Queering Couplehood: Robert & John Allerton and Historical Perspectives on Kinship

Published: Jan. 3, 2012 By

[1] On March 4, 1960, Robert Allerton became a father.  He was 86 at the time and his newly adopted son, John Wyatt Gregg, was 60.  They had met 38 years previously at a "Father-Son" fraternity banquet at the University of Illinois where the single and childless Allerton, 49, had been invited by a friend to stand in as a "father" to a then 22 year-old Gregg, who was an orphan.  Interviewed in the 1980s, Gregg explained: "Robert Allerton was invited over there for lunch for a football game and he didn't have a son and I didn't have a father so we were paired off and lived happily ever after. ... We just gradually eased into a father-son relationship" (Allerton 1984, 1-2).  This account moves seamlessly from the language of romance – "happily ever after" – to that of filiation.  In its conflation of what we think of as these two distinct realms it describes a profoundly queer coupling.

[2] The 1960 adoption, while legally affirming Allerton and Gregg's filial status, paradoxically had the effect of bringing that very status into question. Allerton was an immensely wealthy benefactor of the arts, both in Illinois, where the adoption took place, the first adoption of an adult child in the state's history, and in Hawai'i, where the two had lived for twenty years, so the adoption was newsworthy in both places.  The First National Bank of Chicago, which had been co-founded by Allerton's father, issued a statement on behalf of the pair explaining that, "Under a recent change in the Illinois law which became effective the first of this year, [Allerton] has finally been able to legally adopt John Wyatt Gregg who has stood in the relationship of a son for thirty years." Yet newspapers in both places reporting on the adoption revealed through their choice of words that they found the relationship more complicated than this representation.  The Chicago Tribune reported that Gregg had had "the status of son" for 30 years under the headline "'Son' 30 Years is Adopted by Allerton," the quotation marks around "son" suggesting doubt about Gregg's real status over those decades (March 5, 1960). The Champaign-Urbana Courier, which covered the jurisdiction where the adoption took place, announced: "Companion Is Adopted by R. Allerton" (March 5, 1960). Even more ambiguously the Honolulu Sunday Star Bulletin titled its article "Have Been Friends for 38 Years.  Kauai's Allerton, 86, to Adopt 60-Year-Old Son," referring to Gregg as both a friend and a son before the adoption had even occurred. The reporter explained that "Mr. Allerton and Mr. Gregg have lived at Lawai-Kai on Kauai since 1938 and many friends believed that Gregg already was Allerton's adopted son" (March 6, 1960). Thus the adoption, while legally securing Gregg's status as Allerton's son, had the public effect of calling into question the very thing it was most designed to assert: that Robert Allerton was John Gregg's father, and not something else. And yet, as the Bulletin noted, perhaps despite itself, it is difficult to become something that one claims already to be. This conundrum—who Robert Allerton and John Gregg were to each other and how they explained themselves to the world—had been, in many respects, the fundamental question of their then thirty-eight years together and remains so to this day.

[3] When I discuss the story of the Allertons (Gregg would take Allerton's surname the year after his father's death in 1964) I am usually asked one question: were they lovers? I have come to the conclusion that this oft-repeated question misses the point in a number of fundamental ways. While it would be perfectly plausible to see the Allertons as two gay men who used the cover of filial claims in order to live their lives together, a possibility I explore below, instead I suggest that much more is to be gained for our understandings of queer history and for contemporary debates about gay marriage and kinship, if we take their claims at face value. Indeed, even if they were lovers, which is certainly possible, the way in which they structured their relationship, publicly and privately—variously as mentor and mentee, employer and employee, father and son—makes it something other than the union of equals that is often imagined of same-sex partners or lovers of any sexual orientation. In other words, even if they were sexual partners, the Allertons are worth studying for the unique way in which they structured their voluntary filial relationship.

[4] In the absence of evidence that they were sexual partners—and I will say at the outset that all evidence I know of demonstrating this is circumstantial—assuming that they were so takes one part of the story and moves it to center stage.  Further, those who ask whether or not I can prove that Robert and John Allerton had sex with each other, while purporting to ask one question, really seem to be asking quite a different one: whether or not the two men were gay.  The question is less focused on the specifics of what went on between Gregg and Allerton, and instead seeks to fit them into a category identifiable to us today.  The question is also structured in such a way as to discount the possibility that while both Allerton and Gregg might indeed have been attracted to men, their relationship with each other might not have been sexual.

[5] In this article I contend that much is to be learned both about the temporal and social world in which the Allertons lived, as well as about the ways that two people of the same sex chose to structure a long-term commitment, if we take seriously their claims to being father and son.  While wealthy women of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had traditionally been able to live together in Boston marriages, sexual or not, the same option was generally not available for men like the Allertons, who were presumed to be sexual beings.  Furthermore, the Allertons met and took up with each other in the 1920s, when discourses pathologizing even female partnerships had made them publicly untenable without the risk of being labeled lesbian.  Their choice to "become" father and son – regardless of whether they were actually lovers or simply two men who wanted to spend their lives together – is demonstrative of a societal climate that could not countenance two men living together without some sort of explanation for their relationship and their mutual eschewing of marriage.  But, as I explore in the first part of this article, what we can determine of their lives also makes clear that they structured the internal dynamics of their relationship in ways that really did resemble something more filial than conjugal.  The Allertons serve as a useful reminder that people in the past have improvised modes of kinship, particularly when biological parenthood or legal marriage have been unavailable to them.

