“I only speak to the gentleman of the press over lunch at Claridge’s,” rebuffs a typically secretive Adonian insider to my suggestion of a quick phone call. I had hit yet another dead end. “P.S.,” he adds. “As you must know, Peterhouse is not called ‘Peterhouse College’, a solecism which I am sure you will not repeat.” Suitably chastised, I thought it best not to email him again on this or indeed any other matter.

Once described by Varsity as a “gay Cambridge institution”, the Adonian Society was amongst the University’s most notorious secret societies. Hosting invitation-only dinners at Peterhouse, the society’s exclusively male soirees were the object of extensive student journo intrigue. And – naturally – the subject of permanent rumour.

Founded in an effort to connect gay members of the University, gossip fixated on the allegedly intimate relationships these candlelit dinners facilitated between students and academics.

Undergraduate attendees, who were often “sponsored” by older members to attend, were reportedly seated in-between academics to allow for greater “inter-faculty familiarity”.

One source, who matriculated in 2017, told me: “obviously the undergraduates don’t pay, the fellow sponsors them, which makes it a little like prostitution.”

“My friend, who went, broke the rules by shagging another attractive undergraduate [...] And wasn’t invited back, I don’t think, as a consequence,” he recounted. Sponsors would spend in excess of £70 to secure an invitation for their guest.

The dinners themselves were lavish. A gossip columnist for Varsity wrote: “Endless claret. The best food in Cambridge […] The wine was bounteous and plentiful, impressing in me the importance of learning the correct protocol for drinking port, claret and dessert wine simultaneously.”

‘My friend broke the rules by shagging another undergraduate’

But did the reality of these dinners align with a sleazy mythology that largely led to the society’s downfall?

James Kirchick is an American journalist and author of The New York Times bestseller The Hidden History of Gay Washington. He attended one of these infamous Adonian dinners more than ten years ago.

“It was about 2011 or 2012,” he tells me over Zoom, clutching onto the memory of that dimly lit evening. A fellow American managed to wrangle him an invitation to the event, and as a keen anglophile – coupled with his uniquely American fascination with Harry Potter – he happily obliged.

“It was actually a lot of fun,” he remembers fondly. “I met some pretty interesting people, and I actually made two friends from that evening.”

As for the dinner’s extracurricular activities, the conspicuous rustling outside didn’t go unnoticed by American ears. “There may have been some hanky-panky in the bushes,” he tells me with a smile.” There was definitely a homoerotic subtext to the whole [dinner].”

An anonymous source told me that, in anticipation of the post-dinner outings, the organiser would make a particular announcement: “the chap in charge – I think the earl of somewhere – would stand on the table and announce the weather forecast for the deer park.”

But as far as the more salacious gossip is concerned, James is unconvinced. “There were definitely some alumni who came in from London. I don’t recall that many professors, there must have been some of them, but I don’t recall that many.”

For James, it is important to look at LGBT history. “Homosexuality up until recently has been secretive and it therefore lends itself to conspiratorial interpretations,” he explains. An expert on gay history, he offers the example of another notorious University clique, the Cambridge Five.

A spy ring consisting of Cambridge graduates who were recruited whilst students at the University, it was most active in the 1930s and 1940s. Much like the Adonian Society, there was considerable intrigue around the sexual activity of its leading members, so much so that many rumours were falsely overplayed.

“Homosexuality is so integral to the understanding of the Cambridge Five,” James explains. “[Yet] really only two of them were gay.”

Were many of the rumours which followed the Adonian Society similarly exaggerated? “I think that is probably true,” another Adonian-goer tells me. “What was going on at this dinner in many respects is completely unremarkable because you could go to a [gay] house party in London and it wouldn’t be particularly uncommon to see a chief exec chatting to a drag queen or an accountant. It doesn’t necessarily have to have this sort of predatory undertone that I think people would assume is the case in a society like [the Adonian].”

A lot of the myth-making around the Adonian Society is fundamentally a misunderstanding of gay culture, my source argues. “There’s an entire interaction style that you find in most groups of gay guys which is much more collaborative and willing to help each other out [...] in a way that is totally benign.”

“It was just a fun, formal style dinner in an environment where it is conducive for people to socially interact,” he adds. “I actually met someone who I went on to date [and] people who became lifelong friends.”

Yet it seems Peterhouse succumbed nonetheless to the rumours and gossip. The Adonians held their last supper there in 2018.


Mountain View

Adonian society faces closure after Peterhouse stops hosting dinners

Following escalating tensions and prices, the society were soon left without a venue in which to hold its dinners. In an email shown to Varsity at the time, Adonian organisers told members: “Peterhouse has decided not to host further dinners for us and, as a consequence, no further functions are planned.”

“I think closing [the Adonian] down was actively to the disservice of students, Peterhouse and Cambridge more generally and would have been done out of an abundance of caution rather than on the basis of any real reality.”

But this same Adonian source – who had attended once as an older graduate – is quick to caveat such a statement: “now, having said that, if you were to ask an undergraduate, they may have had a completely different experience.”

The line between truth and gossip is ultimately one that is often blurred, but none perhaps quite as clearly (or obscurely rather) as the infamous Adonian Society. The reality of these dinners as ambiguous as the sexuality of the ancient Greek hero after which the society takes its name.

Peterhouse declined to comment (23/09).