Best of 2021: Looking for Uncle Allan: A queer odyssey

Like many LGBTQ folks, I’d always assumed I was all alone in my family. Learning I had a gay forebear hit me hard

Published December 28, 2021 4:00PM (EST)

Great-Uncle Allan (Photo illustration by Salon/Michael H. Hodges/Getty Images)
Great-Uncle Allan (Photo illustration by Salon/Michael H. Hodges/Getty Images)

This essay was originally published in Salon on June 12, 2021. We're revisiting Salon's Best Life Stories of 2021 now through the end of the year. Read more Best of 2021 here.

At 9 p.m. on a warm October night, the air in the darkened city below was muggy and stale. But on the George Washington Bridge, a gale was roaring straight up the Hudson River. It wasn't much of an issue for the bikers and joggers shuttling between New York and New Jersey under a pumpkin moon, much less for the 12 lanes of angry stop-and-go traffic. But it was for anyone hoping to scatter mortal remains into the river. I had my great-uncle Allan in two plastic Red Apple Grocery bags and was a little unsure how to pitch his ashes overboard one moment without inhaling him the next.

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I'd had two other encounters with lives reduced to what would fit in an urn — my father and grandmother, both drizzled on our rose bushes at a family cottage in northern Michigan. Like all "cremains," a term the funeral industry just won't let go of, Uncle Allan's had more the consistency of smashed seashells than the literal ash most people expect. Still, his cremains were, in their way, different from the others. Not to reinforce invidious stereotypes, but they were, well, more colorful than any I'd seen before, an earth-toned rainbow ranging from ivory to umber, dappled here and there with astonishing flecks of creme de menthe.

* * *

I was probably 10 when I found the letter. On a rainy, boring Saturday, circa 1965, I'd settled on rooting through my father's dresser drawers as the morning's entertainment. I kept a sensible ear cocked for my mother's approach. Some drawers take time to rearrange and put back. But I was well-schooled in the sneaky arts, and knew I was safe for the moment. Downstairs, I could hear Mother, for whom cleanliness beat godliness every time, vacuuming the living room.

I'd just pulled open one of the top drawers, an immensely satisfying little slot a bit bigger than a cigar box. It slid open as if greased. Inside was a hardball signed by Detroit Tigers legend Ty Cobb, which as a youngster my father had unaccountably played with till the signature all but wore off; several white hankies, no monogram; two ancient-history silver dollars; and Uncle Allan's suicide note. 

Addressed to my parents and dated 1946, it read, "Dear Phoebe & Wally: By the time you receive the enclosed, I will have stepped out into the great unknown. I wish it might have been more, but such as it is, I hope it comes in handy. My love to you all. Uncle Allan."

Suddenly the room was echoing like a reverb chamber. I knew without question the letter touched on something vast, even monstrous, but what it was exactly remained dim and confused. I also knew it was a discovery that would be bad, very bad, to be caught with. I was working this through when things suddenly went quiet. The vacuum had stopped, replaced with Mother's staccato steps clicking up the stairs.

Lung-collapsing panic. Adrenalin shrieking in my ears. I spent several clammy seconds refolding the letter and reassembling the remaining contents exactly as they had been — death note at the bottom, hankies, silver dollars and baseball on top. Then I thundered down the stairs, sideswiping my astonished Mom, and out the back door to the enveloping safety of our hay barns.

And with that forgetful magic kids sometimes work on disturbing information, I scarcely thought of that letter until Christmas vacation my sophomore year in college.

Much had transpired since that rainy Saturday. I'd moved to Boston, my mother had died, and my dad had remarried a lovely woman named Trace. The three of us were at the kitchen table, part-way through one of her great pot roasts, when Uncle Allan flickered up in the conversation. Dad remarked in an offhanded way, his voice going a little basso-profundo as it usually did on entering sensitive territory, "Of course, Uncle Allan was the black sheep of the family."

"Why?" I wanted to know, and Dad looked at me astonished, mystified how I could've missed the punchline after all these years. "Why," he said, "he was a homo!"

