Welcome to Garbo Laughs’ very first guest post! This smashing biography of the inimitable William Haines was graciously contributed by my friend Louis, who will soon be launching his own film blog Beautiful Bombs, intended to provide a second look at underknown and underrated films. Louis was also kind enough to provide all the gorgeous pictures included in the article, which can all be clicked to be enlarged. Enjoy!
In 1930, William Haines was the number one box office draw in America. By 1933, his contract was dropped and he was unceremoniously given the boot by MGM studios. What horrible scandal could have provoked this? At that point, Billy Haines had been openly living with his lover Jimmie Shields for almost seven years. Given a choice between a career in the closet and a pink slip, Haines chose to be loyal to his partner and honest to himself, at the cost of his career. But Haines is much more than a footnote in gay film history. First of all, he’s gorgeous. Second of all, he’s funny, with a talent for physical humor, and a restless, irreverent wit. Third, he made a career out of pushing barriers and confounding expectations. And best of all, his story has a happy ending.
Billy Haines always had a taste for the finer things in life. He found his hometown of Staunton, Virginia stifling, and by age 14, he and another teenager Billy described as “a boyfriend” ran away together to a nearby town where they found jobs at a factory, and opened up a dance hall (which may have doubled as a bordello) for the rowdy workers. The pair raked in profits until an accidental fire burned down the entire town. Billy left his boyfriend in Virginia and headed north for New York City.
It wasn’t long after moving into Greenwich Village that the beautiful, witty twenty-year-old began to move in some very exclusive gay social circles. Billy admitted in a 1969 interview, “I was kept by the best men and women in New York City.” In between frequenting “pansy” bars, Haines worked as a model. His agent submitted Billy’s picture for MGM’s 1921 “New Faces” Campaign, and within weeks William Haines was on his way to Hollywood to be groomed for stardom.
However, MGM wasn’t sure how to cast the handsome, wisecracking Haines. Casting agents would ask him “What type are you?” He’d shrug and joke, “Latin lover?” For several years he floated from bit part to bit part, finally getting his break as the lead in George W. Hill’s drama The Midnight Express.
Around this time, Haines met another rising star who would become his lifelong best friend: Lucille LeSueur, later christened Joan Crawford. Crawford thought her new name sounded like “Crawfish,” but Billy warned her, “They might have called you Cranberry, and served you every Thanksgiving with the turkey.” For the rest of their long friendship he called her “Cranberry.”
1926’s Brown of Harvard was the film that turned Haines from second-tier leading man into a bona fide movie star. Although Haines had only a supporting role, he knew this film was his big chance. Billy decided he would stand out by making his character “the freshest punk that ever drew breath.” To the dismay of the film’s star Jack Pickford, Haines walked off with the picture.
From Harvard, the “Billy Haines” persona was born: a cocky, wisecracking college kid who finally becomes a team player in time to win the game and get the girl. Within months he was receiving more fan mail than any other Metro star except John Gilbert, and began making a string of formulaic, but wildly popular films based around this “wisecracker” character.
Although Haines became a national heartthrob, many of his performances seem daringly queer today, with comic flourishes of swishing hips, limp wrists, and bitchy, camp remarks that flew right over the audience’s heads at the time. Here’s an example from 1928’s The Smart Set, where Billy “reads” his co-star Alice Day as well as any drag queen.
The same year that Haines rose to movie stardom, he also met Jimmie Shields, the love of his life. According to legend, Billy picked up the muscular twenty-one-year-old sailor in a bathhouse on a visit to New York City. It was an unlikely start to a relationship that would last almost fifty years. Joan Crawford described Billy and Jimmie’s relationship as “the happiest marriage in Hollywood.”
