Thursday, August 18, 2011

William (Billy) Haines

William Haines was born in Virginia in 1900 and in 1914, opened a nightclub in Hopewell, Virginia. Destined for entertainment and high style, he arrives in Hollywood in 1922 after winning a talent contest. He appeared in over twenty films as a leading man to Hollywood’s most famous stars including Joan Crawford, Marion Davies and Constance Bennett. He was a star of the silent era until the 1930s, when Haines' career was cut short by MGM Studios due to his refusal to deny his homosexuality. Haines never returned to film and instead started a successful interior design business with his life partner and supported by friends in Hollywood.

Haines redefined the way movie stars lived. He lived large and played the role of a successful movie star to the max with the encouragement of his partner, Jimmie Shields. He defined style and his passion for grand automobiles was no exception.

When Haines ran away from home at 14 with his first boyfriend, the fun was only just starting. Next stop: Greenwich Village, New York, where he worked as a model and lived with Cary Grant. A talent scout landed him a contract in Hollywood where he became a top box office draw in silent films. In 1926 he met Jimmie Shields who became his life-long partner.

Then in 1933 he was arrested for being caught with a sailor in the Y.M.C.A.. MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer gave Haines an ultimatum: break up with Jimmie Shields, or get out.

Haines got out. Shields took his lover's Y.M.C.A. scandal a lot easier than Mayer did. In fact, Haines and Shields had a legendarily open relationship, often sharing tricks and cruising Los Angeles’ Pershing Square together. Joan Crawford described them as “The happiest married couple in Hollywood.”

The young men went on to become some of the most influential designers and antique dealers for the glitterati of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. His BFF was Joan Crawford, and his influence over her look, career, and even her behavior is inestimable— she was one of his greatest creations. His design studio continues to this day and his furniture designs are in constant reissue.

Their lives were disrupted in 1936 when members of the Ku Klux Klan dragged the two men from their home and beat them, because a neighbor had accused the two of propositioning his son. Crawford, along with other stars such as Claudette Colbert, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Kay Francis, and Charles Boyer urged the men to report this to the police. Marion Davies asked her lover William Randolph Hearst to use his influence to ensure the neighbors were prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but ultimately Haines and Shields chose not to report the incident.

The couple finally settled into the Hollywood community in Brentwood, and their business prospered until their retirement in the early 1970s, except for a brief interruption when Haines served in World War II. Their long list of clients included Betsy Bloomingdale, Ronald and Nancy Reagan when Reagan was governor of California, and Walter and Leonore Annenberg with their 240-acre estate "Sunnylands."

Haines never returned to film. Gloria Swanson, another lifelong friend, extended him a personal invitation to appear with her in the film Sunset Boulevard (1950), but he declined.  Haines and Shields remained together for the rest of their lives. Joan Crawford described them as "the happiest married couple in Hollywood."

Haines died from lung cancer in Santa Monica, California at the age of 73, a week short of his 74th birthday, which was on the new year of 1974. Soon afterward, Shields, who suffered from what many believe to be Alzheimer's Disease, put on Haines' pajamas, took an overdose of pills, and crawled into their bed to die. They were interred side by side in Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery.

William Haines Designs remains in operation, with main offices in West Hollywood and showrooms in New York, Denver and Dallas. Haines's life story is told in the 1998 biography Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star by William J. Mann, and his designs are the subject of Peter Schifando and Haines associate Jean H. Mathison's 2005 book Class Act: William Haines Legendary Hollywood Decorator. World of Wonder produced Out of the Closet, Off the Screen: The Life of William Haines, which aired on HBO in 2001.



Phunk Factor said...

wow...this is a very interesting...i had no idea there was an openly gay actor in such times..and that he actually lived with his partner and everything...this is uh-mzaing! :D

Thanks for putting this up, man!

silvereagle said...

Can't remember who says it, but let me quote "And now you know the rest of the story!"

Fascinating research you present to us on so many topics, all of which have the one common thread of gayness in so many facets.


JoeBlow said...

Thanks, Phunk. It is pretty amazing that he lived openly with his partner, though it is not so amazing considering the fact of what happened to his acting career because of it.

Thanks, silvereagle. I merely present what interests me, and I hope will interest my readers as well.

Anonymous said...

Awesome story. It must have been wonderful to run away at 14 with your boyfriend!

Peace <3

JoeBlow said...

I agree, Jay.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating story. I love hearing about the stars who just took homosexuality in stride in a time that was so repressive. WW II and the time after that was insane for gay people, with the govt putting out the gay man = pedophile propaganda, so it’s nice to hear some people just being okay with it.

JoeBlow said...

Thanks, Ciel. We do have many role models in the past that we can learn so much from. You are right that WWII and the period afterward was an insane time for gay people.

Richmond said...

Paul Harvey

Richmond said...

The quote = Paul Harvey