[6] The Allertons encourage us, as some other historians have done, to think about how same-sex pairs may have structured and understood their own relationships at moments when the possibility of self-avowed homosexual coupling did not seem practicable.  In very different ways historians Lillian Faderman, Estelle Freedman, and Julian Carter have all explored female same-sex couples that grappled with the meanings of their relationships, either eschewing lesbian identification when that is how their relationship might appear to us and to contemporaries, or experimenting with erotic identifications that do not accord with our understandings of "couplehood" (Faderman 1981, 229-230; Freedman; Carter).  The Allertons also demonstrate what is left out if historians presume that pairs of people are necessarily conjugal couples.  Jennifer Manion has recently made this argument about presumptively heterosexual pairs in an article called "Historic Heteroessentialism"; my analysis extends that argument to what is a plausibly homosexual pair.

[7] This article is meant to complement and complicate the pre-Stonewall narratives of the past with which we are already familiar.  Many historians of male homosexuality have focused upon sex between men because those records have been plentiful in the archives for certain times and places.  And many of those who have studied the historical experiences of queer women, with a dearth of criminal prosecutions for sexual crimes, have studied women's emotional and intimate partnerships.  Evidence of sex has been readily available for historians of men, evidence of partnership more so for historians of women.  Both strands of queer history have been remarkably important and the task of this essay is not to critique either.  What it does do, however, is add something new, insisting that it is more productive to think about this particular pair, the Allertons, as queer rather than as homosexual for the reasons that I have already outlined and discuss in more detail below.  The evidence left behind by the Allertons, plentiful in some ways and meager in others, allows us to explore the unique dynamics of how one couple structured its relationship, rather than assuming a conjugality that we presume tells us all we need to know.  Presuming that even longstanding pairs of people are necessarily linked by sexual desire may be a misrepresentation of the past, perhaps predicated on a presentist belief that conjugal couplehood is always the most desired outcome for human beings.

[8] Thus, taking a cue from this historical couple, in the latter part of the article I argue that the Allertons provide a model for understanding different modes of kinship in an age—our own—where claims for gay marriage have in many circles eclipsed discussions of alternative modes of family formation and affiliation for gays, straights, and everyone in between. The Allertons are a more literal example of what Kath Weston called Families We Choose, fictive kin in their case made less fictive through their own use of the law. Regardless of whether or not they had sex with each other they were undoubtedly a queer union: two resolutely single men "becoming" father and son and devoting their lives to each other. This queer partnership from the past educates us in ways that are much less affirming of traditional notions of gay and lesbian partnership, and indeed of monogamous sexual couplehood of any variety.  I assert that the queerness of their union is not actually the homosexuality they never publicly acknowledged, but rather the non-normativity of the way they structured their partnership, and it is a queerness from which we can learn.  In doing so, I align myself with David Halperin's call in How to do the History of Homosexuality: "It is possible, after all, to recruit the queerness of past historical models not in order to justify one or another partisan model of gay life in the present but rather to acknowledge, promote, and support a heterogeneity of queer identities, past and present" (16).

[9] In analyzing the Allertons' relationship and its lessons for our own world, I employ two primary axes: the place of sex, the act, in intimate partnerships; and the role of the law both in granting benefits and in giving symbolic weight to relationships.  My claim is twofold. I argue that sex is a poor measure of the intimacy or social significance of relationships and that the law can serve an important function in granting privileges and benefits for people, but it need not do so in the ways that contemporary advocates of gay marriage would have us believe that it should or that it always has in the past. In exploring these two themes, the Allertons can be our guide, for they serve not just as a means to understand a more wide-ranging queer past, they also point to a more expansive queer future for all people.

The Allerton Story

[10] First, a more thorough introduction to the Allertons is necessary.  Robert was the second child of Samuel Waters Allerton, who had made his fortune in Illinois livestock and farmland in the 1860s and had become a staple of Chicago's society pages.  Samuel was also a co-founder of the First National Bank of Chicago, owned stockyards and farmland throughout the Midwest, and homes in Chicago; Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; and Pasadena, California.  By the century's end he was one of the richest men in Chicago.  Samuel had married Pamilla Thompson in 1860 and three years later she gave birth to Robert's elder sister, Kate Rennett Allerton.  Robert Henry followed ten years later on March 20, 1873.  Pamilla died in 1880 when Robert was 7, and two years later Samuel married Pamilla's younger sister, Agnes, who was only 24 at the time; Samuel was 53 (Allerton 1900, 87-9; Burgin and Holtz).

[11] Kate and Robert Allerton grew up on Prairie Avenue playing with Ethel Field, daughter of department store magnate Marshall Field, and Potter Palmer, Jr., son of Potter and Bertha Honoré Palmer, the real estate developer and his philanthropist wife. In 1897, after a stint in Europe studying painting, a 24 year-old Robert took over the management of 12,000 acres of his father's farmland in Piatt County, Illinois, south of Chicago. There, with the assistance of his friend, the architect John Borie, he built an English manor home modeled after the early seventeenth-century Ham House, located on the Thames.  He then set about designing the formal gardens that surround the house and that are the truly stunning feature of the estate, which he called "The Farms."  Traveling around Europe and Asia, he amassed a collection of statuary that remains in the park to this day.  In 1946, Allerton donated the entire estate to the University of Illinois, which runs it as a public park and conference center (Allerton n.d., 4-11; Burgin and Holtz).

