Haines at Home: Vintage Hollywood
A self proclaimed homosexual at fourteen, a dance-hall-cum-brothel proprietor by his late teens and a self-styled “kept” man of a well to do dowager before becoming a model, William Haines was destined for controversy, high style and large living from the time he arrived in Hollywood in 1922 after winning a talent contest.
Handsome, urbane, debonair, he appeared in over twenty films as a leading man to Hollywood’s most famous stars including Joan Crawford, Marion Davies and Constance Bennett. Yet, Haines may best be remembered for introducing the idea of “lavender” marriages to Hollywood and high society after he refused to deny his homosexuality.
Legend has it that Haines was arrested in 1933 after propositioning a sailor he met in Los Angeles’ Pershing Square. Louis B. Mayer, the studio head at MGM at the time could not afford the derogatory publicity accorded his leading man and issued an ultimatum: choose between a sham marriage or “lavender marriage,” or continue his relationship with James “Jimmie” Shields (Haines’ live-in partner of several years). Haines prudently chose Shields and they were ultimately together for almost 50 years. Joan Crawford once described them as “the happiest married couple in Hollywood.”
Safely settled with his declared fidelity to Shield, Haines went on to redefine the way movie stars lived. Encouraged by his partner, he lived large, playing the role of a successful movie star to the hilt.
Gifted with a flair for exquisite style and unerring taste in design, Haines and Shields opened an antiques shop while working at MGM. Celebrities such as Joan Crawford were so impressed, they hired the team to update their own dark, heavy residences with a lighter, fresher and more sophisticated look.
Success soon followed and in 1935, Haines moved his office to Sunset Plaza on the famed Sunset Boulevard. The building was classically grand and the landlord allowed Haines to renovate it to his specifications. With four Ionic columns and two large curved windows, this prominent office attracted a new breed of client that would ultimately include Ronald and Nancy Reagan when Reagan was governor of California, and Walter and Leonore Annenberg with their 240-acre estate “Sunnylands.
In one of those intriguing little asides, this classic edifice would later become the famed Le Dome restaurant, popular with the celebrity clientele that originally visited Haines offices.
Unusual artifacts like Chinoiserie were used with great flair and became one of Haines design signatures. Not only were the offices styled for a residential feel to make clients feel right at home, but everyone remarked on the lighting that would in time gain renown for their singular customization and special effects. (Staging Tip: No cords could show).
One of Haines most notable commissions during the 30’s was the 1939 San Francisco Worlds Fair. Every element of the Desert Living Room (featured above) at the exposition was sensual and well designed.
It was during this period that Haines began to design his own furniture, including the saddle stitched leather game chair. This chair so captivated architect Samuel Marx, he purchased a pair of them for his own Chicago apartment.
When Haines moved his office to 446 Canon Drive in Beverly Hills in 1949, there was a definite transition and stylistic shift from Neo-Classicism to modernism that came to be known as Hollywood Regency.
“When you do a home,
you must do it
with the feeling
that it has been
lived in for years.
The rooms must look
as if there
might be carpet slippers
beside a chair,
and a pipe or two
on the table.”
The studio was more than an office. Clients experienced amazing Haines touches first hand, such as draperies by Dorothy Liebes, handwoven screens, low furniture, cove lighting and, of course, those famously ubiquitous Chinoiserie statues.
His look was always exciting, unexpected and glamorous with signature touches that included artifacts, museum mount lamps with objet d’art, low seat furniture, Hostess chairs, and swivel tools with conversation settings designed to enhance the grandeur and glamor of the moment.
Special pieces of mid century Soft Modern furniture were customized for grand entertaining and elaborate parties. Swanky, long Haines sofas were displayed with a myriad of chic, elegant seating conveniently designed for lively parties and conversation. With cocktails clinking and ball gowns wafting, the Haines moment in decorative history was secured.
A Haines styled environment where Interior designer Antonia Hutt pairs leather Brentwood chairs with a Warren Platner side table, c.1998.
Another Haines environment sets a mood of pure poetry and functionality. Dining tables were designed for versatility with five sections — three squares and two D shaped pieces to be changed for dining, cocktails or conversation.
Sharing a background in entertainment fostered a clientele of Hollywood movie moguls with big personalities and dreams to match. Haines understood their desire for good taste but also how they were perceived by their industry peers. They trusted him with their most personal image, their home interiors and sense of high style, all the while raising the bar of extravagance to new heights.
In 1937, Jack and Ann Warner contacted Haines about re-decorating their ten-acre estate in Beverly Hills. The famous architect, Roland E. Coate revamped the 13,600 square foot mansion into a Georgian palace complete with a Greek revival portico. The landscape, designed by Florence Yoch, was sumptuous with a very theatrical Regency style daybed at the foot of the pool designed by none other than William Haines.
This well known cantilevered house in Hollywod, an example of modernism designed by Haines and famously photographed by Julius Shulman, captured the essence of the 1950’s.
The Rancho Mirage winter residence of famed billionaire and socialites, Walter and Lee Annenberg, was designed by Haines in 1966. Sunnylands, with over 32,600 feet displayed world class art and a guest list of royalty, dignitaries and Presidents.
After an enviable life of glitz and glamor, Haines died from lung cancer in Santa Monica, California at the age of 73. Soon afterward, Shields, who suffered from what many believe to be Alzheimer’s Disease, put on Haines’ pajamas, took an overdose of pills, and crawled into their bed to die. They were interred side by side in the Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery.
William Haines Designs remains in operation, with main offices in West Hollywood and showrooms in New York, Denver and Dallas.
Haines’s life story is told in the 1998 biography Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star by William J. Mann.
His designs are the subject of Peter Schifando and Haines associate Jean H. Mathison’s 2005 book Class Act: William Haines Legendary Hollywood Decorator.
World of Wonder produced Out of the Closet, Off the Screen: The Life of William Haines, which aired on HBO in 2001.
Haines has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7012 Hollywood Boulevard.