It seems fitting to start the New Year with a star who was born on New Year's Day. Indeed, he was born not only at the dawn of a new year but at the dawn of a new century. Little did anyone know on that January 1st evening that one of the most notorious and celebrated men of the 1900s had just been birthed, (though in fact it appears that he was born a few minutes into January 2nd. January first just sounded nicer to him).
When I was first introduced to the name William Haines escapes me. In my forays into Hollywood's complicated and intriguing past, his name continued to pop up over and over again. He was never the topic of any larger discussion, but he was always peppered into different accounts of celebrity life in the 1920s. In depth information about him was scarce, yet he was obviously important enough to warrant continuous reference. My impression of him was based upon three recurring things: his reputation as the first openly gay star, his post-film enduring career in interior design, and of course that nagging Gable rumor. Finally, fed up with these taunting bits of information, I decided to dig deeper into his life and career. What I discovered was a man who was so unbelievably charismatic that I was a little bit miffed to have never known him personally. Sometimes, my research introduces me to people whom I wish I could have been friends with in another time and place, and he definitely falls into this category. William Haines was fun!
Born in Staunton, VA, Billy would always maintain his gentlemanly southern ways, but while he enjoyed a fairly happy childhood, he was quickly bored with the old-fashioned ideals of his environment. He ran away from home at the age of fourteen to live a life of continuous motion and excitement, and he would continue to evolve and grow with unparalleled vigor throughout all of his years. From a teenage dance hall owner, to a movie star, to an interior decorator to the stars, Billy never knew when to quit, so he never did. What allowed him to succeed in any endeavor that he approached was his endearing personality. He was a spark plug: mentally and physically alive, witty, and gregarious. His identity as a "wisecracker"-- a smart aleck quick with a retort-- was perpetuated on the silver screen. He started in extra work after winning the "New Faces" contest for Goldwyn Studios in 1921, along with Eleanor Boardman (a lifelong friend), but it was Brown at Harvard that catapulted him into stardom. Forever after, he would play the brash youth who recklessly and selfishly laughed his way through life until he was forced to take responsibility and become a man. He contributed to the great history of the "coming of age" film, taking the reigns from Douglas Fairbanks, whose earlier films about an immature boy who almost accidentally becomes a man were a far cry from the more sexually devious youths that Billy introduced.
The irony of ironies, of course, is that despite the fact that Billy was a huge heartthrob and lusted after by teenage girls everywhere, he was a self-professed homosexual, living openly with his partner Jimmie Shields. If Billy is remembered at all today as a member of the film community, it is for the fact that he was not only a gay film star but has been labeled as the first and the only openly gay star of the silent era. Many rumors have been claimed about various stars with regard to their sexuality, and there are others whom we have later learned were unfortunately closeted due to the prejudices of their own times, which makes the fact that Billy failed to apologize for his orientation stand out not just in the '20s and '30s, but even today, wherein he remains an icon. At the time, to perpetuate a clean, wholesome image and to boost ticket sales, stars who were "queer" (as they were called at the time) were often encouraged to marry a "beard" so that their career could continue on unscathed. Billy many times was called into Louis B. Mayer's office, where his career was dangled before him like a carrot: "Behave or be gone!" Billy ignored LB's threats, then swaggered out and bought himself as many carrots as he wanted. While his identity was still guarded by a more friendly relationship between the studios and the press and his own ability to answer direct questions with jokes-- such as the tall tale that he was in love with the matronly Polly Moran-- his refusal to assimilate to societal standards for acceptance, or to studio standards for money, made him a very different presence in a world of otherwise carbon-copied and controlled identities.
And Billy was embraced by his own community. Everyone in Hollywood loved him. Joan Crawford was his best friend, Carole Lombard adored him, George Cukor admired him, and all three of these people would also commission Billy to decorate their lush homes when he started working in interior design, initially as a hobby. After garnering attention for the gorgeous house he had made for himself at 1712 North Stanley Avenue, Billy was compelled to open an antique shop, which he filled with statues, artwork, and pieces of furniture that he'd discovered anywhere from flea markets to overseas European travels. After his film career stalled, Billy had no lag time between gigs. He literally went from MGM to Haines-Foster, Inc. and later William Haines, Inc. Over the years, his eye for style and beauty dressed up the homes of William Powell, Ronald Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale, and Claudette Colbert. All the while, he endured in a fifty-year relationship with Jimmie and enjoyed the praise and appreciation for a life in the arts that he had never expected.
Billy's career in film is therefore made a little less impressive in comparison to his life as a stylist, but he is nonetheless notable for his contribution. In 1930, he had become so popular that he was voted the #1 Male Box-office Star. His pal Joan Crawford, whom he called "Cranberry," was voted the #1 Female Star. He transitioned well into talkies, and indeed was MGM's first talking star, but changing social tides caused his happy-go-lucky and reckless smart-ass characters to be moot. His films failed to reel in the audiences they once had, and when things between him and LB came to a head, he was offered an ultimatum: give up Jimmie and get married or get out. And so, despite a few films outside of MGM and a Set Decorating gig on Dorothy Arzner's film Craig's Wife, Billy left the movies to pursue bigger and better things. Yet, he'll never really leave the movies, because his magnetic presence is still there in Little Annie Rooney, Tell It to the Marines, and Slide Kelly Slide. Eighty years since his day in the sun, the guy remains as likable as ever. I could go on all day talking about him, and indeed it looks like I very nearly have, but I'll let his work (onscreen and off) speak for him.