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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

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."

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