Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star

As a silent film buff, I was taken by the engaging personality of William Haines the very first time I saw him in Show People (M-G-M, 1928). At the time, I was not familiar with this actor’s work, who has become obscure like many who flourished during the silent era. Without question, he was a bona fide star. I attempted to see as many of his films as I could – a precious few are available to the public – but I was able to see some of his best-known pictures, including Little Annie Rooney (United Artists, 1925), in a plum role with Mary Pickford; Brown of Harvard (M-G-M, 1926), his first big hit; Tell It To the Marines (M-G-M, 1926), the film that sealed his stardom; Spring Fever (M-G-M, 1927), one of the films he made with his dear friend Joan Crawford; Hollywood Revue of 1929 (M-G-M, 1929), where he displayed a deep resonant voice; Speedway (M-G-M, 1929), a typical Haines wisecracking comedy; and Way Out West (M-G-M, 1930), one of his last profit-making pictures.

Before I had ever seen him on the screen, I had heard of Haines and read about him. However, it was commentary involving bad publicity over his “scandalous lifestyle,” i.e. he was a homosexual. Yet, between 1926 and 1931, Billy Haines was on the top ten list of popular male stars in an era crowded with big names. He peaked in 1930 when he attained the status of number one. His story is an eye-opener that gives pause as to why a star of his magnitude was overlooked and all but forgotten. For seven years, Billy Haines was at the top of the star heap – certainly long enough to warrant a full biography. Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star, by William J. Mann (Viking, 1998), is the anatomy of a Hollywood career complete with a love story, scandals, secrets, murky speculation, backlot gossip and apocryphal tales.

Haines’ private life is difficult to chart. Indeed, researching any well-known gay person’s personal life presents formidable obstacles. A big problem in finding the answers is the secrecy and machinations to maintain that secrecy surrounding gay lifestyles that still confound the truth. Billy himself also added to his own mystery. Author Mann writes, “It’s a central fact of his life that Billy Haines rarely told a lie, but he did have his ways of making the truth fit the situation at hand.”

It seems the stigma still exists for there remains a veil of secrecy. Of the people that knew Billy and Mann interviewed for this book, several preferred to remain anonymous. Others spoke on the record. Of both these groups, several surmised what may have brought about certain events, including Mann himself, who gives a disclaimer in his acknowledgments, “I must thank those who trusted me enough to share their stories. Some may question a particular focus I give to their recollections; some may wonder why I’ve emphasized one thing – Billy’s connections to the gay world, for example – over another – his innovations in the design field, perhaps. I hope they understand my reasons better after reading this book. The responsibility for the conclusions drawn is mine.”

Was William Haines a gay actor, or was he an actor who happened to be gay? Mann’s focus is strictly on Billy’s personal life and how his gayness makes him in Mann’s estimation “a kind of hero for the ages.” For his purposes, “it is not Billy’s work that makes him historically important – it is his life. His personal life – how he conducted himself in private, among his friends, his community, his colleagues, and his employers” [emphasis is Mann’s]. Yet he candidly admits that Billy may not have wanted to be a role model or hero. Perhaps he wanted to keep his private life private. He certainly continued to do so, even after he stopped being in the public eye as a movie star.

Mann writes, “If Billy were living, we’d probably question why the one decade during which he was a movie star is the primary focus of this book, while his three decades as a decorator – his life’s true calling – are reduced to just two chapters. Billy found personal satisfaction in his later career and rightfully considered his work in the design field to be of greater acheivement than any of his pictures.”

There is certainly a bigger market in book sales regarding Hollywood’s first openly gay star than Hollywood’s first openly gay decorator to the stars. If this was the decision on the part of the author to focus on the movie star instead of the decorator to the movie stars, it would have been a greater service to Billy’s acting career if Mann had critiqued his silent performances in more detail. Mann was given extensive access to Billy’s films through Charles Silver and Ron Magliozzi at MoMA. Billy loved the silent art and was loathe to leave it. The freedom he had to create his characters in silent films give a degree of insight into his persona:

Billy simply didn’t enjoy making talkies as much as he had silents. “When you make silent pictures, you leave the studio and go out to play,” he told a reporter. “When you make talkies, you leave the studio and go home to study your lines for the next day…. In my three years on the screen, I have been allowed the greatest freedom in so far as ad-libbing…. If I wanted to make a face or indulge in other pantomimic tricks, it was perfectly agreeable to everyone, providing that it was good for laughs.”

