Looking at the Stars: William “Billy” Haines

“I like what I’m doing now. It’s clean. No makeup on the face.” - Billy Haines on his interior decorating career.

During my last road trip, I listened to Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star by William J. Mann. Not only is Mann’s book entertaining, one of the best Hollywood biographies I have listened to, it is also fascinating just like its subject who could boast success in two highly competitive careers, acting and interior design. For April, which is National Decorating Month, Classic Movie Hub looks at William “Billy” Haines (January 2, 1900 – December 26, 1973).

1926 MGM publicity shot of William HainesBilly Haines

Billy Haines won the “New Faces of 1922″ contest sponsored by Samuel Goldwyn, Co., which awarded him a movie contract that later shifted to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) upon company merger. His career rose slowly, but such films as Jack Conway‘s Brown of Harvard (1926), King Vidor‘s Show People (1928), and Charles Reisner‘s Hollywood Revue of 1929, coupled with his talent for the quick quip helped make Billy Haines the top box office star by 1930.

The on-screen spotlight on Billy Haines dimmed soon after, however, as the openly gay actor refused to play by the moral standards dictated by Hollywood power players. The story goes that when MGM chief, Louis B. Mayer gave William Haines an ultimatum to leave his lover, Jimmy Shields, and get married or lose his career, Haines responded, “I am already married.” Moreover, he meant it. Billy Haines and Jimmy Shields remained together until Haines’ death, making their five-decade relationship one of the longest couplings in Hollywood.

William Haines appeared in movies through 1934, but he was no longer the star player among his more famous friends like Joan Crawford and Marion Davies. By that point Haines’ star as an interior designer was rising, however. In 1930, Billy became part owner of an antiques shop in Hollywood and soon after turned his home into a showroom. His famous friends became his clients and word of mouth spread like wildfire. Among his decorating creations were the homes of Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Jack L. Warner, Claudette Colbert, William Powell, Joan Bennett and Constance Bennett.

“I can only tell you this – I would rather have taste than either love or money.” – William Haines

Carole Lombard in her Hollywood Boulevard home decorated by William HainesCarole Lombard in her Hollywood Boulevard home decorated by William Haines
Joan Crawford in the sitting room of her home designed by William HainesJoan Crawford in the sitting room of her home designed by William Haines

As if creating a memorable home for some of Hollywood’s biggest stars were not enough, Haines’ eye for design would take him even further up the social ladder. In 1939, he created a living room for exhibition at the World’s Fair in San Francisco. Haines’ designs with long-time friend and business partner, Ted Graber, have graced the homes of the Bloomingdales, the Annenbergs, British royalty, and even the White House for President and Mrs. Reagan. William Haines’ timeless designs are still featured in Architectural Digest today, which goes to show good taste never goes out of style. Neither does Billy Haines.

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Additional pages to visit…

William Haines CMH page

LGBT movies page

Pre-Code cinema

Joan Crawford page

Marion Davies page

Books and Plays

Until next month,

–Aurora Bugallo for Classic Movie Hub

Aurora Bugallo is a classic film-obsessed blogger, and co-founder and co-host of the Classic Movies and More Youtube show. You can read more of Aurora’s articles at Once Upon a Screen, or you can follow her on Twitter at @CitizenScreen.

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