And that is how I discovered my gay roots.

I know Uncle Allan ditched Detroit for Manhattan lights as soon as he was able, sometime around 1912, but other than that, for all intents and purposes, I know almost nothing about him. When you're the notorious family homosexual, poor at the end to boot, nobody collects and preserves your papers and treasures. They're scattered, auctioned off, left in boxes on the porch for the Goodwill. Unknowing fingers pop photos out of frames for resale, smudging black and white portraits on their way to the trash. My parents, as it happened, played a small but significant role in this obliteration.

Mostly what I do know are stories from the war years — we're talking World War II here — when a then-elderly Uncle Allan would blow into our little dairy farm north of Detroit a couple times a year to drink up all my parents' liquor rations. Most of the family wouldn't receive him. But Mom and Dad — young and, I suppose, a little daring — did, and he'd settle in for a week at a time. He was tall and garrulous, with a full head of bright white hair and a theatrical voice and manner my grandfather always called "fruity," but which the women adored. At the slightest prompting, Uncle Allan would act out little bits, "mere snippets," he called them, from the classics on Broadway, shows that had debuted some 30 years before.

The biggest mistake he ever made, he said, watery blue eyes amused, was turning down director Mack Sennett when he begged Uncle Allan to come out to that little California backwater they were setting up. "What do they call it?" he'd ask to rising laughter from his audience.  "Hollywood?" Uncle Allan smiled. "But no. It wasn't Art, you see."

One August afternoon, my mother, ever the striving farmwife, had the wives of the local gentry, married to doctors, lawyers and auto execs, over for a luncheon. The white linen tablecloth was on the big picnic table beneath the pear trees, crowned with dainty refreshments and a homemade fruit punch.

Into which, on the sly, Uncle Allan stirred the better part of a fifth of vodka.

Exactly what followed has never been properly archived. But family legend has it that in the throes of a festive moment, Gertrude Zacharias, declaring herself "hot," crossed the driveway to the edge of the corn field and plunged head and shoulders into the horses' water tank. Late that evening, Uncle Allan was sleeping it off, but Mother was still grieving the unfortunate turn of events. "I don't know, Phoebe," Dad said. "Never did see those ladies have a better time."

My father always maintained Uncle Allan died a couple hours before a routine gall-bladder operation, that he never even made it to the table. The nurse checked at one and he was fine. By three he was cooling. At 64, the would-be Broadway star was working nights at the Whiting Hotel in Traverse City, Michigan. His health was failing. He'd run through the last of his inheritance from his mother. He wrote the note to my parents, licked the three-cent stamp and dropped it through the slot. The letter arrived first, the hospital's wire second.

The hospital ruled the cause of death coronary thrombosis — a blood clot in a heart vessel. How did that square with Uncle Allan's letter? The family speculated that the gaudy rings he wore, a couple sporting enormous gemstones, may have concealed poison beneath.

Mother handed the hospital telegram to Dad that night at 10, the first time he'd been off the tractor since morning. Dad smacked his head and groaned. In those days, Traverse City was a 10-hour drive from our farm. "The corn, the corn," he said. "When the hell am I going to get in the corn?"

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"Listen to me," Mother said, twisting her ring. "We've got to go. There's no one else. He's your uncle, for Chrissake. He left us some money." She was standing in bra and panties, bed already turned down, watching lightning from a spring storm recede in the east. "Poor old fool," she said, and closed the window.

* * *

Like a lot of homosexuals, I imagine, I'd always assumed I was all alone in my family. The fact that I had a gay forebear hit with stupefying force. And while at the time I corrected my father (whom I wouldn't come out to for another 15 years) — "Jeez, Dad, they're called 'gay' now, not 'homos'" — inside, I was reeling. I wasn't the only one. There was maybe a line of us extending who knows how far back onto the Scottish moors. In the distance, I heard bagpipes skirling.