Talking pictures were different. “Dialog cannot be adlibbed,” he complained.

Mann is successful at relaying the crux of his theme: that William Haines was his own man and that he refused to “play the game.” This meant he was not willing to go along with Hollywood protocol to marry and create a faux lifestyle to maintain a veneer for the sake of career. He was one of the very few gay stars (Ramon Novarro included, who personally alluded to his lifestyle in a November 1967 article/interview from Films in Review by DeWitt Bodeen: “Novarro never married, and says: ‘That’s one mistake I did not make.’ …He also says the autobiography on which he’s working may have to be published after his death because ‘it’s very honest – and honesty can sometimes offend, I regret to say.'”) who maintained their conviction to their true lifestyle. This was at a time when Hollywood columnists did not openly and publicly point the finger and “out” gay performers.

The Old Days vs. the End of the 20th Century

Hollywood used to keep its secrets. When it came to gay stars there was reason enough – to financially protect the studio and the performer from a judgmental public. Today things have not gotten much better for gays on or off the screen. Many still maintain their lifestyle in secret from their employers and families. Gays can’t legally marry the same sex, their children can be taken away from them in some states and their jobs are still at risk despite legislation. In short, they don’t have the same constitutional protections as non-gay men.

Yet there is a practice happening now that will always be in debate – and it occurs in Wisecracker. There is much “outing” of famous people in this book. While some may be accurate and backed up by the person in question, there are far too many ambiguities and suppositions in the case of others. This practice is disturbing, especially when a person is no longer alive to refute or confirm. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. corresponded with the author and is quoted throughout the book. Having lived long enough to communicate with Mann, it is presumed he was given a chance to confirm or deny the rumors about him:

Fairbanks’ friendships with gay men led to some rumors that he might be homosexual himself. Mayer was relieved when he made the match with Crawford: “I was beginning to worry about him,” he said. The fact that – in contrast to his bullish, braggart father – Doug Jr., was a refined, well-read, cultured man leading many to question his sexuality. Fairbanks was not gay, but such impetuous gossip had become common in Hollywood, and it was about to get even more reckless.
It’s too bad that some of the famous that Mann outted in Wisecracker suffered the same supposition based upon looks, manner or behavior rather than substantiated fact. In his notes section, there is a total lack of documentation to support these pronouncements. A person’s inborn sexual orientation is their personal capital – to be spent when and where they choose. A powerful essay by Karen Swenson and Christopher Nickens, for the Lesbian News, March 1, 1997, takes to task the practice of outting in the press by anyone other than the person in question:

…Yet, even though it is currently fashionable for celebrities to publicly admit to their struggles with various addictions and moral transgressions, the “G” word is still locked firmly in the closet, at least for the vast majority of “A-list” stars who are rumored to be gay. So the cocktail-party guessing games, sleazy tabloid speculation and fictional musings of disreputable writers will surely continue unabated. Readers beware; question everything. Only then can the lesbian and gay community legitimately establish their Hollywood history.
Haines Made No Excuses

Billy Haines’ movie career began to sputter out at a time of movie industry transition. The silent era had given way to the dawn of talkies (in fact, Billy was the first M-G-M star to face the microphone). While being gay may have been an issue for some leading men’s departure from the industry, there was more to it than that. Gay and non-gay artisans were constantly jockeying for position. If one could become a star “overnight,” one could also be a has-been just as quickly. As Mann relates, Billy recognized this fact all too well: “One bad portrayal, voice or action, is liable to set a man back from the highest spot to the lowest. No screen player is definitely sure of his or her position now.”