[12] From 1900 through the 1930s Robert maintained a vibrant social schedule in Chicago. He also became increasingly active as a patron of the arts.  Between 1894 and 1949, he ascended from membership at the Art Institute of Chicago to a Vice Presidency. Throughout these years he also donated approximately 1.5 million dollars worth of art.  By 1964, the year of his death, he was the Institute's most generous living benefactor.  In 1968 the AIC named the imposing entrance building on Michigan Avenue in his honor (Weigle; Chicago Tribune1963; Chicago Tribune 1964).

[13] John Wyatt Gregg, by contrast, had led a very different sort of life. He was born on November 7, 1899, in Milwaukee, the third child of greengrocer James Richmond Gregg and his wife, Kate Scranton Gregg.  At the time of his graduation from high school and the simultaneous death of his mother from breast cancer, he was drafted into the army but got no further than the Student Army Training Corps.  The war ended soon thereafter and he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in chemical engineering. His father died in 1921, leaving the Gregg siblings orphaned and John transferred to the University of Illinois, after increasingly finding himself drawn toward architecture, which Wisconsin did not offer. As a member of Zeta Psi at Wisconsin he was able to join a sister chapter at Illinois and thus lived in the fraternity house during his first year at Illinois, in the autumn of 1922. It was there that he would meet Allerton, at a Zeta Psi "Father-Son" banquet, where Allerton, who had been involved with the University for some time, was asked to stand in as Gregg's "father" (Allerton n.d., 17-18; Soruika and Klemt, 52; Chicago Tribune 1960).

Becoming Father and Son

[14] How exactly – aside from the initial meeting – Robert and John decided to become father and son remains murky, clouded over by years of stories and interviews. Both claimed at one time or another that friends encouraged the relationship because Allerton and Gregg were lonely; they had both recently lost parents (Allerton's stepmother had died in 1924).  For Allerton the notion of becoming a non-biological father may not have been so far-fetched, precisely because of that stepmother.  When he was seven years old, Robert's mother, Pamilla Thompson Allerton, died.  Within two years his father had remarried Pamilla's younger sister, Agnes.  Agnes was 24 and Samuel was 53.  They never had biological children of their own. Robert came to adore his stepmother-aunt; by his adult years he referred to her publicly as his mother.  He also made numerous charitable bequests on her behalf, naming a wing of the Art Institute of Chicago in her honor, something he did not do on behalf of his biological mother.  Robert thus grew up quite comfortable with his father's own unconventional and intergenerational choices in couplehood. Perhaps more importantly for our purposes, he also believed that a non-biological parent could assume his or her role some years after the birth of a child.  This was especially so when that parent was replacing one who no longer existed, as was the case for Robert's mother and John's father.

[15] Traces of how Robert and John came to actually live together as father and son are to be found when examining the trajectory of Gregg's life after his graduation from Illinois in 1926.  Until that time, we know that they continued to see each other at The Farms, though whether they had decided to "become" father and son yet or were still in the process of "gradually becoming" so, as Gregg put it, is lost to the historical record.  Immediately upon graduation Gregg traveled in Europe—England, Holland, and Germany—by his telling alone, though financed by his new patron: "Robert Allerton gave me a nice check to get me going" (Allerton n.d., 18; Nancy R----; New York Times 1926).  Upon his return he began work as a draftsman, and later job captain, for David Adler, the Chicago architect; he had landed the job through Allerton's connections. At first he lived in Chicago near his friends Paul and Dorothy Schweikher; Paul was a fellow draftsman at Adler's studio.  Schweiker recalled: "[John] was a companion to Robert Allerton.  Not sure what you would call it at that time.  ... and he was very social, in the social swim. The rest of us didn't have that – John brought it in" (28).  Though this recollection dates from many years later, clearly Gregg's friend at the time recognized that there was something unique – indeed unidentifiable – about his relationship with Allerton.

[16] Because Allerton was a well-known figure in Chicago, he was much reported on in local newspapers.  By the early 1930s, the majority of the reporting on the couple refers to them as some formulation of "father and son."  The first mention of Robert Allerton and John Gregg together appeared in 1928, two years after Gregg had graduated from Illinois, when the Chicago Tribune announced those notables attending the opera, cataloguing who sat in whose box: "With Mrs. Potter Palmer were Mrs. Barrett Wendell, Mrs. Chauncey McCormick, Prince Galitzen, Robert Allerton, and John Gregg" (7 December1928).  No explanation is given for Gregg's presence or his relationship to Allerton.  By 1931, the Tribune reported on the two traveling together, but the language of their relationship had become solidified as father and son, despite the fact that this was not legally so: "Robert Allerton, art collector, intensive farmer, and one of our leading bachelors, has recently returned from a trip to China and Siam with his adopted son, John Gregg" (Cousin Eve).  In December of 1933, the Tribune reported on a charity ball to celebrate recent acquisitions by the Art Institute: "Mr. and Mrs. Potter Palmer will have their son-in-law and daughter, the Oakleigh Thorne-Lewises; Mr. and Mrs. Kellogg Fairbank, and Robert Allerton and his adopted son, John Gregg, with them" (17 December 1933). In grouping them together in this manner, both their hosts and the Tribune called attention to the primacy of Allerton's relationship with Gregg: while others might bring their wives or husbands, Allerton would bring his son. The reporting continued through the 1930s and thereafter. While the variation in ways of discussing Gregg bespeaks an ambivalence about who exactly John Gregg was in relation to Robert Allerton, the majority of the time reporters adhered to some version of the "father-son" scenario or simply did not describe the relationship at all, taking it as a given that the two traveled and socialized together.  Either way, the volume of the coverage demonstrates both the underlying need Allerton had to provide some sort of explanation for his new companion as well as the fact that, presumably because of Allerton's wealth, many newspapers acquiesced to his own representation of his relationship, even if legally it was not yet true.

