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Robert Allerton: The Private Man, The Public Gifts
BOOK REVIEW
by Marie J. Kuda
2009-12-30

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Last summer's exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, "Beyond the Golden Clouds," featured a pair of 17th-century Japanese screens depicting scenes from Lady Murasaki's 11th-century classic "Tale of the Genji."

The screens were but one of dozens of gifts from Robert Allerton ( 1873-1964 ) to the AIC. Allerton, scion of the stockyards and banking empire of Chicago tycoon Samuel Waters Allerton, had his generosity acknowledged when the AIC renamed the original Michigan Avenue building in honor of "his long service as a trustee, officer, and benefactor of the museum."

"Robert Allerton: The Private Man and the Public Gifts" ( News-Gazette, Inc. 2009 ) by Martha Burgin and Maureen Holtz, opens with a 1906 Chicago Tribune society feature calling the then 33-year-old Allerton "The Richest Bachelor in Chicago," racking up all the characteristics that would make him a flawless husband. But in 1960, the 86-year-old bachelor philanthropist, adopted John Wyatt Gregg his 61-year-old companion of almost 40 years.

The men had met at a University of Illinois function in the 1920s when Robert was in his late 40s and John an undergrad of 22. Theirs was the first adult adoption permitted in Illinois under new laws passed by the state legislature in 1959. This was not the first time that gays had used adoption as a means to legalize a relationship. States in America that were settled under French rule, like Louisiana, preserved adult adoption laws that were used primarily to protect property rights. Robert and John had earlier considered moving to St. Louis to take advantage of such laws, not then on the books in Illinois.

 

Gay gardens

  I began hearing of Robert Allerton in May, 1972 when a bus load of Chicagoans joined the members of the nascent University of Illinois Gay Liberation group for a bit of a frolic on the grounds of the Allerton Gardens at Monticello, some forty miles outside of Champaign-Urbana. Mattachine Midwest News editor David Stienecker and I had gone down by car. We parked adjacent a formal garden, hiked through a long woodland trail with arching trees shading the path; around a bend we entered a blinding sun-lit circle at the center of which a 15-foot statue of a gilded classic male nude with outstretched arms stood on a huge pedestal—a dozen or so gay couples lolled basking around its base—one of those images that etch themselves in memory. I would later learn that this statue of Apollo was "The Sun Singer" by Swedish artist Carl Milles commissioned by Robert on his 1929 trip to Europe with John.

[ In 1978 "Summer Magic" the annual "Pride" dance was held in the "Clouds Room" formerly "The Tip-Top-Tap" of the Venetian- Renaissance-style Allerton Hotel on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. The Tap with its sweeping views of the city had long been rumored to be a gay rendezvous until well into the 1960s. ( See sidebar. ) ]

In the 1980s, my gay political guru, John Chester, whose avocation is the study of the "connected" families of the Gilded Age had managed a tour of the manor house at "The Farms" ( as Allerton's downstate holdings were once called ) , and returned replete with stories about the adoption, a butler who had posed naked for a pair of the garden statues, and other "friends of Dorothy" who had been guests in the old days. It was Chester who relayed the suggestion that Allerton money and influence might have been behind the change in Illinois adoption laws.

I didn't start writing about Allerton until the 1990s after my former landlord Jim Edminster ( inveterate gardener and dancer who won a gold medal in Chicago's 2006 Gay Games ) told me that a tour guide at the former Allerton Gardens on Kauai, Hawaii alluded to the true nature of the relationship of Robert and John, and of other "gay games" at Lawai-Kai their Hawaii estate.

  The land and gardens of both estates, Monticello and Lawai-Kai, were donated and preserved as the Allerton Park and Retreat Center in Illinois, and as part of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens in Hawaii.

 

Thin paper trail

Burgin & Holtz have produced a remarkable book given the thin paper trail Allerton left behind. Only a handful of articles, based on sketchy research, preceded their book. Profusely illustrated, the book tells the bare bones story of his life, but is more expansive on his philanthropy, and the houses and gardens—their maintenance and renovations. They have done extensive research and provide us with copious notes, and a biographical dictionary of Robert's antecedents, family and friends. But, unfortunately Allerton was a very private person in many ways and we are left with a sketchy picture of the man, but a more expansive one of his public persona.

This is not to say that tantalizing facts and anecdotes are not to be found among its pages. For the first time in print, two of Allerton's earlier lovers are identified: English artist Glyn Warren Philpot and composer Roger Quilter. In addition, the text is laced through with names of late-19th and early 20th-century acquaintances in the exclusive clubs and corridors of arts and finance whom we now know were gay. Other tidbits include the fact that somewhere on the Monticello grounds, waiting to be found, is a diamond brooch lost by a houseguest while walking the gardens 70 years ago. And the tale, more apropos of today's disease alerts, of the workers who unpacked and installed the statue of the Sun Singer mischievously adding a giant condom—the authors report Robert was not amused. The Lawai-Kai property once belonged to two other queens—Queen Emma Kalanikaumakaamano ( widow of King Kamehameha IV ) and the immediate previous owner, Alexander McBryde ( an openly gay man ) .

