WISECRACKER by William J. Mann


The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star
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 Journalist and novelist Mann (The Men from the Boys, p. 669) nicely probes the American century's shifting mores in this biography of the nearly forgotten silent-film star William Haines. Haines's lifelong refusal to hide his homosexuality is the central theme here. Born in 1900 in small-town Virginia, he ran away from home at the age of 14 and opened a dance hall (possibly a gay brothel) in the nearby brawling factory city of Hopewell. Soon he arrived in Greenwich Village, where he befriended struggling show people, including Jack Benny and Archie Leach--the future Cary Grant and one of several gay actors whose efforts to conceal their sexuality Mann cites in sad contrast to Haines's forthrightness. Modeling work led to a screen test and relocation to Hollywood, where there wasn't yet much stigma against homosexuality--even he-man homophobe Clark Gable apparently had a romantic escapade with Haines. In 1926, Haines achieved stardom and fell in love with sailor Jimmie Shields, who would remain his companion until Haines's death in 1973. The actor developed a flippant ``wisecracker'' personality for the fan magazines in order to deflect attention from his failure to romance starlets: ``Wisecracking allowed him to walk the line,'' Mann notes. His close friendships with William Randolph Hearst and Joan Crawford were balanced by MGM boss Louis Mayer's moral disapproval, which was evidently the main reason for the cancellation of Haines's contract in 1933, even though in 1930 he had been the industry's top male star in box-office receipts. Haines thrived for 40 years in his second career, as an interior decorator; commissions from movie stars and, later, high-profile clients like Walter Annenberg and then-governor Ronald Reagan made him wealthy. As attitudes about homosexuality changed, Haines never hid his relationship with Shields and apparently rarely suffered for it. Insightful, packed with entertaining gossip, and an illuminating reminder that knee-jerk homophobia has not always been the American way.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-670-87155-9
Page count: 464pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1997


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