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Robert Allerton: Living well is the best revenge
by Lucinda Fleeson
2009-10-07

This article shared 24055 times since Wed Oct 7, 2009
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A new book about a Hawaiian garden chronicles the little-known story of the Allertons of Chicago and the first "civil union" of two men in Illinois.

The Sunday Chicago Tribune crowned him "The Richest Bachelor in Chicago," in 1906. Tribune society pages breathlessly chronicled the lavish life of Robert Allerton, from his opera attendances to his weekend parties at The Farms, his baronial estate in central Illinois' Piatt County. "There are no more cherished weekend invitations in these parts than those issued by Robert Allerton," gushed the Trib's society columnist.

The Marshall Fields, artist Fredric Bartlett, Colonel and Mrs. McCormick, all eagerly arrived. One young woman visited so often that she and Robert became engaged to be married—an arrangement soon broken off. Gentlemen suitors also came calling, attracted to the young millionaire with movie-star looks and Saville Row suits. British artist Glyn W. Philpot, infatuated, wangled an invitation to spend the summer of 1913 at The Farms. There he painted one of the few portraits of Robert, now hanging in the Tate Gallery in London. Entitled The Man in Black, it shows Robert in artist's black cape and turban, looking sideways, flirtatiously.

Robert Allerton officially remained in the closet. But protected by great wealth, style and social standing, he lived as openly as social convention allowed. His father, Samuel W. Allerton, was the force behind the founding of the Union Stockyards and the First National Bank of Chicago. A former cattle driver and livestock speculator, Sam built a vast network of farms connected by rail lines that stretched from Wyoming to New York. Ruthless and crude, he never lost the pirate's gleam in his eye.

His son, Robert, was different. People said the father excelled at making money; the son at spending it. Artistic, Robert spent five years in Europe studying painting before declaring he lacked talent, and returned to create his Piatt County estate, now called Allerton Park and operated as a conference center by nearby University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. To research Georgian halls, Robert spent a year traveling in England with a young male architect; to fill up his new estate, he took another young artist for a grand European shopping spree. And when he met John Gregg, the man who would become his life partner, they lived as father and "foster son." Years later, Robert and John Allerton became the first adults in Illinois to have their union legally sanctioned as father and adopted son, utilizing a quirky change in adoption law—a loophole that was later repealed to prevent more such civil unions.

Allerton and Gregg liked to tell the story of how Allerton had been invited to attend a "Dad's Day" football game and dinner held in the Zeta Psi fraternity house at the University of Illinois, in the fall of 1922. It seemed entirely natural to pair Allerton—the childless 49-year-old—with an orphaned student, handsome Gregg, then 22. Years later, Gregg recalled how a friend, "realized how lonesome Robert was. So he threw us together as much as he could so that Robert would have companionship ... He needed me and I needed him."

Allerton introduced his young protégé as his foster son at parties and operas, and on their travels around the globe. Something reminded them of a favorite restaurant in Paris? They flew over for a meal. They wanted inspiration for building a new garden? They wandered the gardens of Italy.

Allerton bought hundreds of gifts for the Art Institute of Chicago, bestowing on the museum its first Rodin sculptures ( six ) and its first Picasso ( a drawing ) , and paid for a new wing, becoming the facility's largest donor. Today those extraordinary gifts are only minimally remembered. A plaque hangs on the sidewall near the main entrance, unnoticed by museumgoers streaming past it.

While researching a new book about the Allerton's final garden masterpiece, built on the remote Hawaiian Island of Kauai, I tried to understand why the refined and elegant Allertons would leave Chicago in 1938 to move to a rural sugar plantation isle. I had a hunch that something must have been going on in Chicago that would precipitate such a break. People seldom travel to such extremes, unless they are escaping something.

University of Illinois at Chicago Professor John D'Emilio, one of the foremost historians of gay history, pointed me to the archives of University of Chicago sociologist Ernest W. Burgess, who predated Albert Kinsey's work at Indiana University by a decade, leading the earliest extensive studies of American homosexual life. Burgess and his students recorded a growing gay underworld culture, which peaked in the late 1920s and early 1930s in what came to be known as Chicago's Pansy Craze. By 1930, Variety reported that there were 35 "Pansy Parlors" in the Bohemian district now known as Near North.

The nighttime entertainments enjoyed a cache among high society and the middle class who visited gay nightclubs, drag shows and lesbian cafes.

The Pansy Craze and the accompanying tolerance by the straight world didn't last long. As the crush of the Depression descended, reformers demanded that Mayor Edward J. Kelly clean up nightlife, and campaigned against strippers and female impersonators. In early 1935, police padlocked gay night spots. In October 1935, police raided two State Street drag shows, ordering drag queens to "Put on pants or go to jail."

Beginning in 1936, Chicago and the rest of the nation hurtled into a full-scale sex panic, over what was named "the Moron Menace." A series of crimes, petty and heinous, by peeping toms, rapists, child molesters and murderers surged onto tabloid front pages. Homosexuality was viewed as a mental aberration and its practitioners equated with psychopaths and child molesters, all grouped together as "sex morons" and "sex fiends." Police stepped up surveillance of theaters and cruising spots, and routinely arrested men seeking consensual same-sex sex.

A bill to castrate sex criminals gained momentum in the legislature; others called for at least prolonged incarceration. In early 1937, Michigan passed the nation's first Sexual Psychopath Law, allowing anyone even suspected of deviance to be sent for an indeterminate length of time to a psychiatric hospital or penitentiary. A year later, just as the Illinois Legislature prepared to enact a bill to lock up homosexuals, Robert Allerton and John Gregg sailed for a long trip to Australia.

On a stopover in Honolulu, they flew a small plane to Kauai to look at a vacant beachfront estate. Driving through sugar cane fields, they gasped as they approached a pristine crescent beach of white sand, enclosed by high cliffs. The bay was startling sapphire blue, turquoise and celadon, silvered by the sun.

Appraising the sun-struck bay, and the pools of leafy shade under the palms, Allerton said to Gregg, You could build us a house. Whatever you want. And a garden. We can fill the valley.

"This is going to be my paradise," Robert Allerton said. He wrote a check for $50,000, and bought 86 acres and one of the most private coves in all Hawaii.

Was the alarming intolerance of gays in Chicago their primary motivation? We'll never know for certain, but Hawaii, with its relaxed sexual attitudes toward straights and gays alike, presented an attractive contrast to the straight-laced Midwest.

The Allertons originally envisioned Kauai as a winter retreat, but moved to Hawaii year around after World War II. And when their Chicago attorney spotted that a new adoption law had been passed in the Illinois legislature to allow adoption by adults, he drew it to Robert's attention.

On March 4, 1960, The First National Bank of Chicago issued a press release:

"Robert Allerton, a distinguished Illinois citizen who was born in Chicago in 1873 and who has been a long time resident of Monticello, has at last realized one of his greatest dreams. Under a recent change in the Illinois law, effective the first of the year, he has finally been able to legally adopt John Wyatt Gregg who has stood in the relationship of a son for thirty years."

Lucinda Fleeson's book, Waking Up In Eden: In Pursuit Of An Impassioned Life On An Imperiled Island, was published this year by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. She directs a program for international journalists at the Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, and lives in Washington, D.C.


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