The Hawaii years are limited to one brief chapter; but, fortunately Lucinda Fleeson's book "Waking Up in Eden" ( Algonquin Books, 2009 ) includes a wealth of material on the gardens and Robert and John's lives there. The only failings of the current book are due to the paucity of source material available to Burgin and Holtz. The life of this handsome, rich, generous, gay Chicago son stands in stark contrast to other records of the era ( like the 1910 Vice Commission Report ) picturing gay hobos in Grant Park, and dandies wearing signature red ties or boutonnieres parading up State Street looking for tricks among the department store counter jumpers or YMCA regulars. A must for Chicago history buffs.

Copyright 2009 by Marie J. Kuda

Writing Wrongs

The shortcomings of writing for the Internet and/or gay newspapers and non-academic periodicals that don't allow space for full citations are illustrated by a handful of articles that superseded the publication of Burgin and Holtz' biography of Robert Allerton.

So-called "facts" occasionally get recounted from one gay source to another without checking their legitimacy. The late gay historian Jim Kepner, wrote about this concerning an Abraham Lincoln piece 30 years ago—technology had only exacerbated the problem.

The Allerton Hotel

Under the pressure of deadlines an article I wrote to run concurrently in "Out & Proud in Chicago" ( Surrey, 2008 ) and Windy City Times led me to repeat an error, which on its face appeared a "no brainer." It seemed safe to assume that Robert Allerton, who dealt with most of the major Chicago architects and had the original edifice of the Art Institute just down the street on Michigan Avenue named after him, had lent his name ( if not his money ) to the Allerton Hotel—especially since its Tip-Top-Tap was long known as a gay cruising spot.

Maureen Holtz, co-author of the new Allerton biography wrote to me in response to a query: "So many people are convinced that Robert had something to do with the Allerton Hotel. However, it's untrue. He merely agreed to let the owner name it "Allerton" because Mr. Cushman liked the sound of it better than his own name."

This set off an exchange of research with Holtz and William B. Kelley that yielded an even more interesting ( as yet unpublished ) story. Mary Allerton, descendant of a parallel linage from Robert's Mayflower ancestor Isaac Allerton ( 1585-1659 ) , lent her name to the first of a proposed chain of upscale hotels for single business and professional women to be constructed in several cities by her relative James S. Cushman. Several early-1920s newspaper articles in New York and Chicago tell the story.

The 600-room Allerton in New York City opened a few years before construction was done on the Chicago "skyscraper" of 26 floors with a bachelor residence of 1,000 rooms—14 floors for men, six for women. Apparently there weren't enough women of the desired caliber ( "lawyers, physicians, politicians, women lecturers, writers and interior decorators, not to mention buyers and department heads in the big stores and actual proprietors and managers of small ones" ) to support the hotel, so it was opened to single men as well. The hotel had all the amenities—library, ballroom and even its own news magazine. In the 1940s the Tip-Top-Tap, a "swanky lounge," was added to the top story. The Tap closed in 1961 and reopened as the Cloud Room. Designated a Chicago landmark in 1998, the hotel has gone through owners and names—it is currently the Allerton Hotel again "independently owned underneath the Oxford umbrella of hotels."

Dates and places

Nancy Polikoff, Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law and author of "Beyond ( Straight and Gay ) Marriage: Valuing Families under the Law" posted a bit about the Allertons adoption in her blog: "Ever thought of adopting your partner?" August 2. 2009. Polikoff said that theirs was the gay partner adoption she thought of most often, recounting her first acquaintance with their story while touring Kauai in the early 1990s. She was so impressed that she thought of writing an article on them; in her re-telling, she states: "Robert, an heir to one of Chicago's great fortunes, adopted John in Illinois in 1951." She notes that she didn't write the article because of Bruce Shenitz' piece on the Allertons, "The Garden of Eden, Minus Eve," in the September 2007 issue of "Out" magazine.

Shenitz too erroneously cited 1951 as the adoption date; perhaps where Polikoff picked it up. He noted: "From the start they described themselves as having a 'father-son relationship,' a suitably demure description of their setup, and one that was formalized in 1951 when Illinois passed a law allowing one adult to adopt another." Further in his piece Shenitz quotes from a John Allerton oral history—a transcript of one a few oral histories by John available online from University of Illinois. The 84-year-old John responded to a question about his adoption suggesting the date was 1951. Other UI transcripts note 1959 as the date.

William B. Kelley had done a quick bit of research for my "Out and Proud in Chicago" Allerton piece, finding that the change in Illinois law was generated by Senate Bill 737 approved July 17, 1959 and adopted as effective Jan. 1, 1960 ( since reworked—now known as 750 ILCS 50/0.01-50/24 ) . Kelley noted that further research would have to be done to see whether or not, as frequently suggested in print, Allerton influenced the original process.

Pansies in Hawaii

Lucinda Fleeson, ( in her November 2005 "Chicago" magazine article "The Gay 1930s" reprinted in "Out & Proud in Chicago" suggests that one of the main reasons Robert Allerton left Illinois for Hawaii was the clamp down on the freedom that had been afforded homosexuals in Chicago during "Pansy Craze" of the 1920s and 30s. Holtz and Burgin clearly illustrate that both men were smitten by Hawaii; the challenge of creating Kawai-Lai, replete with new buildings and gardens, drew them back twice even in the midst of World War II. They would have been least likely to be affected by the pendulum swing of Chicago's pansy intolerance. Robert would have been insulated by his immense wealth and his rare residence in the city—they traveled extensively, from November to April each year, returning to "The Farms" downstate, where their entertaining, including their much touted costume balls were held.

Copyright 2009 by Marie J. Kuda


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