Although he declared that taste trumped love or money, interior designer Billy Haines did, in fact, once choose love despite everything else—in a way that dramatically changed his life.
Or so the story goes. In 1930, Billy Haines was the top male box-office star, successfully making the transition from silent films to talkies. He appeared in dozens of films throughout the 1920s with leading ladies who included Mary Pickford, Anita Page and Joan Crawford.
Although his career was in its ascendancy, with the advent of the Great Depression, cultural mores began to change. The wild, hard-drinking excess of the flapper years seemed to shift almost overnight to a cultural conservatism that spawned the Hays Office and a rating system that prohibited, along with many other things, the depiction of "excessive and lustful kissing."
If a kiss could get you into trouble onscreen, "immoral" behavior off-screen could sink your career. Although Haines played romantic leads, he lived openly as a gay man.
A native of Staunton, Haines ran away at 14 with another boy to Hopewell. DuPont had just opened a plant there, and the town that grew up around it was notoriously wild. It was the kind of place where an ambitious teenage boy like Haines could open a dance hall that might also have been a brothel (according to a biography by William J. Mann) and send money back to his family.
After a fire destroyed the DuPont plant in 1915, Haines moved to New York but soon had to leave to take care of his family after his father went bankrupt and had a nervous breakdown. They moved to Richmond, and his father found work as a building supply salesman while his mother became head of the dressmaking department at Thalhimers.
However, while working at the Richmond Dry Goods Co. as a clerk, Haines said in a 1929 Photoplay article that he was "constantly unhappy, restless all the time." With his family finally financially stable, he moved back to New York. At age 22, he won a "New Faces" talent contest and signed a contract that began his career in Hollywood. That career lasted until the early 1930s.
"Why did I leave motion pictures for interior decorating? A very simple reason," he said, according to Class Act: William Haines, Legendary Hollywood Designer by Peter Schifando and Jean Mathison, "Louis B. Mayer kicked me out. It was the kindest thing he ever did for me."
MGM studio head Mayer gave Haines an ultimatum: Get married or get into another line of work. Haines chose to stay with his partner, Jimmie Shields, and launched a design career that made him more famous than the box office ever did.
Joan Crawford was his first client. More stars followed and soon, Haines' style, dubbed Hollywood Regency, came to epitomize wealth, glamour and luxury.
"I've never been quite divorced from show business," he said in a 1949 New York Times profile. "Many of my friends are my clients. I feel part of them. I'm still an actor who's hanging curtains."
Haines liked long furniture, low to the ground, and mixing antiques with sleekly modern items. Chinoiserie pieces were important, and velvet, silk and quilted, shiny chintz were favorite materials. Lean and spare horizontal lines were juxtaposed with unexpected curves. The rooms were large and designed both for entertaining and to aggrandize the host.
"I loathe cozy cottages. They were made for farmers and peasants, not ladies and gentlemen," he said.
Although Haines died in 1973 of lung cancer, his memory lives on in William Haines Designs, a furniture company that continues to sell reproductions of his designs. In addition, his influence can be seen in the work of designers such as Jonathan Adler and Kelly Wearstler, who also specialize in an over-the-top flamboyance awash with shiny surfaces and campy accessories. Wearstler, in an email to R.Home, said, "Billy Haines was one of the pioneers of the Hollywood glamour. His awe-inspiring designs are still so relevant today."
Haines said, "Who is to say what is good taste and what is bad? I don't know what taste is. It's like a fog…. you can see it and feel it, but you can never touch it."
Photos courtesy William Haines