[17] In 1930 John's employer's wife died in a car accident and, combined with the effects of the Depression, Adler scaled back on his practice.  John Gregg was out of a job as well as a reason to remain in Chicago.  As Gregg put it in an oral history: "I came down here to Monticello and Robert Allerton gave me the job running the farms with Elmer [the farm manager]. ... He said now you take over managing the farms with Elmer and you manage the gardens" (Allerton n.d., 20).  Many years later Gregg was still referring to his first years with Allerton as ones of employment. He arrived at Monticello not just to manage the farms but also with plans in hand for a restructuring of one of the ornamental gardens that stretches outwards from Allerton House.  Thus began their architectural collaboration.  Gregg explained in an interview: "My father gave me jobs because he was not satisfied with things the way they were, and so that I wouldn't feel that I was wasting all the talent that I'd been trained for.  He wanted to give me my head to try things out.  He was a marvelous father.  Fathers and sons don't always work that way" ("Legacy Continues").

[18] And indeed they don't. Gregg and Allerton always portrayed their relationship as one of almost perfect harmony.  Their day-to-day correspondence with friends and employees through the 1940s and '50s also leaves this impression.  Absent is any of the conflict and strife that can accompany a relationship between two relatives, especially a parent and child who lived and worked together exclusively for a large portion of their adult lives.  Whether or not this was actually so or simply the way they chose to portray themselves, it is worth noting that the very possibility of a filial relationship free of intergenerational strife may have been predicated on the fact that no matter what the law would retroactively make them, Allerton and Gregg were not actually father and son.  Their relationship, voluntarily entered into by two adults, more resembled the bond between a couple that does not share a common lineal history, than it did a typical father-son dyad.  And yet, aside from the legal adoption itself, because they actually did structure their relationship in ways that more resembled that of a father and son, it was not couplehood as we know it either.

[19] Robert and John's financial relationship is one site to see this and is best explored through the voluminous correspondence between both men and Helen Murphy, their financial manager during the 1930s and '40s.  Murphy worked out of an office in the First National Bank (co-founded by Allerton's father) and wrote separately to both Robert and John at Monticello and in Kaua'i.  Her job – remarkable for a woman in the '30s and '40s – was to invest their substantial fortune, process the income from the farms, and oversee their income tax preparation with an accountant.  The earliest remaining correspondence dates from 1935, when Murphy was clearly in charge of managing not only Robert's finances, but also John's much less substantial assets.  By the spring of 1936 Murphy had opened a safe deposit box for John and was also in the process of investing a $100,000 gift from Robert. While Gregg was in many respects financially dependent on Allerton, the latter went to great lengths throughout their time together to ensure that Gregg had his own investments and savings.  He even bought for him his own house and land on the island of Kaua'i, where they lived from the 1940s onward. While Allerton never explicitly addressed why he did this in any correspondence that remains, the consequence must have been to allow Gregg at least a nominal financial independence. In these arrangements they were much like a (very wealthy) father and son, Allerton providing for Gregg a measure of financial independence even if he did not often have opportunity to exercise it in particularly meaningful ways, as Allerton continued to pay most of their day-to-day expenses.  Of course in these financial arrangements Allerton would not have resembled the vast majority of American fathers—past or present—who are generally not capable of disposing of their wealth in their lifetimes, but in the provision that Allerton was making for Gregg he recalled most vividly exactly what his own father had done for him (and his sister) many years earlier.

[20] The very language of the letters with Murphy also demonstrates a relationship other than simply lovers or that of parent and child. While the letters were often dry monetary discussions, they also belie an intimacy borne of many years of friendship.  John and Helen usually referred to Robert as "the boss" (John), "our boss," or occasionally "our beloved boss" (Helen).  In September of 1939, for instance, John wrote to Helen: "The cord in the boss's ankle is limbering up in fine shape and he enjoys the massage." And in December of the same year, Helen relayed "it was a great joy to get a few lines from our boss this morning." While neither ever referred to Robert as John's father, only rarely did they call him Robert, Helen leaning more toward "Mr. Allerton." While it is possible to imagine a scenario in which a father might be considered the "boss" of his son, it seems less plausible to posit a man as his lover's boss.  In the end, neither analogy really works: Helen and John both seemed to be acknowledging that the relationship between Robert and John was something either more akin to that between Robert and Helen or altogether unique. While the correspondence can be read both ways – to mean that they were "really" lovers or that they more resembled father and son – what is most clear is the degree to which John and Robert's relationship was one defined by the differences in their ages and their roles. Robert cared for John financially and, especially as Robert aged, John cared for him physically.  In this they are noteworthy not for whether they most resembled a pair of lovers or a father and son but for what they also were: two men divided asymmetrically by wealth and age who structured their relationship around these two fundamental axes.

