An Open Secret: The Family Story of Robert and John Gregg Allerton
by Nicholas L. Syrett
University of Chicago Press, 2021
eISBN: 978-0-226-75166-5 | Paper: 978-0-226-76155-8 | Cloth: 978-0-226-63874-4
Library of Congress Classification HQ76.35.U6S97 2021
Dewey Decimal Classification 306.76620922

In 1922, Robert Allerton—described by the Chicago Tribune as the “richest bachelor in Chicago”—met a twenty-two-year-old University of Illinois architecture student named John Gregg, who was twenty-six years his junior. From then on, they were virtually inseparable. Gregg moved into Allerton’s palatial country home, and the pair eventually bought a plot of land in Hawai‘i, where they built a home and designed a garden paradise that is now part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden. In 1960, after four decades together, and with Robert Allerton nearing ninety, they embarked on a daringly nonconformist move: Allerton legally adopted the sixty-year-old Gregg as his son, the first such adoption of an adult in Illinois history.

An Open Secret tells the striking story of these two iconoclasts, locating them among their queer contemporaries and exploring why becoming father and son made a surprising kind of sense for a twentieth-century couple who had every monetary advantage but one glaring problem: they wanted to be together publicly in a society that did not tolerate their love. Nicholas L. Syrett argues that in a period of both rising homosexual openness and social disapproval, these men had to find an alternative public logic for their situation. Deftly exploring the nature of their design, domestic, and philanthropic projects, Syrett illuminates how viewing the Allertons as both a same-sex couple and an adopted family is crucial to understanding their relationship’s profound queerness. He shows that to categorize Robert and John as simply either a gay couple, or father and son, misstates the complexity of their relationship. By digging deep into the lives of two men who operated largely as ciphers in their own time, Syrett opens up provocative new lanes to consider the diversity of kinship ties in modern US history.

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