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Gentlemen preferred Haines: a new documentary traces the life of 1920s movie idol Billy Haines, who quit acting rather than closet himself, then became interior designer to the stars--including Joan Crawford. (television).

In 1930 William Haines was America's number 1 movie star. He was also gay. Haines lived with his lover, Jimmie Shields, and never posed on the red carpet with a beard on his arm. But in 1933, after Haines was arrested by a Los Angeles vice detective for taking a sailor to his room at the YMCA, MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer gave him an ultimatum--choose your contract or your personal life. Haines chose the latter and proved what his dear friend Joan Crawford always said: "Jimmie and Billy have the happiest marriage in Hollywood."

Haines, the funny, butch raconteur with a booming voice, is the subject of the new documentary Out of the Closet, Off the Screen: The Life of William Haines, premiering February 5 on the American Movie Classics network. Based on William Mann's biography Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star, the film is produced and directed by longtime partners Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey (the gentlemen who brought us The Eyes of Tammy Faye). "What attracted us to the story was the bizarre fact that even today, there are no out leading men in Hollywood," says Barbato. "It also helped us explore our fascination with early Hollywood, which was such a haven for lesbians and gays."

Narrated by Stockard Channing, the film traces Haines's rise, fall, and rise again as an interior designer to the rich and glamorous. In a time when over-the-top Gothic was the Hollywood rage, Haines was known for simple, modern restraint--and an actor's sense of drama As Betsy Bloomingdale recalled in The New York Times, Haines set tables and chairs low to the ground "to make the room and the people in it grander. "His clients included Crawford, Carole Lombard, Frank Sinatra, George Cukor, Nancy and Ronaid Reagan, Jack and Ann Warner (a nearly 17,000-square-foot estate later bought by David Geffen), and Waiter and Lee Annenberg, who had him redo Winfield House, the London home of the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, when Walter assumed that post in 1969.

Christina Crawford, author of Mommie Dearest, grew up in her mother's Haines-designed home, which featured a long, narrow dining room with four chinoiserie panels and smooth parquet floors. (Christina wasn't allowed in the living room because it was virtually all white.) Crawford, who is currently working on a history of pre-Inquisition female spiritual figures, has fond memories of Uncle Jimmie and Uncle Willie. "Mom was always in a better mood when they were around," she says by phone from her Idaho home. "Her relationship with Haines was extremely, extremely rare. She behaved toward him like a best friend and allowed him to tease her. He was like her big brother, and I never saw her act that way with anyone."

Indeed, the relationship between Crawford and Haines was one of reciprocal support and loyalty. When he was on the outs with MGM, Crawford kept him in the public eye and hired him to decorate her home. And when Shields was accused of child molestation, Crawford was equally supportive. Haines, in turn, was invaluable to Crawford. They knew each other from their early days in Hollywood, and many credit Haines with creating Crawford's image. He was on call to "edit her jewels" and designed her homes specifically to bring out her best. "Surprise! Joan Crawford was created by a gay man," observes Barbato. "She helped him reinvent himself because he helped her invent herself."

Perhaps the most compelling element of Haines's life is his love story. He and Shields were together for 50 years. They designed their home, with its perfectly manicured English garden, and filled it with their passion for antiques. "They were never apart," recalls Crawford. And in spite of Haines's rumored flings with George Cukor, Clark Gable, and Christopher Isherwood, their relationship endured. Just months after Haines died of cancer (in 1973), Shields swallowed a bottle of pills, taking his own life.

"It's a heartbreaking story," observes Barbato. "But I really think it shows the difference between Haines and contemporary Hollywood. He was more than just his career. He found passion and joy living his life honestly."

Find more about William Haines and the works of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato at

Stukin also writes for Time.
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Title Annotation:Out of the Closet, Off the Screen: The Life of William Haines
Author:Stukin, Stacie
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 5, 2002
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