[21] Perhaps the most interesting piece in the puzzle of the Allertons' lives is the adoption, with which I began this article, and more specifically the reasons for the legal adoption.  As historians of adoption have made clear, informal adoption was remarkably common before and after the advent of legal adoption in the mid nineteenth century, and indeed in its initial incarnation legal adoption was itself a vehicle to insure inheritance.  In both of these ways, the Allertons were not uncommon. That said, those same historians have also made clear that the vast majority of adoptions have concerned minors, and even adult adoption, which became available in selected states in the 1920s and increased by the mid-twentieth century, has generally been employed retroactively to legitimize a relationship that began with actual parenting of a child by an adult, a step-parent, for instance (Grossberg, 268-280; Herman; Pavano, 260). Robert and John Gregg Allerton, while not unique in employing this practice to unite one person who did not actually raise the second, are certainly uncommon.

[22] Their reasons for doing so remain open to debate.  Four seem possible: to reduce inheritance taxes; to safeguard John's inheritance; to make legal what Robert and John already lived in practice; and to declare publicly and symbolically through that law and its attendant publicity the filial feelings they shared.  All may be valid.  While the federal government would claim taxes on the value of the estate, not each individual legacy, at the time Illinois (where the Allertons maintained legal residence and where the will was probated) also had an additional inheritance tax on each bequest to an individual. As a legal son, John would have been taxed at a lower rate and allotted a greater exemption (Stevens, 714-15, 695). It is possible that the Allertons sought adoption to avoid these higher taxes.

[23] By the time the adoption took place in 1960, four years before Robert's death in 1964, Robert had been planning for how to provide for John for twenty years.  His final will, dated April 1964, distributed some 21.5 million dollars to many people and institutions, and while John was certainly named, he was not the chief beneficiary; the Art Institute of Chicago and the Honolulu Academy of the Arts were.  While a legally executed will could have declared John a beneficiary regardless of his relationship to Robert, the adoption would have made the will less contestable and more securely protected John's inheritance: three million dollars in trust and all of Robert's property on the island of Kaua'i.  Legal scholars have seen inheritance as the primary reason that people have sought legal adult-child adoption (Pavano; Fowler; Friedman, 56).  It remains unclear, however, whether anyone would have contested the will in the first place.  Robert's closest biological relative at the time of his death was his nephew, Vanderburgh Johnstone.  Vanderburgh was also named in the will and was already a rich man.  He had also spent a good deal of time with both Robert and John; it thus seems unlikely that the person in the best position to contest the will would have done so.  That said, he had standing as an heir at-law and there was certainly precedent for contesting a will on the grounds of "undue influence," especially in the case of a non-relative inheriting a substantial portion of an estate. That said, we cannot know whether Robert believed Vanderburgh (or another relative) would have contested the will, particularly given the longstanding filial claims of the Allertons.  As legal historian Lawrence Friedman puts it, "Wills that violated social norms were certainly vulnerable; but the word 'vulnerable' is not a synonym for 'doomed'" (Friedman, 99).

[24] All of this is to say that it is quite possible that Robert Allerton adopted John Gregg because he saw it as an opportunity to actualize in the law the status that they had claimed for their then 38 years together.  The Illinois legislature had made adult-child adoption legally possible at the end of 1959 and so they became father and son because that is what they believed themselves already to be; courts and other state statutes since then have also recognized this desire to publicly legitimate a relationship as a basis for adult adoption (Fowler, 686-7).  The First National Bank claimed it was one of Robert's "greatest dreams" and Robert himself, writing to friends, said: "Our lawyer has taken advantage of the new Ill. Adoption law + at last John is my legal son.  I am very happy."  The third and fourth reasons for the adoption converge here: the law made real the status that the Allertons had already claimed for 38 years.  It created a father and a son.  But the law may also have legitimized the way that the Allertons already felt about each other. While we cannot know precisely the reasons for the adoption, the latter two were certainly those emphasized by the Allertons themselves and thus complicate any understanding of the pair as "gay" in a contemporary sense; their legal actualization of the claims to being father and son further demonstrates the queerness, not the homosexuality, of their union.

Situating the Allertons in U.S. Queer History

[25] So how does this relationship fit within the narrative of queer history in the United States?  The function of wealth and social class has always occupied a contested place in that narrative.  The wealthy, particularly in Europe, were at various times shunned or ridiculed for their debauchery, which was often thought to (and sometimes did) include sodomy.  But that very wealth, on both sides of the Atlantic, also seems to have allowed a margin of protection for the pursuit of those very same-sex practices (Faderman 1981; Horowitz; Marcus).  When wealth was coupled with fame or exposure, however, it could also lead to downfall, famously so in the case of Oscar Wilde and others (Souhami; McKenna). Robert Allerton's wealth both provided the means for the relationship with Gregg but also mandated that he have an explanation for it.  The very wealth that might have allowed him to flout society's dictates had also propelled him into its spotlight.  Had he wanted simply to have clandestine sex with other men, he might well have been able, but choosing to share his life with one man was impossible for someone like Allerton to do privately. Indeed in 1906, the Chicago Tribune featured a full-page story on Robert declaring him the "Richest Bachelor in Chicago," a story that presumed he would marry a woman; if he remained a bachelor and at the same time took up with another man, it would need to be explained somehow (18 February 1906).

