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Jun 02 2017
Pride Month: It's No Good Without Billy Haines Comments (0)

Billy-Haines-smileHaines — his smile didn't intentionally hide anying, but he didn't read as gay to audiences. (Image via MGM)

William aka Billy Haines (1900-1973) bolted from Virginia in 1919 to live in NYC's Greenwich Village, where he lived with a male couple who'd been together for 40 years. He also befriended a same-sex couple who were living together, both of whom moved to Hollywood — becoming known as fashion designer Orry-Kelly (1897-1964) and movie star Cary Grant (1904-1986).

Billy entered a 1922 talent contest that lhe won, leading to an MGM contract and a career in Hollywood in the Silent Era. William-Haines-gay

Throughout the '20s, Haines gained a reputation as a popular leading man, one with a certain degree of sarcasm that today might be diagnosed as snark. His hits included the 1926 smashes Brown of Harvard and Tell It to the Marines (indeed).

He was also a carouser, notching up affairs with men and women, including an alleged one-off with Clark Gable (1901-1960), a more serious affair with superstar Ramon Novarro (1899-1968), and relationships with Norma Shearer (1902-1983) and Barbara La Marr (1896-1926).

Billy-Haines-shirtless-CheneyHaines with Lon Chaney Sr. in Tell It to the Marines (1926)

In spite of Haines's success, his casual approach to being gay was a liability; in an era when coming out was unheard of, he was never really in, though he did tell reporters he was in love with actress Polly Moran (1883-1952), a pal. In reality, from 1926, he was in love with former sailor Jimmie Shields (1905-1974), with whom he lived.

Haines had cleverly negotiated the morals clause out of his MGM contract, so when he was caught in gay vice raids, he managed to avoid the ax. Shockingly, he attended the public 1929 opening of the first openly gay bar in L.A. with his boyfriend on his arm.

GiphyShow People (1928) — gaydar was weak back then!

This openness unnerved his boss, Louis B. Mayer (1884-1957), who demanded that Haines give up his boyfriend and marry a woman. Haines allegedly proposed to silent film star Anita Page (1910-2008), who wisely demurred, but Haines ultimately refused to leave his lover, popularly thought to have resulted in the loss of his contract and the end of his motion-picture career, which was also sagging due to the audience's fading interest in his performances.

Haines-Leila-HyamsHaines with co-star — and future client — Leila Hyams in Alias Jimmy Valentine (1928)

Haines was a talented interior decorator, and thanks to his close bond with a variety of top starlets, he found his services much in demand. Beginning with pre-Code siren Leila Hyams (1905-1977), a string of A-listers hired Haines, including his best friend Joan Crawford, whom he called Cranberry (1904-1977); Carole Lombard (1908-1942); Claudette Colbert (1903-1996); Joan (1910-1990) and Constance Bennett (1904-1965); William Powell (1892-1984); and studio head Jack L. Warner (1892-1978). Later in his career, his close friendship with Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) led to lots of work for Nancy Reagan (1921-2016) and her bestie, Betsy Bloomingdale (1922-2016), whose estate, filled with Haines original, recently hit the auction block.

William Haines Jimmy ShildesLifelong Republican Haines (R) with his soulmate, Shields (L)

Though Haines had retired from acting in 1934 with The Marines Are Coming (indeed), he was asked to appear in Sunset Boulevard (1950 Haines as one of Norma Desmond's card sharks; he refused. 

Haines had given up his career for love, something that's usually a losing proposition, but he and Shields remained together from 1926 until his death in 1973. Sadly, Shields — heartbroken — committed suicide months after Billy's death. His note read:

It's no good without Billy.

Turned out Crawford was right when she famously said Haines and Shields were Hollywood's happiest married couple.

Learn much more about Haines from his definitive bio, William J. Mann's Wisecracker, and from this excellent podcast:

P.S. The bitch died forever ago, but still has a website:

William Haines Designs, located in Los Angeles, California is carrying on the Haines legacy by faithfully reissuing the original Haines furniture designs with great accuracy and penchant for this style known as Hollywood Glamour. Peter Schifando and J. Jonathan Joseph are extending the Haines aesthetic with painstaking accuracy and fulfilling the current demand for Hollywood Regency design. With an A-List clientele, which includes Nancy Reagan and Betsy Bloomingdale, it is only befitting that these iconic, classic designs from William Haines grace their homes.

Okay, so it needs to be updated. But how cool that his legacy lives on, and that the creations of a fearlessly gay man of yesteryear are raking in the dollars to this very day.

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