WISECRACKER: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star. By William J. Mann . Viking: 444 pp., $29.95

Eric Lax is the co-author, with A.M. Sperber, of "Bogart," a 1997 Los Angeles Times book prize finalist

Although William Haines was the movies' top male box-office attraction in 1930, it is a challenge for all but the most squinty-eyed cineaste to recall even one of his more than 50 films. Few have seen his silent 1926 hits "Brown of Harvard" and "Tell It to the Marines," nor have such successes from 1929 as "A Man's Man" and "The Duke Steps Out" flickered before them. In a business in which illusion is the chief commodity, Haines' illusion was that while he played the smart-alecky man who learns his lesson and wins the girl, off-screen he was openly homosexual who defended his perpetual bachelorhood with wisecracks to the press--hence this book's title. For a short time, Billy Haines' name shined as bright as that of his decades-long friend Joan Crawford, with whom he shared the top box office honors in 1930. But though she maintained her stardom, by 1934 his had dimmed drastically. "When you start to lose your career in the picture business," he lamented to her, "it's like walking on nothing." By 1936, 14 years after his first bit part in Samuel Goldwyn's "Brothers Under the Skin," he was out of films altogether.

And into interior decorating, a field in which his influence is still seen today and one in which his sexuality required no coyness. Billy Haines' filmography is not really the movies he made but the residences whose furnishings he designed. Among them were the palatial Beverly Hills estate of Jack Warner; Winfield House, the U.S. ambassador's residence in London, which he completely revamped during Walter Annenberg's tenure (with Annenberg's money); and the homes of the old Los Angeles elite: Tom and Anita May, of the department store family; Armand Deutch; Betsy Bloomingdale; and Jean Howard, whose home has remained virtually unchanged since Haines did it more than 50 years ago and, we are told, is as elegant today as it was when he finished the job in 1942.

At a time when the notion of a "done" house in Los Angeles was backwater Spanish, Haines was among the first to say, in effect, "Enough of the arroyo look, folks, here's what they're doing in Paris." By introducing Art Deco and rooms with open spaces accented with carefully harmonized colors, Haines, along with a few other decorators such as Elsie de Wolfe and such architects as Paul Williams, Roland Coate and James Dolena, helped transform Los Angeles' sleepy sense of decor and design into one of a sophisticated city.

Haines came to Hollywood in 1922 after winning the Goldwyn studios' "New Faces" contest. He was 22 years old, possessed of matinee idol looks and had already been on the road for eight years. At 14, aware that he was different from most other men and with a desire to escape what he saw as a stifling future in Staunton, Va., where his father was a cigar maker (the town's motto, "moderation endures," was a tip-off), he stole and then pawned his beloved mother's diamond pin and fled. He soon landed in Hopewell, Va., the Sin City of the South, "a haven for thieves, gamblers, and prostitutes, as there was no local police force." The town was owned by the Du Pont company and employed thousands of workers in the manufacture of nitrocellulose, the ingredient necessary for smokeless gunpowder. Soon Haines was making $50 a week in the factory, earning more money operating a dance hall and "living a life of excess." (He sent some of that money home to his financially strapped mother and father. His support would continue throughout their lives, and he brought several family members, including his mother, to Los Angeles.) After his father's bankruptcy in 1916, Haines, by then in New York, went home to help out. But "after one brief taste of the big city, I wanted nothing else."

After two miserable years, he was back in New York and living in Greenwich Village, where he met Mitchell "Mitt" Foster and Larry Sullivan, a couple who made no pretense of heterosexuality. Foster, 10 years older than Haines, gave him an appreciation for antiques (in the 1930s, Haines-Foster Inc. rose to prominence in the field of interior design) and an even greater gift: "a fundamental dignity and self-definition as a gay man." Haines also made two other important friends. One was Jack Kelly, who, as Orry-Kelly, would design the costumes for many Warner Bros. pictures (among them "The Maltese Falcon" and "Casablanca") and smooth the way for Haines, getting the job to decorate the Warner home.

The other important person in Haines' life was James "Jimmie" Shields, a handsome sailor with "a strong jaw and classic profile" who became the great love of Haines' life. Several friends believe Haines picked him up on a street just before "Brown of Harvard" was released. However they met, they stayed together for nearly 50 years. While each had innumerable passing or anonymous affairs with other men, those dalliances did not disquiet a commitment that was in most respects as solid as any respectable heterosexual marriage. Even Shields' molestation of a Manhattan Beach boy in 1936, which led to a confrontation with an angry mob and is infamously known as the El Porto incident, did not alter their relationship, though it added--even without a conviction--a nail to the coffin that held Haines' film career.