[26] The time at which they met also made an explanation even more necessary.  As historians have demonstrated, homosexuality as a discrete identity in the United States had become cemented by the early twentieth century, often accompanied by a discourse of pathology (Chauncey 1983; Duggan 1993; Chauncey 1995; Boag).  As a consequence, the tolerance for Boston marriages, for instance, was on the wane, these discourses eroding the ability of women to live in long-term partnerships with each other (Smith-Rosenberg; Faderman 1991). When Boston marriages had been accepted, it was largely through not just the women's respectability, itself a function of their wealth, but precisely because they were women living at a time when many believed that respectable women did not possess sexual desire, and certainly not desire for each other.  Some scholarship on Boston marriages has indicated, of course, that sexual intimacy between some pairs of women was unlikely (Faderman 1981).  But regardless of whether there was actual sex shared by women in Boston marriages, phallocentrism and understandings of women's "passionlessness" had shielded these women from scrutiny (Cott 1978). The same could not be said for Allerton and Gregg.  Not only was homosexuality itself more widely understood and increasingly condemned by the 1920s when the two met, but the fact that they were men further complicated their ability to lead a life together without censure, because men were understood as sexual beings.  At a moment when even female couples were meeting with condemnation, the Allertons would have been doubly suspect.  All of this points to an explanation for why the Allertons framed their relationship as they did, whether or not they were having sex with each other.

[27] Of course they may well have been lovers, but the evidence for that is sketchy at best. Journalist Lucinda Fleeson has made the strongest case for their homosexuality and has had the most access to those who could confirm such a claim. She interviewed many who knew the Allertons in Kaua'i and certainly demonstrates that many perceived them as being gay, but herself offers little definitive proof that they had a sexual relationship with each other: they owned a homoerotic filmstrip and John told one of her interviewees of the Allertons' attendance at an all-male all-nude dinner party while living in Chicago (Fleeson, 189-90, 193).  Fleeson's account also contains a number of factual inaccuracies. Evidence of Robert's sexual interest in men generally is more readily available.  He had had at least two romantic attachments prior to meeting John Gregg: one with a woman, the American painter Ellen Emmet (later Rand); and one with a man, the British composer Roger Quilter.  While it seems clear that the former might have been rather one-sided (on his part), the latter could well have been sexual. His own romantic past is thus more complicated than those who would see him as unequivocally gay (Allerton n.d., 21; Langfield, 34-6; Burgin and Holtz, 43-56). John Gregg's sexual past—if he ever had one—is lost to the historical record.  The extant evidence, then, suggests that the two were men who desired other men.  It leaves open the possibility that the two were lovers, but cannot confirm this.  What it can confirm, however, is that they structured their 42 years together as an exclusive relationship of a non-biological father and son.

[28] Most nineteenth- and twentieth-century American parents raised their children with the hope of sending them off into the world where they would fend for themselves and perhaps find a spouse with whom to share a life.  Instead, in his mid-20s, with what looked like a promising career as an architect ahead of him, John Gregg chose to devote himself to a "father" whom he had only recently met.  And this devotion seems to have meant that neither father nor son ever had romantic relationships with anyone else after their meeting. In a marriage this is both expected and idealized, even if not always realized in practice.  But in the relationship between parent and child it is unusual. Its closest correlate would be the spinster daughter remaining at home to devote herself to the needs of her aging mother or father.  But Gregg and Allerton are clearly different from this model.  First, Gregg was not Allerton's son to begin with, but rather became so after their meeting.  In other words, Gregg chose to structure his life this way, rather than have it become so by default.  Second, the dutiful daughter was herself proof that her mother or father had already been married and produced children: her very existence was a testament to that other parent's prior existence. Third, Gregg was male and so his companionship is different from the subservient femininity expected of the single daughter toward her parent, in large part because she was presumed to have no other options, a career being inappropriate and marriage having eluded her.  She was financially dependent on her parent and her companionship the price exacted for that dependence.  Gregg's dependence was not presumed because he was not Allerton's biological son and because his own training had prepared him for a career of his own.  While both he and Allerton always emphasized the work that Gregg did on their home, it is still clear that his devotion to Allerton came at the expense of a career and of his own independence.

[29] That Allerton and Gregg chose to structure their filial relationship as one of devotion that excluded romantic ties and also as one of dependence—and that they were not biologically father and son to begin with—marks the relationship as queer, regardless of whether there was a sexual component to their lives together.  They fashioned a version of family that made the father-son dyad the primary relationship.  Allerton and Gregg were not an openly gay pair who made strategic and arguably subversive use of adoption as a means to guarantee an inheritance, as others have done. Rather they were two men who claimed at all times – indeed for many years prior to the legal adoption – to be father and son.  In their historical context they demonstrate that a Boston marriage was not an option for men living in the early twentieth-century United States.  And in the structure of their relationship, they indicate that same-sex pairs – sexual or no – have not always organized their relationships in ways similar to contemporary notions of egalitarian gay or lesbian couplehood.

The Allertons' Significance for Queer Kinship

[30] Robert and John Gregg Allerton can do more, however, than educate us about a queer past; they can instruct us on possible queer futures.  At a moment when the struggle over the recognition of same-sex partnerships has become one of the most controversial political issues in the nation, and when the gay mainstream has largely committed to marriage as the solution to gay people's problems with health insurance, inheritance, and visitation rights, Robert and John Gregg Allerton serve as a useful historical counterpoint.  Their relationship is helpful in examining two issues in the current struggle over the recognition of same-sex couples: the mystery and (in)significance of whether or not they were sexual partners; and their use of the law to safeguard their relationship.  The Allertons can help us reevaluate the contemporary moment, in which the gay mainstream has –perhaps only for political reasons, but nevertheless – represented gay people as all being in exclusive, egalitarian, conjugal pairs, as if the state of being homosexual always and necessarily leads to long-term same-sex couplehood.