Knowing about Uncle Allan before me has been a great comfort, balming some of the isolation that goes with being gay even in loving families. But he haunts me as well. I know that some well-intentioned sorts might suggest that identifying with a relative whose life ended badly isn't the healthiest use of one's free time. But I'm mesmerized by our similarities. Like myself, as soon as he could, Uncle Allan high-tailed it out of Michigan for the East Coast, and by 1925 appears in the Manhattan phone directory living, intriguingly, at the Harlem end of Riverside Drive. Like myself, he returned years later, wings clipped, to Michigan. Each of us suffered from addictive tendencies — his crippling (booze), mine not so much (marijuana). And like myself, Uncle Allan was defiantly "out" — just how early is unclear, but certainly by the 1920s, at which point most of the family reclassified him as untouchable.

I have just one picture of Uncle Allan, a sepia-toned headshot taken, I'm guessing, in his 50s at some photo studio on Tremont Street in Boston. For years I'd stashed it in an envelope in my desk, but finally bought a frame and hung him in my bedroom. He's on the wall just beyond the foot of my four-poster bed. And that's the problem. No matter what I do, he's always peering out at me with those deer-in-the-headlights eyes. They beseech, but I'll be damned if I know what they're asking for. I realize that for months now, without thinking, I've been angling myself so that one of the bed's posters blocks his gaze.

Years ago, I spent several days in Manhattan trying to nail down evidence of Uncle Allan's alleged Broadway career. It was, in a way, I suppose, an attempt to redeem him against the family's tut-tutting summary of his life: "Homosexual. Alcoholic. And a suicide." Here the head invariably shook. "Such a waste."

Looking back, I'm struck by how desperate I was to find proof that he'd actually accomplished something, to confirm that he was more than just a sad failure. It doesn't take a therapist to point out that this had little to do with my uncle, and everything to do with me and my panicked insecurities. When I was young and still working up the courage to come out, Uncle Allan's example was deeply distressing. In my youthful ignorance, I was terrified he represented the "typical" homosexual — a lonely alcoholic who dies by his own hand — and that prospect scared the bejesus out of me.

If Uncle Allan did have a stage career, however, it must have been under a different name, inasmuch as research in the Actors Equity archives, the Library of the Performing Arts, and the library of the celebrated Players Club in Gramercy Park turned up nothing. I still have more digging to do. It's always possible he was mostly an extra, had a stage name I don't know, or even, I suppose, that he performed in drag. (Now that would be great.)

Happily, my take on Uncle Allan softened with age as I got more and more comfortable with being what newspapers used to term an "avowed homosexual." Far from being all that I dread, I now refer to him, affectionately as "my brave fool." He seems to have been one of those hapless innocents incapable of faking it, of being anything other than what he was, even if coming out in the 1920s meant social ruin and family exile. I do not know where he found the courage; I'm quite sure I couldn't have.

As for his Broadway myth, as I've gotten older I've come to assume he made most of it up in stories for the family, and in particular his gullible nephew, my father. One Thanksgiving in the 1930s, when Dad was in college back East, he visited Uncle Allan in Concord, Massachusetts, where he worked at a bed and breakfast. I asked if Uncle Allan owned the place. Dad wasn't sure, but didn't think so, adding, "He ran it with two maiden ladies."


We were talking in the kitchen, and at that revelation, everything suddenly went cloudy.  My lifelong desire for a larger gay family shifted into overdrive. They were friends from New York, I figured, who'd reached out to help one another during the great economic catastrophe. My picture of Uncle Allan had always been so solitary, so utterly alone, that I felt a great rush of gratitude that somebody might actually have looked out for him. This, of course, was all just speculation. Nonetheless, I had a dream once where I was doing the detective thing on Uncle Allan's life and stumbled upon one of those "maiden ladies."  She was over 100, in a Boston nursing home, and batty as an attic. But at one point she snapped into clarity: "Your uncle," she said sternly, "was a brave man. Don't you forget." And with that out of the way, she sucked lips and cheeks against toothless gums and made a loud popping sound. It's a dream I've never forgotten.

