Thursday, August 18, 2011
William (Billy) Haines
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.”
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 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.