January 2, 1900– William Haines:
“One could be forgiven for illiteracy, but never for lack of good taste.”
Check out the great biography Wisecracker: The Life Of William Haines: Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star (1998) by the great chronicler of Hollywood history, William Mann. Haines’ story is simply delicious.
As Billy Haines, he was one of MGM‘s biggest stars of the late 1920s, playing cocky yet sympathetic wise guys in popular films like Brown Of Harvard (1926). In the early 1930s, Haines was the number one male box-office star, although few remember him for his film work now. He was a talented, handsome, assured, romantic leading man. Off-screen, he was gay, way gay, openly gay.
Haines’ story remains particularly intriguing because he took on Louis B. Mayer & the MGM brass by refusing to act the part of a straight guy for the studios’ publicity departments. He chose to be open about his partner with a certain disregard for fame & fortune.
For the film-going public, Cary Grant & Randolph Scott played coy with their relationship. When his openness spelled ruin for his acting career, Haines simply switched careers & became even more rich & famous as the interior designer of choice for Hollywood stars. Haines managed to remain in the spotlight without ever having to stand before the cameras again.
Haines had never set out to be a movie star or an interior designer. He was a smart, appealing young man with talent for grabbing each opportunity that presented itself. He lived by his wits, always seeming to make the right moves. He managed to reach the very apex of success in 2 difficult careers for which he had no training.
When Haines was just 14 years old, he ran away from small town in Virginia & ended up, as so many resourceful boys do, in NYC. A tall, exceedingly handsome young man, he found an older gentleman to help him make ends meet. He lived in an apartment in Greenwich Village where he became friends with Archie Leach, who would later change his name to Cary Grant, & young costume designer Orry-Kelly.
With his All-American good-looks, Haines became a model. He sent his photograph to Producer Samuel Goldwyn’s New Faces Of 1922 talent contest & won. After a screen-test followed, Haines moved to Hollywood, where he was given good roles in popular silent films. He was a much bigger star than his BFF Joan Crawford. Haines appeared in more than 50 films, & was the first MGM star to have a speaking role.
In the crazy 1920s & early 1930s, there was a rich gay subculture in Hollywood. This was before the Hay’s Production Code & before studio executives’ intimidation led to the establishment of the Hollywood closet, an institution that runs strong to this day. With the gossip about his love life threatening to ruin Haines’ leading man image, Mayer, MGM’s powerful studio chief, gave him an ultimatum: lie about his homosexuality & get married, or lose his contract. Haines refused. He never worked in films again.
Haines dropped the Billy, renamed himself William Haines & as easily as he became a top star, he became the town’s top interior designer. His first client was his pal Joan Crawford, but others soon followed: Claudette Colbert, Jack Benny, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Lionel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, studio head Jack Warner & gay director George Cukor. His social standing was decidedly A-list. He worked for & socialized with Frank Sinatra. Ronnie & Nancy Reagan were his frequent guests at his lavish home.
In 1969, he designed the interiors of Winfield House in London, the official residence of the American Ambassador. That commission brought Haines international acclaim & clients from around the world.
Self-taught, Haines offered an alternative to the fashionable Art Deco interiors that were made ever trendier by the films of his era, & gave birth to the California Style still celebrated in the 21st century. The look became known as Hollywood Regency & represented a contrast to the stark minimalism of the modernist movement. With roots in 19th century England, Haines’ style combined English & French Regency, & Greek Revival, with the glamour of Old Hollywood. Hollywood Regency is the very opposite of my house, which owes it look mostly to squatter shacks, camp cabins, beach cottages, & boys’ forts.
His career lasted until Haines left this world in 1973. William Haines Designs remains in business to this day, with main offices in West Hollywood & showrooms in NYC, Denver & Dallas. His original furniture designs are still produced for the top end design trade.
Still, I admire that beginning in 1926, when Haines lived openly as a couple with Jimmy Shields, a movie extra. Haines refused to give up Shields for the sake of his film career & their relationship lasted until Haines’ passing. That was 50 years, together through it all. Crawford called them “The happiest married couple in Hollywood”.
Haines was taken by that damn cancer when he was 73 years old. A few weeks later, the grief-stricken Shields put on Haines’ pajamas, took an overdose of sleeping pills, & slipped away in his sleep at the beautiful Hollywood Hills house that they shared. He left a note that read:
“Goodbye to all of you who have tried so hard to comfort me in my loss of William Haines, whom I have been with since 1926. I now find it impossible to go it alone, I am much too lonely.”
Their ashes are interred next to each other at Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica. Haines has a star on The Hollywood Walk Of Fame in front of The Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929.