Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star by William J. Mann, narrated by Bo Foxworth
Wisecracker, the autobiography of William Haines aka Billy Haines is so much more then that. It’s more a LGBT+ and cinematic history framed out within the life of Billy Haines, a man the author deeply admires and who is present throughout the decades of change the industry underwent.
Written in 1999, it’s language seems to be that of an earlier era, much like Billy Haines himself who dies in the 70’s. It takes some getting used to, a little dramatic, a tad overly descriptive but upon reflection, very in keeping with the man himself.
Mann is extremely precise about the details of the life of Billy and Jimmy Shields, Billy’s partner of almost half a century , from house addresses to actual menu’s of the dinners they served to guests over the years. On the other hand, he’s also just as easy to “guess” if a certain someone had an affair with someone else, saying it might had occurred. So in parts, this book is both hard fact and flights of gossiping fancy, albeit decades old. A strange mixture.
For cinemaphiles, this will deliver and delight. Not only does it cover the silent age of movies but the beginning of the studios, the silent actors and their lives. Especially their sexuality and amazing freedom of the times. From directors to the writers and subject matter of the silent movies, Mann covers it all. In depth. This includes who is sleeping with who or whom. There’s a lot of romping going on. Gay, lesbian, but no one labeled each other as such yet. But who is romping with who, is an eye opener, especially when it’s fact based. I did not know that about Claudette Colbert. Huh.
Billy’s life from Virginia to NYC to California is well documented and entertaining. He was indeed unstoppable. But it’s the life as it launches in Hollywood that brings all the history together. The excesses of the new film industry and the actors. Truly no boundaries in their real lives or on film. The tight knit group that arose between studio, publicity magazines and their writers, so incestuous that the balance and secrecy was maintained for years, protecting both stars, film, and studio from any close Investigation.
The parties, the lives, the actors of this age are all well documented, especially as Billy Haines is situated right in the middle of it all, climbing to the top of the ladder at the studio, making friends with some of the best known actors today, including Joan Crawford, who remained his and Jimmy’s friend their entire lives.
Wisecracker rumbles through the tumultuous and scary years of the new conservative film morality code which mirrored that of society at large and of Hollywood moguls concerned about their pockets. Flims became bland, so did certain stars manufacturer and/or reface themselves to fit this new conservatism. Not so William Haines who refused to get married to a woman like others and give up Jimmy who he was living with. Instead as the pressure increased, the roles fled and he was forced out, William Haines began a new and even more successful stage of his life. That as one of the most important and successful architects/designers of his time.
Self taught, relying now his own extremely good taste, William Haines designed and decorated the houses of the stars, diplomats, the big business millionaires , and politicians, including the Reagan’s. Take a moment and google William Haines architecture and design to see both his early 30’s style and the later modern furniture and design he became known for. Much of it is still fresh and frankly, pieces I wish I could afford myself.
Mann charts this rocky path as thoroughly as he did Billy Haines earlier life, spending much time on the partnerships as well as the people and houses he contracted for. Again all fascinating stuff.
However for much of this book what I was missing was the love story. The one that was legendary. The one where Billy told Louie B Mayer “I’ll give up Jimmy, the day you give up your wife.” He was after all the man who gave up his career for love. Or as Joan Crawford would tell everyone “they had the happiest marriage in Hollywood “.
But where was it here?
Not until the last pages did a semblance of it appear. It was at the end , when Jimmy commits suicide, leaving behind a note that will leave you sobbing. Heart wrenching in detail, saying he can’t go on without his Billy. It’s the first true feeling we get of Jimmy Shields . He’s an enigma for most the book and one I’m not sure the author likes very much. The words used to describe him up til then are emotional and a bit unsavory. Freeloading or troublesome is the jist you get from the author’s passages as if he didn’t understand their unequal relationship and it perturbed the author because he idolized Billy.
Even during the most disturbing section of this history and the biggest scandal of Billy and Jimmy’s life (as well as Hollywood’s at that time), the strongest defense Mann offers is that Jimmy wasn’t known as a pedophile, although the victim’s account that follows is straightforward and doesn’t even see himself as a victim even as young as he was. I’ll leave each reader to their own conclusions.
But in the end, Mann admits the men were private and he didn’t know that much about Jimmy. Something I wondered when thinking about all the details of their previous lives and knowing that Jimmy was in the Navy, his family etc. . This still strikes me as a spacious argument. However, the fact remains that Billy Haines is forever paired with Jimmy Shields. Together in life for half a century and resting side by side in Hollywood, California. The happiest married couple Hollywood ever did see. Maybe it’s enough that they existed through all this, all this remarkable history and remained each other’s center. How fantastic, how magnificent. How courageous.
That’s worth the price of admission right there.
I thought the narrator did a excellent job with a manuscript that sometimes got a little dense or flowery. But it’s packed with amazing facts, scintillating knowledge, and men and women who lived to the fullest.
I highly recommend this story. William Haines and Jimmy Shields, of Silent films and the path to modern cinema, of fan magazines and the road to present paparazzi, of intimate seating and mansions to die for.Wisecracker has all that and more.