So at the end of the day, what if Uncle Allan made his whole show business life up? Nobody ever said public relations was a crime. At the ripe old age of 66, I'm too cozy with the terror of shrinking horizons to hold it against him. If he concocted a life to wow the folks back home, well, I find that deeply affecting.

And I remind myself that the complete man is vastly bigger than just what he did to put food on the table. Among other things, there's the question of raw courage, where Uncle Allan  thoroughly outclasses me. I came out in the relatively tolerant 1970s. My uncle, by contrast, high-stepped out of his closet in a perilously hostile era. Living openly as a homosexual around World War I, even in New York, had to have involved a leap almost as daunting as that taken by Columbus. That my great uncle — the family sissy till I bounced along — should have had the grit and foolish heart for that sort of fight overwhelms me, and fills me with a fierce, protective pride.        

Recently, my friend Tim Retzloff, an academic who singlehandedly mapped out a great deal of Michigan's gay history, included Uncle Allan in an oral history he was putting together. He got inspired to do a little digging, and found Uncle Allan's death certificate, which I'd never seen. As expected, the cause of death was listed as "coronary thrombosis." But under "Other Contributory Causes of Importance," the document read, "Compression fracture of spine," dated three weeks before his death at Munson Hospital.

"By the time you get this, I will have stepped out into the great unknown."

Uncle Allan didn't pop poison. He jumped and, tragically, didn't even succeed at that. Still, I was confused — where did my father get the story about a benign little hospital suicide? Dad was one of the original boy scouts, and not prone to making things up or lying. Could this be an exception? Or, over the years had he conflated whatever the hospital told my mother, listed on the certificate as "Informant," with an earlier surgery Uncle Allan actually had? Was my father running away from an ugly truth, or just unawares? I'm voting the latter.

* * *

Once I'd moved back to Detroit, I tried in earnest to find where Uncle Allan was buried. My father had always said he was in one of the cemeteries lining Detroit's Woodward Avenue – there are three or four in a row – and I spent one afternoon when I should have been doing work for my employer, The Detroit News, stopping at each. I'd had a writing project about Uncle Allan in mind for – oh – a couple decades or so, and figured if I could just sit in front of his tombstone, it might help me get off the dime.

I struck paydirt at Green Lawn Cemetery, where the pleasant older woman with fading red hair found his record card. "Your uncle wasn't buried," she said, reading glasses propped at the end of her nose. "He was cremated. And," she added, turning the card over and frowning, "his cremains were never picked up." Where in the world are they? "Well," she said, "in storage in our mausoleum." I asked who was supposed to pick them up. She peered down her nose again. "A Walter Hodges."

No, that would be Wallace Hodges – my Dad. Apparently, my parents cashed the check he sent, but didn't bother picking Uncle Allan up. So here I was half a century later, looking to make things right by a great uncle I never knew. But things weren't that simple. They needed a notarized letter from my mother authorizing me to reclaim him. I didn't bother to explain that my mother was long dead, and that the letter would have to come from my stepmother. "Alright," I said. "Anything else?" Yes. There's a storage fee. "How much?" Sixty dollars – which didn't seem out of line for 53 years' accommodation.

By the time I got the notarized letter back to the cemetery, six months had passed. Now there was a new obstacle. "Oh," said a different woman, this one more no-nonsense, more proprietary about the cremains, "we also need a copy of your father's death certificate. With," she added, chilly eyes drilling into mine, "the raised seal."

More months passed before I finally hauled myself out to the county seat, paid my ten bucks, and got the paperwork. A year or more after my initial inquiry, I was back at Green Lawn with the certificate and my 60 pieces of silver. As I walked into the office, the faded redhead looked up and smiled. I presented all my evidence, which got the once-over by a series of cemetery functionaries. Finally, I won the go-ahead. I could have him. "But there's a storage fee," the redhead said. "Yes, I know," I said. "Sixty dollars."

