William “Billy” Haines was born the evening of January 1, 1900, at the start of a new century, in Staunton, a railroad town in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (my home state!). Although it is still possible to to stand in awe before the house he was born in, the small city of Staunton doesn't make a fuss over its famous citizen, likely because so few people are still alive who remember his meteoric rise to Hollywood stardom.
He has my never-ending admiration, because he stood up to movie studio heads, refusing to "pretend" to be straight for the sake of the publicity machines. He chose dignity and respect for his lover over hypocrisy and ill-gotten fame. Haines, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Farley Granger and others were all told that their movie careers would be over if they came out of the closet. Out of those men, only Haines had the courage to defy the studios; the others chose to enter into sham relationships or marriages to cover up their sexual orientation.
While Cary Grant and Randolph Scott and their like tried to put one over on the public, Haines chose an honest life, and did one better for himself. He switched careers, becoming fabulously wealthy as an interior designer to the stars. While he never left the glamorous world of Hollywood, he never again stood before a camera. Surprisingly, he had not longed to be a movie star, nor did he dream about being a decorator. Haines, an exceptionally bright and talented young man, recognized opportunity when it was thrust in front of him, and he took advantage of it. He lived by his wits, always seeming to make the right moves. Astonishingly, he reached the pinnacle of success in successive careers for which he had no training.
Haines was the grandson of one of Staunton's most prominent citizens, but at age 14 (!) he ran away from home with his boyfriend and opened a dance hall in Hopewell, VA, a city so known for wickedness and lawlessness that it was called "Sin City." His place of business, like everything else in the town, was burned to the ground in a great fire in 1915. Rather than go back to Staunton, he struck out for New York City, where he took a factory job at age 16. A tall, exceedingly handsome young man, Haines soon returned to Virginia to help support his family; his mother was pregnant, and his bankrupt father was in a mental institution following a breakdown. At 19 he returned to NYC, where an elderly gentleman arranged a job for Billy at a brokerage firm. He lived in an apartment in Greenwich Village for two years, becoming friends with Archie Leach (later known as Cary Grant), who was then in a gay relationship with costume designer Orry-Kelly.
Restless and opportunistic, Haines found work as a model. He sent in his photograph to the "New Faces of 1922" contest sponsored by movie producer Samuel Goldwyn – and won. A screen test followed, and he packed up and moved to Hollywood, where he became one of the leading silent film stars of the 1920s and 1930s. Haines was named the leading male film star for 1930. His closest friend was Joan Crawford, much less well-known at the time. William Haines appeared in over fifty films, was the first MGM star to speak on film, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, just a few feet from the entrance to the Roosevelt Hotel, where the Academy Awards were first presented in 1929.
Haines with co-star Joan Crawford in West Point (1928):
However, gossip about his openly gay life threatened his leading man image, and MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer gave Haines an ultimatum: deny his homosexuality by engaging in a sham marriage or be shown the door. Haines refused to lie about his personal life, and Mayer did not renew his contract. He never worked in films after 1934, but pursued a stupendously successful career as an interior designer, which made him a multi-millionaire. Billy's life-long adage was, "One could be forgiven for illiteracy, but never for lack of good taste."
His Hollywood clients included prominent figures of the film community such as Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Frank Sinatra, Lionel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, studio head Jack Warner and director George Cukor. His social standing was decidedly A-list. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were frequent guests at his house. In 1969, most importantly, he was hired by Ambassador Walter Annenberg to design the interiors of Winfield House in London, the official residence of the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The million-dollar commission received international attention. In a career that continued until his death in 1973, he achieved fame as one of the most influential interior decorators of the 20th century. William Haines Designs remains in business to this day, with main offices in West Hollywood and showrooms in New York, Denver and Dallas. Many of his original furniture designs are still produced for the high end interior design trade.
Winfield House, the U. S. Ambassador's House in London, as decorated by William "Billy" Haines.
From the mid 1920s Haines lived openly with his lover Jimmy Shields (his former movie stand in) for nearly 50 years. Joan Crawford described them as "the happiest married couple in Hollywood." Haines died from lung cancer at the age of 73. Two months afterward, a grief-stricken Shields put on Haine’s pajamas, took an overdose of pills, and died in his sleep. Their ashes are interred side by side in the Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica, CA.
The dashing Billy Haines with actress Anita Page.
William Haines, dashingly handsome in a white suit, acting opposite his best friend Joan Crawford in a flirty, comic scene from Spring Fever (1927). Haines and Crawford remained devoted friends until Haines’ death in 1973. Every time she changed husbands, Haines redecorated her home. Kept him busy.
Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines
Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star
by William J. Mann (1999)
480 pages; Penguin Paperback edition