The pair traveled the world together and at home were constantly sought out as dinner guests. Haines insisted, however, that they were never to be seated together. Mann quotes a friend of Haines as saying, "It's supposed to be boy, girl, boy, girl. And Billy and Jimmie were sticklers on formalities." Once, "when a well-meaning hostess erred and placed their name cards beside each other, Billy and Jimmie left in a huff." Haines died in December 1973 of lung cancer. Shields was crushed by grief. In March 1974, he wrote a note saying in part, "I now find it impossible to go it alone," then swallowed a fatal dose of barbiturates. Mann acknowledges in his conclusion that the most interesting approach to Haines' life would have been through his long relationship with Shields: "There are few stories in this culture of enduring love . . . fewer still of enduring gay love." Alas, he adds, no one is alive who is "privy to any emotional details."

Mann is the author of the novel "The Men From the Boys" and a contributor to Architectural Digest. Though knowledgeable about design and the lifestyle he describes, he seems to have researched and written "Wisecracker" in a little more than a year, and his apparent haste permitted a careless style. When he talks about an "Olympian swimming pool," relates that he uncovered information "my pulse quickening and my eyes growing wide" and informs us that "panic gripped many producers by the throat," the overwhelming desire is to grab Mann and his editor by their throats and whisper, "Rewrite." It is not known how many times variations of the phrase "It is not known" appear in "Wisecracker"; I stopped counting after a dozen instances in the first 50 pages.

In addition, a biography is diminished if the reader isn't given specific information on sources. Mann's notes tend to be sketchy; periodicals are named but often not dated ("Billy's nightclub activity is derived from back issues of the Hollywood Reporter"), and rumor has a nasty habit of being passed off as fact, especially regarding the sexual activities and orientation of many stars who are outed on what seems flimsy evidence.

Which brings us to the problem of this book's subtitle, that Haines' story revolves around his being "Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star." Certainly Haines was gay, certainly Louis B. Mayer, his employer for virtually all his film career, knew it, as did the accommodating writers for the fan magazines, which for many years served as an arm of the studios' publicity machine and did not become independent until the early 1930s. Mann does a nice job of explaining the "uniquely designed four-pronged formula consisting of the studios, the stars, the press, and the public. In developing stars, the studios worked closely with the fan magazines . . . to create the myths that the public was desperate to believe. A whole motion-picture press arose from the need to create and sustain these myths." The challenge for these magazines in writing about Haines and other gay stars of the time was to find a way "to present the truth in such a way that the whole house of cards didn't come tumbling down."

But Haines was hardly the first star in Hollywood to be known as gay. According to Mann, many other stars of the 1920s lived homosexual lives that went unreported by the fan magazines; one of the virtues of his book is the evocation of a time when private lives were just that. It was only with the increasing independence of the film press and the move toward the establishment of the Production Code in 1934 that what a star did off screen became as important as what he did on it. (That the code was ever implemented is a fascinating story. Here was a business run mainly by Jewish immigrants who produced pictures for an audience 80% Protestant that wound up being regulated by Roman Catholic mores.) What does set Haines somewhat apart is his unwillingness to enter into a sham marriage for the sake of respectability. He was courageous (or foolhardy) in standing up to Mayer, who eventually found him more trouble than he was worth. But successful actors at every studio were routinely dropped for reasons other than their sexuality. As Jack Warner once told his New York publicity director, "The theater and publicity divisions of our company must make new stars. We just cannot go on being satisfied with the old ones because each day they become more unmanageable and less box office."

Mann's intent is to tell "the story of Hollywood's great cultural shift in the early 1930s and how that impacted the gay subculture." Yet the gay prism he shows it through makes for distortion. "Wisecracker's" thesis seems to be that the explanation for almost every personal and professional choice the people in this book made was based on sexuality. He turns gayness into tribalism and simplifies what is much more complex. For instance, Ramon Novarro's unhappy life that culminated in his murder by "two hustlers he'd picked up on the street" is blamed on his feeling forced to hide his gayness in order to play the studio's game of illusion. But unhappiness knows no gender or sexual alignment. People in "Wisecracker" are fascinating or tragic not because they are gay but because they are men and women of accomplishment who happen to be gay and have problems like anyone else. Still, "Wisecracker" recounts an integral but shadowed part of the history of Los Angeles and the movies, a time before Ian McKellen, Rupert Everett, Anne Heche and Ellen DeGeneres could lead openly gay lives and still are sought after for roles.

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