As Billy Haines, he was one of MGM’s biggest stars of the 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 fans remember him for his film work now. Yet, Haines was a talented, handsome, assured, romantic leading man. Off-screen, he was gay, gay-gay, way gay, openly gay.
Haines’ story remains particularly intriguing because he took on Louis B. Mayer and the MGM brass by refusing to act the part of a straight guy for the studios’ publicity department. He chose to be open about his life and his partner with a certain disregard for fame and fortune.
For the film-going public, Cary Grant and Randolph Scott played it coy with their relationship. When his openness spelled ruin for his acting career, Haines simply switched careers and became even more rich and 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.
In those crazy 1920s and early 1930s, there was a rich gay subculture in Hollywood. This was before the Hays Production Code and 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 gayness and get married, or lose his contract. Haines refused. He never worked in films again.
Haines dropped the Billy, renamed himself William Haines, and as easily as he became a top film 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 and Gracie Allen, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Lionel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, studio head Jack Warner, and gay director George Cukor. His social standing was decidedly A-list. He worked for and socialized with Frank Sinatra. Ronnie and Nancy Reagan were his frequent guests at his lavish home.
Haines had never set out to be a movie star or an interior designer. He was a smart, appealing young man with a talent for grabbing each opportunity that presented itself. He lived by his wits, always seeming to make all the right moves. He managed to reach the very apex of success in two difficult careers for which he had no training.
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 and with showrooms in NYC, Denver and Dallas. His original furniture designs are still produced for the top end design trade.
I admire that beginning in 1926, Haines lived openly as a couple with Jimmy Shields, a film extra. Haines refused to give up Shields for the sake of his film career and their relationship lasted until Haines’ passing. That was 50 years, together through it all. Crawford called them: ”The happiest married couple in Hollywood”.