[31] Contemporary U.S. marriage is based on the premise that the two people entering into it love each other and that one of the means by which they express that love is through sex, though of course that version of marriage is a relatively recent development in our nation's and indeed the world's history (Cott 2000; Coontz). Advocates for gay marriage have generally made the argument that gay people are no different than straight in how they understand and would utilize marriage. Opponents of same-sex marriage who base their objections primarily in religion have claimed that one of marriage's main purposes is procreation, and that same-sex couples are incapable of this.  Not to be defeated so easily, proponents of same-sex marriage respond convincingly that these opponents should then also be opposed to marriage between elderly couples that will not be able to procreate, infertile couples, or those who will remain childless.  They are all missing a larger point: while marriage is always assumed to include sexual intercourse, we actually have no means of knowing whether most couples do or do not have sex with each other, save the children that some produce (and even that is no guarantee that they've had sex with each other). This is also a specious means of determining whether two people are or are not devoted to each other and should or should not be entitled to benefits that might accrue from legal recognition of their relationship.

[32] It is a commonplace in the United States that couples are more enthusiastic about sex in the first bloom of a relationship and that interest in sex, as well as its frequency, declines after some time. In a 2003 cover story called "We're Not in the Mood," Newsweek reported that probably between 15 and 20% of couples have sex no more than ten times a year (psychologists' definition of a sexless marriage) and in June of 2009 the New York Times revealed that 15% of married couples had not had sex in at least six months (Deveny; Parker-Pope). In queer culture the phrase used to describe same-sex female couples experiencing the demise of their ardor is well known: "lesbian bed death" (Stendhal). We also take it largely as a given that those over a certain age, even those who are otherwise very happy with each other, may have ended the sexual component of their relationship by their 60s or 70s. Whether or not this is actually true—an important distinction: we want younger couples to have an active sex life; our unease with older people's sexuality makes us perfectly comfortable accepting their presumed sexlessness—many people assume that it is and do so without thinking that a couple might be any less devoted to one another.

[33] My point here is not just that many couples do not have sex with each other, though this is certainly true, but more importantly, that as a culture we actually seem to be able to acknowledge this.  It is not a secret. The countless books and websites and experts on sexless marriages, which Dr. Phil has called an "epidemic," all attest to this (Dr. Phil; Wiener-Davis; www.fixyoursexlessmarriage.com).  And yet despite this acknowledgment we continue to insist that sex is a crucial component of any voluntary affectionate relationship that is going to receive some sort of legal recognition.  While it is probably true that most couples do have sex with each other at the beginning of their relationships, marital or otherwise, even those who would seek to use sex as a criteria for marriage tend only to regulate for sex at that beginning.  Understood, but generally not said, is that we all assume couples will not have sex with each other forever and yet we continue to regard them as couples in some meaningful sense, just as they continue to regard themselves in this manner. What's more, regardless of what we may think about the status of their sex life and its implications for the validity of their relationship, those couples that are married will remain so unless, and only if, they themselves choose not to be.

[34] Robert and John Allerton remained together for 42 years and we do not know whether or not they had sex with each other. But the question, so far as I am concerned, is what difference would it make if we did?  Certainly we might learn something about both men as individuals.  But such knowledge would not really tell us anything we don't already know–and can't already see in other ways—about the way they acted out their relationship with one another. To echo legal scholar Martha Albertson Fineman in her brilliantly titled The Neutered Mother, the Sexual Family, and Other Twentieth-Century Tragedies, using sex to define what does and does not constitute a family is a grave error. What we know about the Allertons is that they spent few days apart and remained devoted to each other until Robert's death at the age of 91. In other words, the sex is beside the point, just as we know it is, or becomes, for some American couples today.  And if that is the case, offering up some of the benefits currently offered through marriage or marriage-like arrangements to pairs (or triads or quads) of people not linked to each other through the presumption of sexual relations but no less devoted to each other's well-being, might not be so revolutionary after all.  If we already know (but refuse to dwell on the fact) that sex is not always the primary signifier of a relationship's importance to us, then extending rights and benefits to include those who are not sexually partnered would simply be to enhance the great variety of relationships that Americans already find themselves in.

[35] Of course all of this might be a good deal less complicated if one of the prime reasons for declaring oneself partnered, health insurance, were guaranteed through citizenship and not through employment or claimed sexual partnership with an employed and insured person.  That said, other somewhat less complicated rights are guaranteed through marriage and various forms of domestic partnership: inheritance for those who die intestate; hospital visitation and the right to make end-of-life decisions; the right to make decisions about remains.  Through adoption, Robert and John Gregg Allerton used the law and gained all of these rights, and more, at the stroke of a pen.  Whether or not they behaved, in fact, as "father and son" became a moot point as they legally became exactly that in 1960. As much as the most significant aspect of the Allertons' lives should remain the unconventional way that they organized those lives, what trumped that, in an instant in March of 1960, was the law's declaration that what they had claimed for so long was in fact so.  The law's role as an agent of change should not be underestimated.  In that moment it created a father and son, endowed them with rights and responsibilities, and differentiated them from other people.