"Oh," she said, pursing her lips, "in January it went up. Now" – she consulted a printed handout – "it's $360." She smiled apologetically. My molars clenched but I wrote the damn check. Standing at the ready was a funny-looking, muscular maintenance guy with the sleeves of his white t-shirt rolled up, 1950s-style. His most notable feature was a black horse's head tattooed on his bicep, its long, voluptuous red tongue hanging down. I asked if could accompany him to the attic. The redhead deferred to the cemetery director, she of the wintry eyes. "Absolutely not," she said. I pushed the issue, saying I was working on a novel about this relative, and would just enjoy seeing where he'd roosted all these years, but she was shaking her head no, no, no. "If we let you in, we'd have to let everybody." Well, I pressed, surely there can't be that many people clamoring to see where urns have been storaged for half a century. "Oh," she said in a superior tone, "you'd be surprised."

When Uncle Allan arrived, he was in a little Japanese box neatly wrapped in brown paper, like a gift sent through the mail. "We'll get a shopping bag for you to carry the cremains in," someone said. Everything in me hoped it'd read "Green Lawn Cemetery," but I was disappointed. I took possession and drove him home.

I'd thought a lot about what to do with Uncle Allan, and invited suggestions from friends. My friend Danny proposed discreetly depositing some of him at the Stonewall Bar, the reincarnation of the Greenwich Village dive that launched the modern gay-rights movement in 1969 when a police raid sparked a three-day riot. But it didn't feel right — the bar's not the original, nor even in the same location. Anyhow, that was all long after Uncle Allan. Another idea was drizzling him in front of distinguished theaters around Times Square. But the thought of New Yorkers screaming on their cellphones while grinding my uncle into the concrete didn't feel right. So I chose the George Washington Bridge. Burial at sea — or burial at estuary, in this case — struck me as dignified. Plus, I liked the fact that the ashes would float downstream, paralleling Broadway, towards the theater district.

I'd roped Danny into this operation, not wanting to be alone, and he was thrilled because while a born-and-bred New Yorker, he'd never walked on the bridge. So we took the subway up to Washington Heights, and made our way toward the span. I can't speak for Danny, but I was a little paranoid. Some of Danny's friends had warned us in no uncertain terms that the bridge crawled with cops, and that in any case, dumping human remains anywhere in New York City was highly, hugely, extremely illegal. I was strategizing all sorts of alibis as we approached 179th Street: It's dirt from my family's farm, Officer; they're just smashed seashells, Officer.

But once up on the great structure, luminous pearls scaling towers high above us, the candles of Oz glowing far downtown, it was hard to stay twitchy. Danny's eyes were wide as we made our way slowly through the wind's howl to the bridge mid-point.

Danny and I braced ourselves against the gusts, while I kept an eagle eye out for cops. Bikers whizzed by with just an annoyed glance. Danny was throwing himself into a spirited rendition of "Give My Regards to Broadway" as I tried to scoop out handfuls of my great-uncle from the two floppy plastic bags, harder than it sounds, and fling him out and down as forcefully as I could. My apprehension about the wind was on point. Midway through "Tell all the boys on 42nd Street," part of Uncle Allan caught Danny in the eye. I had grit in my mouth.

Given the time and effort I'd put in to get to this point, you'd think I'd have whipped up something appropriately profound to say as I cast my queer forebear to the ages. But when push came to shove, all I could muster was, "God bless you, Allan. God bless you." It took about two minutes, fistful by fistful, to fully dispose of him. If I'd expected some sort of catharsis at the end, none really materialized — just the satisfaction, perhaps, of fulfilling a pledge long delayed. I crumpled up the plastic bags, still dusty with my uncle, and Danny and I started the long walk back to Manhattan. But after a few steps, I stopped and found myself rubbing my right side. In my zeal, it seems, I'd succeeded in throwing my arm out. It was starting to ache like hell. 

Read more of Salon's Best of 2021 Life Stories.

By Michael H. Hodges

Michael H. Hodges, a writer in Ann Arbor, Mich., is at work on a family memoir. His most recent book is "Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit."

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