In a business where youth and beauty rule, stars invariably had a short life span. They gained weight, they lost their hair and simply got older. If their films started to lose money, as they did in Billy’s case, they would have to step down the ladder. The only choices for these stars was to start accepting lesser roles and character parts. Billy wanted nothing less than his star status. The tastes of the audiences were also changing. One of Billy’s idols was silent star Charles Ray. He was inspired by, as were Ray’s legion of fans, the characterizations of Ray’s “hometown boy” who “shows up the city slickers.” Yet ironically, like Ray, Haines was caught in a career dilemma. The character that he perfected, and all but patented, was “the wisecracking ne’er-do-well who gets his comeuppance and reforms.” In both stars cases, the public grew tired of their old schtick, yet when either one tried a different kind of role, the critics (and audiences) roundly rejected any kind of change.

So, was Billy Haines denied a long career in films because of his gender preference, or did his star fade as many performers did? Even Mann cannot say for sure:

The answer is complicated. It’s too easy to say that Mayer simply wanted him out because he was gay and had caused them [the studio] headaches in the past, yet that cannot be dismissed as part of it, as perhaps the part that infused everything else. By 1932, Billy’s heyday as a top star had faded from the minds of most studio executives. It was a fast-paced, quickly changing world…. Billy was lumped into the old silent school, and silent stars, so went the conventional wisdom, were yesterday’s news.”

While Billy Haines is presented as being the first openly gay star, he preferred his privacy. According to Mann, Billy was a homosexual from the “old school” – private, decorous and discreet. Billy lived long enough to be aware of the gay pride movement that started in the late 1960s. He did not wish to “tell the whole world” and many of his friends indicated his disapproval of political flamboyance or what might be called today “gay liberation.” Bob Shaw, one of Billy’s friends, said:

He would’ve had no part of it, it just didn’t exist. That concept of being gay, being part of something bigger based on that. In those days, it didn’t come up. You have to understand that. I never even heard Billy say so-and-so was gay. In fact, you could be with Billy all night and, if you didn’t know, you’d never know he was gay.

Another friend of Billy’s, Michael Morrison, said:

I can’t imagine Billy at a gay-pride parade. But that doesn’t take away from his courage. He’d always done what he wanted to do.

Billy experienced sheer bliss in his second career. As a decorator to the rich and famous, he could still take star bows for his beautiful creations. He loved his work and thrived financially and artistically. The most important person in Billy’s life and heart was his companion of 50 years, Jimmie Shields. An unusual union by any standard, for it was a long-lasting relationship (that beat the California divorce statistics) and a happy, Hollywood union to boot (Jimmie was Billy’s stand-in when they first met). Those odds are tough to beat in any relationship. It is painful to realize that such loving and devoted companions could not live together openly. Mann notes that precious few photos actually show them together.

The author had access to many resources including an unpublished 1969 Haines interview with Marion Davies biographer Fred Laurence Guiles. As a rule, the former actor was extremely reluctant to be interviewed about his movie past. Unfortunately, Mann did not cite a compelling and candid 1972 interview of Haines conducted by Boze Hadleigh. It took Hadleigh a while to win Billy’s trust. Once trust was achieved, the interview was granted under the following conditions – that it be taped, and the tapes remain in Billy’s possession for seven years. The interview made it in a collection of celebrity interviews in Hollywood Gays (Barricade Books, 1996). It’s a rare chance to hear directly from the star himself, especially when much of it focuses on homosexuality and Hollywood. Hadleigh, in his own right, is considered a controversial author. However, the interview seems authentic and sincere. It should be noted that Mann was not shy about consulting and perpetuating information from other published sources that are deemed questionable in fact by film historians, such as Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon books, volume I and II.

As for Wisecracker, more of the secret life of William Haines is finally seeing the light of day. He may be a reluctant hero for the gay community. However, as long as there are movies gay artisans will always be a part of the creative output. It is time to rediscover Billy’s star. He left many movies behind for the world to enjoy. William Haines embodied the words “to thine own self be true.” Here is the most honest statement of Mann’s biography and the one I question the least:

That was the true beauty of his life, the beauty he left behind. That was what he assumed no one would ever understand. How he’d made his way into a world of fame and riches, how he’d won the respect of those in high places, how he’d overcome obstacles ever since he was a young boy, and how he’d gone off to achieve his dreams – all without surrendering who he was. All without ever compromising his sense of integrity. All without ever abandoning the man he loved.

Madison Morrison