[36] So too does marriage law in ways that are much more insidious.  Marriage declares some types of relationships more important and more deserving of protection and respect than others (Ettelbrick; Warner; Duggan 2004).  It also bestows upon those within marriages not just rights and responsibilities to each other, but also benefits, like Social Security payments or tax exemptions, both of which are denied to people who are legally single.  The lesson to be learned from the Allertons is not that marriage should expand to include same-sex partners, because that would be to ignore the very different way that the Allertons structured their relationship.  That said, it is clear that legal recognition of voluntary adult relationships is important for the ways that it can assist the people in them. But marriage – with its insistence upon a conjugal couple – is not the only relationship that should be recognized.  The Allertons used the law to queer the practice of commitment, to expand the ways in which people might be dependent upon each other.  Either through genuine desire – they believed themselves to be father and son – or by default – adoption was their only option – they chose to become father and son.  As Nancy Polikoff and others have argued, we might go further and think about a model of kinship that does not demand that we fit ourselves into rigid categories, that does not ask that we make our relationships "like" some others, and that does not even ask us to give a name to our relationships at all.

[37] While many municipalities, states, and countries have implemented varieties of civil unions, domestic partnerships, and PACS, the state of Colorado recently developed a novel way around the notion that these rights and responsibilities need be exclusive or based upon conjugality.  In 2009 the legislature passed a bill that allows any two people to designate each other as a beneficiary of certain rights and responsibilities; these include the right to inheritance, hospital visitation, and various ways of serving as a proxy in the event of disease and death.  The bill was a compensatory measure for gay couples that lost out when Referendum I, which would have guaranteed domestic partnership benefits, failed to pass in a state-wide referendum in 2006.  That said, this formation is more progressive than either domestic partnerships or marriage.  The form for designating a beneficiary offers a list of sixteen rights and responsibilities that Party A and Party B (who need not occupy the same residence) may grant to or withhold from each other.  Parties A and B may pick and choose from all options; they need not make the same choices.  The form does not prohibit a person from designating certain rights and responsibilities to one beneficiary and certain to another.  It is not presumed to be exclusive and it does not specify the nature of the relationship between Parties A and B. While the procedures were designed to aid same-sex couples in their quest to approximate domestic partnership in a state that would not allow for it, and indeed most of the newspaper coverage said this explicitly, theDenver Post, in its editorial supporting the bill, claimed that, "[It] isn't just for gay partners. It could be used by heterosexual couples or even elderly people who share a household for reasons of convenience, cost or companionship" (19 February 2009).  And while the Post does not say so, two friends could fill out the form together even if they did not live together or share expenses or a sexual history.  The bill cannot, of course, grant health insurance to any designated beneficiary—which may explain why it was passed in the first place—but it is a step in the right direction, and one that does not insist on naming the beneficiary's relationship to the designator.  The bill is not limited to romantic or sexual pairs, but it is clearly enormously useful to intimate ones, whatever that term might mean in theory or in practice to the people who mobilize it.

[38] Though the bill was borne of defeat, it actually provides a much more interesting model not just for queer people in Colorado but for all people, a model that does not insist on naming and categorizing relationships, as married people do when they wed or as the Allertons did through their adoption and through their 40 years of public declarations.  It addresses the more tangible aspects of Coloradans' relationships – of all sorts – with each other, leaving aside what should be the less important aspects of how those relationships are perceived and represented in public.  This is no small matter, as it seems clear that much of the fight about gay marriage on both sides is less about the specific rights that marriage guarantees to couples and more so a status movement to have some relationships, and not inconsequentially the sex they apparently imply, recognized as legitimate – or not – in the eyes of others (Gusfield, 20-24). In this fight pro- and anti-gay-marriage forces clearly have much in common.  Until both groups can simply couple up without concurrently demanding that they be celebrated and recognized through marriage, fewer people, with all sorts of varied commitments to others, will be able to have those commitments made meaningful.

[39] The Allertons serve as only one example of a historical variation on the conjugal couple.  They formulated a pairing that defied the norms of their times and indeed of our own.  Whether they had sex should not be our primary concern.  Rather, what we can take from them is a lesson about the variety of ways that human beings may come to share their lives.  While I have no interest in celebrating the Allertons as worthy of emulation – indeed the whole project here is to let people figure out their own relationships – disseminating knowledge about alternative forms of kinship will allow us all to recognize the importance of the relationships we already have that do not fit the conjugal model.

Archival Sources

This essay is based on archival research in the Allerton Family and the Allerton Park Collections at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and in the archives of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, housed in the Juliet Rice Wichman Research Center.  In most cases I have cited materials parenthetically and included them in the list of Works Cited. In the case of correspondence employed in paragraphs 19 and 20, however, it has been impossible to do so.  The materials for those paragraphs come from correspondence folders for the 1930s through the 1950s between Allerton, Gregg, Helen Murphy, and Herbert Gorsuch in Boxes 4 and 5 of the Allerton Family Collection, Record Series 31/13/20.  The will is detailed in a memo from David Bowman to Jerry Soesbe, April 25, 1995 in the Robert Henry Allerton Obits/Will File, Box 5, Allerton Park Collection.   And the postcard from Allerton to his friends about the adoption mentioned in paragraph 24 is found in "Allerton Messages and Letters" in the Robert Henry Allerton Personal/Biographical file, Box 4, Allerton Family Collection.

Acknowledgements

I thank the Faculty Research and Publications Board at the University of Northern Colorado for research funding; Geoffrey Bateman, Aaron Haberman, Colin Johnson, Erin Jordan, Ann Kibbey, Ann Little, Jen Manion, Chris Talbot, and two anonymous readers for Genders for their comments; and most importantly, Lisa Renee Kemplin for her help in Illinois.

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