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Love Story

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

March 08, 1998|ERIC LAX | 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.

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