American History Bowery Boys Bookshelf

‘An Open Secret’: A gay life in Jazz Age Chicago

Robert Allerton lived without a care thanks to his family’s Gilded Age fortune, built from the stockyards of Chicago’s meat processing district. As a young man, Allerton used his inherited wealth to maintain the family estate near Monticello, Illinois, cultivating a garden escape where he could be left to his own devices.

And then, in 1922, he met a handsome college student named John Gregg. They were separated in age by 26 years. They fell in love.

The Family Story of Robert and John Gregg Allerton
Nicholas L. Syrett
University of Chicago Press

In An Open Secret, author Nicholas Syrett takes the reader into a maze of social norms redefined by the comforts of wealth and a collection of personal mysteries as well-kept as a display case of ancient art.

Robert Allerton is not an obscure figure. A building at the Art Institute of Chicago (one of America’s greatest art museums) is named for Allerton, one of Chicago’s great art collectors. And his estate on the island of Kaua’i is today a part of Hawaii’s National Tropical Botanical Garden.

But the parameters of Allerton’s personal life might be considered obscured today — concealed by the polite vestiges of post-Gilded Age social decorum, cushioned by the privilege of his vast wealth.

Or should I say — their vast wealth. Robert and John Gregg traveled the world together, living as a same-sex couple at a time when such romantic pairings were never seen or accepted.

They managed this unconventional life thanks to an intricate pantomime fueled by Allerton’s financial advantages and the vast age difference between the two men.

“By 1931,” writes Syrett, “the [Chicago] Tribune reported on the two traveling together, but the language of their relationship had become solidified as father and son, despite the fact that it was not legally so.”

They encouraged such language and eventually took it on themselves as a means to negotiate social spheres that would have otherwise shunned them.

“Calling John Gregg his son was a way of not talking about his actual role in Allerton’s life; even if Gregg’s relationship with Allerton was an open secret, calling him son allowed friends and acquaintances to avoid the awkwardness of having to discuss who he really was with Allerton.”

Robert and John Gregg Allerton in Hawaii, University of Illinois Archives

In 1960, near the end of elder man’s life, the pair made their charade official. John Gregg officially became John Gregg Allerton, the adopted son of Robert Allerton.

An Open Secret, with its daunting task of uncovering the secret world of two men who never left each other’s side (thus leaving no personal correspondence), succeeds as an x-ray into the procedures of living a closeted wealthy life, where clues of personal connections are scattered among the hydrangeas and exotic ornaments.

If the author’s name Nicholas Syrett sounds familiar to you, that’s because the author has been on our show! You can find him in our episode on Madame Restell, the ‘notorious’ abortionist of Fifth Avenue. Look for Syrett’s book on the life of Restell coming soon.

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