Even with his newfound stardom to protect, Haines refused to go on “studio dates” with women, even mocking the practice by hinting to the press that he was in a hot-and-heavy romance with his good friend Polly Moran, a homely, middle-aged character actress. Billy was allegedly busted by police around this time for having sex with a sailor in a public park. The studio kept his indiscretions out of the papers, and although Mayer was furious, as long as Billy was the biggest male box office draw in Hollywood, it seemed as though he could do as he pleased.
Billy made several films during that period with his buddy “Cranberry” Crawford, but it was with Billy’s other closest friend, Marion Davies, with whom he made his best film: King Vidor’s 1928 satirical masterpiece Show People, which punctured Hollywood’s pomposity at the end of the silent era. Many stars didn’t survive the transition to sound, but Haines made the move gracefully, starring in MGM’s first talkie film, Alias Jimmy Valentine.
By 1930, however, Billy’s “wisecracker” act was beginning to wear thin with audiences, and his films were no longer the box office bonanzas they once were. The studio tried to retool Haines as a ladykiller in the racy Just a Gigolo, but the new image didn’t catch on. Haines tried valiantly to get his career back on track, but the studio was mostly handing him B-movies with minimal promotion.
A conservative reaction to the freewheeling ’20s was taking over Hollywood. The press finally began to gossip in earnest about why “bachelor” Bill Haines had never married. In 1933, L.B. Mayer called William Haines into his office and informed him that if he didn’t give up his lover Jimmie, Haines would lose his contract. According to writer Anita Loos, “Bill opted for love and told L.B. to tear up his contract.” A young Robert Montgomery was quickly recast in all the roles that had been planned for Haines.
Instead of falling into despair at the sudden loss of his career, Billy bounced back by starting a designing business. His own home had always been widely admired, and when friends like Claudette Colbert and George Cukor hired Haines to redecorate their houses, word of his talents began to spread. Haines was one of the first to work in a new style of decorating called “Hollywood Regency.” It was light, fresh, and playful, especially compared to the ostentatious art-deco style that had been popular during Hollywood’s silent era. Billy balanced his classical sense of construction with trademark cheeky flourishes.
No longer constrained by a studio, Haines developed a circle of friends which included many of Hollywood’s queer elite, throwing pool parties with guests like Cukor, Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward, Dorothy Arzner, Cecil Beaton, Kay Francis and Cole Porter.
In 1936, scandal struck Billy and Jimmie while vacationing on Manhattan Beach, when a local man accused Jimmie of having sex with his son. The town was a stronghold for the Klu Klux Klan, and one night Billy and Jimmie were attacked by a mob of alleged Klan members who chased the two men out of town. The incident and a subsequent criminal investigation were splashed all over newspapers’ front pages nationwide. The couple declined to press charges against the mob, afraid of providing more ammunition for the press.
Billy’s reputation miraculously recovered, and over the years he continued to expand his successful designing business: William Haines Designs is still a successful and highly respected company today. In 1950, Haines was approached by Billy Wilder to appear as one of the wax figures of silent stars in Sunset Boulevard, but Haines declined, preferring to be acknowledged for his designing career rather than his years of film stardom.
William Haines died on December 26th, 1973, one week short of his 74th birthday. Jimmie was grief-stricken, telling friends, “I just can’t go on without Billy.” Two months later, he committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills, and was found lying in their bed, wearing a pair of Billy’s pajamas.
“As a love-and-success story,” wrote Anita Loos, “Bill’s legend was far more thrilling than anything he ever filmed for L.B. Mayer.” It’s true that Haines had a pretty fantastic life. But he’s also an exciting screen presence. What’s striking about William Haines is how modern he still seems. His open, relaxed attitude about homosexuality, his irreverent sense of humor and liberal sprinklings of queerness in his on-screen persona give him a contemporary edge that sets him apart from many silent film stars. William Haines’ film career may not have been his most extraordinary achievement, but if you track down a copy of Show People, I dare you not to be charmed.
Louis Jordan is a writer living in Greenwich Village. For more information on William Haines, Louis and I both recommend Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star by William J. Mann.