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

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

by William J. Mann

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In 1930 William Haines was Hollywood's number-one box-office draw—a talented, handsome, romantic lead. Offscreen, he was openly gay. This bestselling biography captures the rich gay subculture of Hollywood before the Production Code—before studio intimidation led to the establishment of the Hollywood closet. Alone among his contemporaries, Billy Haines


In 1930 William Haines was Hollywood's number-one box-office draw—a talented, handsome, romantic lead. Offscreen, he was openly gay. This bestselling biography captures the rich gay subculture of Hollywood before the Production Code—before studio intimidation led to the establishment of the Hollywood closet. Alone among his contemporaries, Billy Haines refused to compromise and was ultimately booted out by Louis B. Mayer. Forced to give up acting, Haines went on to become a top interior designer to the stars and to clients such as Nancy Reagan. By his side through it all was his lover, Jimmie Shields; their fifty-year relationship led their best friend, Joan Crawford, to call them the "happiest married couple in Hollywood." Wisecracker is an astounding piece of newly discovered gay history, a chronicle of high Hollywood, and—at its heart—a great and enduring love story.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The now-forgotten Haines made the leap from contract player to featured actor in 1926 and was Hollywood's top male moneymaker in 1930. But a combination of changing times and battles with Louis B. Mayer over his love life ended his career by 1936. Thereafter, Haines made a fortune as one of America's top interior designers without giving up his principles. Journalist Mann's detailed biography, based partly on interviews with gay Hollywood figures who knew Haines well, reveals a film community whose public and private faces rarely coincided. Haines and his partner's 50-year life together and that of other long-term gay Hollywood couples demonstrates a commitment rarely seen among any couples. Highly recommended for its vivid portrait of these overlapping communities.Anthony J. Adam, Prairie View A&M Univ. Lib., Houston
Entertainment Weekly
Trenchant, sensitive...

Product Details

Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.38(w) x 8.04(h) x 1.03(d)

Read an Excerpt

There are various stories about just how William Haines came to be a movie star. His wasn't the typical Hollywood story, of the starry-eyed youth who dreams of becoming another Valentino or Mary Pickford, who boards a train and sets out for Hollywood with nothing but pluck and a smattering of talent. He seems to have paid little attention to the movies, beyond attending the shows in Staunton and cavorting with actors and artists (like Jack Kelly) who'd done some work in the field. "I had never before given a thought to the stage or screen," he recalled of the moment just before destiny caught up with him -- in the person of a Hollywood talent scout with the unlikely name of Bijou Fernandez.

Bijou Fernandez was forty-four years old in late 1921, a former musical-comedy actress, a crusty Broadway and vaudeville veteran. She'd appeared on stage as a child with James O'Neill in The Two Orphans, and later in Augustin Daly's company of A Midsummer Night's Dream. As an adult she'd appeared in Man and Superman, but now she was following in the footsteps of her mother, Mrs. E. L. Fernandez -- the first female theatrical agent in America -- and working as a promoter for Goldwyn. She'd been entrusted with the much-ballyhooed campaign to find the "New Faces" of 1922.

Legend says Fernandez spotted Billy walking down the Broadway and stopped him. "I like your face," she said.

"So do I, but it ain't mine," he told her. "I'm breaking it in for a friend."

A pretty story. Very much in keeping with Billy's image after he became a star. He's suitably witty, and besides, fans love stories of chance discoveries. It made them believe it could happen to them, too.

Another story may contain more truth. In this one, Billy was at a photographer's studio, and a fellow model (identified in some stories as Eleanor Boardman, but that's likely more Hollywood fluff) asked why he didn't try out for the movies. Intrigued, Billy said he'd give it a shot. In this version, he borrowed some of Mitt's clothes, sat for a series of portraits, and sent them over to Goldwyn's New York offices, without Fernandez ever seeing him on the street (although from all accounts, she does appear to have been an early booster of his career).

This seems more likely. By this point, Billy had become a regular in photography studios. He's surely have heard about Goldwyn's "New Faces" contest: It was on the lips of models throughout the city, most of whom hoped to be "discovered" by Hollywood. The contest was one of those publicity-driven campaigns that the Hollywood studios, giddy with their own success, loved to foist on the public. By plucking an unknown out of the teeming masses and pledging to make him or her a star, the studios perpetuated the myth of Hollywood. It was just like the myth of America -- where anyone could make it big -- except it was even more grand and glamorous. Making it in Hollywood didn't simply turn you into a successful capitalist; Hollywood, with a wave of its magic wand, turned you into a god or goddess.

The Goldwyn studios were, at the moment, in the midst of a power struggle. Samuel Goldwyn had founded the company in 1916, but his temperament had made it difficult for his partners. In particular, the ambitious Frank J. Godsol had designs on the top spot himself. The two partners were dissimilar in manner -- "Joe" Godsol was handsome and stylish, even ostentatious, while Sam Goldwyn was homely and rumpled, given to making obtuse quotations. Both were canny wheeler-dealers, however -- shrewd operatives who wrestled for control of the company.

Goldwyn was still at the helm when the "New Faces" contest was authorized in the fall of 1921. Casting director Robert E. McIntyre was put in charge of selecting the winners. At a stockholders meeting in March 1922, Godsol was persuasive in blaming Goldwyn for the studio's all-time low profits over the past year, and the pioneer producer was voted out of the company that bore his name.

It's not clearly exactly when the contest results were decided by McIntyre, but it was certainly before Goldwyn's ouster. It was probably in December 1921, as Billy would later write he waited three months before leaving for Hollywood, and we know his first day at the Goldwyn studios was in March 1922. Out of more than a thousand entrants in the male category, Billy had been selected as the winner. On the female side, Eleanor Boardman, also working as a model in New York, was chosen.

One story -- certainly apocryphal -- has Billy getting the call from Bijou Fernandez just as he was getting ready to return to Richmond for Christmas. He couldn't come down for a screen test, he told her, as he had a train to catch.

"But this is a great opportunity," countered Fernandez.

"I have my tickets," Billy supposedly insisted. "The holidays are coming and I'm going home. I can't be bothered."

This is patently absurd. McIntyre would have dropped him like a hot potato, picking up the next photograph in the pile. Again, it was part of the image nurtured by the publicists for Billy: the wisecracking, down-to-earth fellow who never really wanted to be a star.

That much may have been true, as far as it goes. Billy had no particular ambition to be a movie actor (or an actor at all, for that matter) but winning that contest was truly fateful, and he knew it. Had the movies not discovered Billy Haines, who's to say what kind of life he might have led? He might have had some success modeling, but such work wouldn't have opened the avenues to him that the movies did. For a young man in search of the finer things in life, who wanted the kind of existence he'd tasted so briefly on Fifth Avenue, Hollywood provided the perfect opportunity. He had no skills, no ambition to succeed in any particular thing -- just the ambition to succeed, period. Winning the "New Faces" contest was the deus ex machina solution to his dilemma.

He never made it home for Christmas. He took a streetcar over to Goldwyn's New York office, met with Fernandez and McIntyre, and made the screen test. It apparently proved satisfactory, as he was given a contract that started him at $40 a week. This was considerably more than he'd ever made before (except for his Hopewell days). Billy was suddenly feted around the Village as a star-in-the-making. He made grand promises not to forget his friends, vows they certainly took with grains of salt. But Billy was a man of his word. To his family, too, he promised that if he made it in Hollywood, they'd share in his success. He had every reason to think that this just might be the break he'd been looking for, the fortune he always expected he'd find.

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