they were not exactly the poster boys for progressive social reform.

“They were fundamentally quite conservative,” Syrett said.

“They were Republicans. At times they were racist and anti-Semitic. They were products of their time and class for sure. Among their social set, they did not want to have an open conversation about the fact they were a same-sex couple.”

The choice these men made to become father and son is reflective of a moment in which homosexuality had newly come to be considered a problem that existed in the United States. Doctors had diagnosed it. Legislators had sought to criminalize it. Police were arresting couples when they caught them having sex.

“So they meet each other in this era when homosexuality has gained much more widespread attention but in all kinds of bad ways,” he said. “They are certainly capable of understanding who they are, what they are, what their love for each other means, but it’s at exactly the moment when they could never be public.”

Exacerbating this dilemma is the fact that Robert Allerton is already extraordinarily wealthy and renowned. Since he’s reported on regularly by newspapers, it means he has to account for what he does with his time. Thus, the pair required an immediate explanation.

“From that point onward, they just stick with this story,” Syrett said.

“What’s more interesting is that over the course of the 20th century, more and more gay people start to come out, be political, be activists, advocate for themselves … yet Robert and John have no part in that. They never get on board with that project because they’re too deep into their father and son story.”

Syrett first came across this hidden history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign while doing research for his first book, “The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities” (University of North Carolina Press). The Allertons donated their lavish home and all their papers to UIUC.

“There have been multiple books published about their property — like big coffee table books with lots of pictures — because the grounds of the estate are beautiful, as is their estate in Hawaii. But no one has written extensively about their relationship, and they rarely enter into a conversation concerning queer history because that’s just not how they’ve ever been considered,” he said.

Now in his fourth year at KU, Syrett has investigated subjects 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: The Colonial Era to the Present” (New York University Press).

“Many advocates in the marriage equality movement era made these arguments that gay people should be allowed to marry, but the argument was generally because ‘they’re just like straight people.’ I think that’s not true, in part, because straight people aren’t all the same, either,” Syrett said.

“Here, we’ve got a situation where one person is much older than the other. The old one is the rich one in control of the purse strings, but the younger one cares for the older one in ways that really are like a son and father. They show us there are all kinds of ways that people have acted out lifelong partnerships, and they’re not all perfect, egalitarian couples.”

Top photo: University of Illinois Archives

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