Bio of Gay Actor Gives Rich Portrait of '20s Hollywood

WISECRACKER: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF WILLIAM HAINES, HOLLYWOOD'S FIRST OPENLY GAY STAR By William J. Mann 444 pp., $29.95 Viking

William Haines was not a very good actor, but he was a very popular one, and in Hollywood of the 1920s the priorities were the same as those of Hollywood today--it's the box office that counts. Haines is one of the now-forgotten stars of the silent screen: handsome, witty and good-natured, between 1926 and 1931 he was one of the biggest box-office draws in Hollywood, top on MGM's roster of stars and adored by women film fans everywhere. Specializing in playing the role of the "wisecracker," a joking, likable trickster hero who starts out a bit of a lout but always learn his lesson by the end of the film, Haines made his on-screen name as a romantic hero and his off-screen reputation as one of the most outgoing, charismatic and popular figures in Hollywood.

Haines was also gay, and he set a trend in Hollywood by living openly with his lover, Jimmie Shields. When the political waters changed around the early 1930s, Haines refused to play the studio "game"--to repudiate Jimmie, to enter into a sham marriage as so many other actors did, to pretend to be what he wasn't. And it is this that precipitated his early exit from the movies, around 1934. Now the biographer and journalist William J. Mann, fascinated by Haines's colorful rise and fall in the film world and his unique refusal to cave in to the studio demands, has shaped around his life an intriguing exploration of fifty years of shifting Tinseltown mores.

Mann, taking an affectionate but carefully critical view of the hero of his book, traces Haines's life through its multiple metamorphoses. One of the book's central revelations is that Hollywood in the 1920s was a place where it was possible to be openly gay. Homosexuality was simply accepted; gay and straight people mingled socially as well as professionally, and there was a line dividing the on-screen persona of an actor from his private life. But with the advent of sound and the conservative reactionism of the 1930s which accompanied the start of the Great Depression, a crackdown ensued on both the content of the films and the private lives of their stars.

Mann shows us both the long-term effect of these forces upon the movies--the infamous Hays morality code, which constrained the movies to representing a rigidly defined value system whose iron grip did not begin to loosen until the 1960s and '70s--and the very personal impact upon the actors in Hollywood. The studios declared that being gay was no longer okay in Hollywood, thereby avoiding the harsh criticism of the Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups, and providing spin control on the gossip newspapers that were rapidly taking on an alarming independence. Actors who were rumored to be homosexual were ordered to get married and give the public what it wanted: a persona who fit the on-screen image of an acceptably "manly" man or "feminine" woman. Most actors acquiesced, to one degree or another. When Haines told MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, in a scene that has become legend, that he was already married--to his lover, Jimmie Shields--he found himself "booted out" of the movie industry.

Haines's life both in the movies and afterward, as "decorator to the stars," provides a keyhole through which we can get a very intimate glimpse of Hollywood life, gay and straight, as it once existed behind the veil of secrecy. Haines knew everyone (and seems to have had affairs with many of them). Through his eyes, as reconstructed by Mann, we see the increasingly hidden world of early gay Hollywood: the actors--Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, Claudette Colbert and Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Ramon Novarro--and the people behind the scenes, such as director George Cukor and jet-setting composer Cole Porter, the two focal points of gay male Hollywood society in the 1930s and 40s.

The William Haines story is also a love story, although its poignancy does not become fully apparent until very late in his biography. Both Haines and Jimmie Shields seem to have been remarkably private men; despite the hundreds of Haines quotations and reminiscences by friends that Mann has drawn on, most of Haines' comments to the world feel like "wisecracks"--his trademark brand of defensive humor--and it's hard to get a feeling that we understand this man's inner life. Even less information remains about Shields, and what reminiscences his friends do offer sound rather more boorish than endearing. (Rumor has it that Haines' estrangement from Cole Porter, for instance, was precipitated by Porter's catching Jimmie undecorously having sex with a sailor in the bushes during one of his elegant soirees.)

The biography of William Haines is a remarkably rich document of 50 years of changing Hollywood mores, and Mann has succeeded admirably in his stated goal of shedding light on the too-long-neglected world of early Hollywood gay life and culture. But it's the other threads running through Haines' life which give the book its impact: Haines' changing friendships, his passionate love for his interior design business, his catty treatment by the scandal press and his devotion to Jimmie. Through that intimate, personal story, Mann is able to successfully bring home the impact of what started out as his book's central narrative: the sociopolitical story of the "institutionalization of the Hollywood closet....the story of how an industry changed, how a community of artists and free thinkers turned its back on its own in the face of organized, traditionalist pressure." But it's the personal details that hit home in this story of an endearing if imperfect wisecracker, one whose few remaining friends today remember him, above all else, not for his jokes but for his quiet courage.