Class Act: William Haines, Legendary Hollywood Decorator
Peter Schifando and Jean H. Mathison
Pointed Leaf Press
Rex Reed, the original filmland New Journalist, once described the Hollywood super A-list in a famous 1970s essay (and compared it cruelly to its New York equivalent). He didn’t mean just actors, but established producers, directors and other rich Californians. These people were exactly young, they had serious money and – because these were the 1960s and 1970s – they still aimed fro a pretty formal, dignified kind of life. Civilised, sort of Europeanised. Couture when it meant something. English and French antiques.
Serious pictures, particularly Impressionists – by then the established collection category for the mature American rich – and branded early 20th century greats like Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani. They knew the arcane pleasure of high thread-count imported sheets from Porthault and, of course, they had cellars full of Puligny-Montrachet, Talbot, and Chateau Yquem.
Many of these people were actually second generation, the sons and daughters of the original movie moguls, the Mayers and Warners. It all seems unimaginably remote now, with big California money so concentrated on IT and its elaborately played-down stealth wealth, its middle-aged casual, kidult dress codes and its big, beamy, barny houses full of American Indian art.
But if you were trying to sum up that lost world for twenty- and thirtysomethings – you wouldn’t have a hope of teenagers – I think you’d say it was the Nancy Reagan set. Nancy and Ronnie and their friends and backers amongst the Californian rich. The department store Bloomingdale’s for instance, or the media tycoon Annenbergs (Walter Anneberg was US ambassador in London from 1968 to 1974).
Republicans, of course; we’re not talking about Hollywood’s parlour-pinks here, the McCarthy resisters and runaways. Think minks and Caddies, tight faces and frosted hair. Above all, you’d have defined these people by their houses. Not the ubiquitous Spanish Colonial, let alone any kind of Beverley Hillbilly-Graceland look: the aspirant big money went for a sort Classical. Panelling, big chimney pieces, the look of the better kind of Hollywood set design when it was pastiching East Coast Classy (Bette Davis or Katherine Hepburn vehicles) or English Upper (David Niven, Basil Rathbone).
From the 1930s to the early 1970s, the interior decorator of choice to Hollywood’s serious money was William Haines, a handsome former silent film leading man Haines had been given an ultimatum from the MGM production chief Louis B Mayer in 1933, ‘You’re either to give up that boyfriend of yours or I’ll cancel your contract’. Haines voted for the boyfriend. Jimmie Shields, and took up interior decoration full time.
He was by then thoroughly networked with his own generation of cast-iron stars – Joan Crawford was a friend, like Douglas Fairbanks Junior – and had an instinctive feeling for the glamorous Hollywood take on classical style. He was the key pre-war provider of ‘Hollwood Regency’. A dreamland neoclassical mix of imagined English country house – salvaged panelling pediments, read-made libraries – with chinoiserie, chandeliers, and new home comforts. His houses had the latest heating, masses of bathrooms and modern kitchen. Miles better than the real thing.
Haines had started with his own Hollywood houses, bought in 1926 with his earnings as a movie hottie. The two-storey Spanish-style villa was massively reworked over the next ten years, unrecognisably re-rendered as Regency outside, while the interiors were transformed with new windows, panelling, chimneypieces and cornicing.
The idea was 18th century English manor house, but the effect was more Park Lane than Petworth. (Tallulah Bankhead, souther upper class by background, sarkily called in Haines’s castle.) But the housewarming launch in the summer of 1927 pulled the A-list, and Haines went on serving them till he died in 1973 (by then looking rather like late period Carey Grant).
The pre-war Haines look gave Hollywood big money Glamour with Dignity. It made recent immigrants feel they’s come from Sag Harbour, Maine, and former burlesque performers who’d married well feel like Vanderbilts and Astors. The post-war Haines look was something else again; Luxury Modern without Tears.
From the 1940s on, Haines, always eclectic in producing those apparently seamless classical interiors, was introducing his own new designs. In pictures of Joan Crawford’s re-done living room of 1949, against the emphatically Georgian architectural detailing, there are two of his own signature elbow chairs – short backs, splayed legs – and the most extraordinary free-form tufted ottoman – a sort of 1955 Wiggly Word – in front of the urns-and-reeding fireplace.
From then on, Haines was fantastically inventive, with huge houses that sometimes present as Classical but have movie screening rooms with case square cut modern sofas, and those distinctive elbow chairs. Those original Haines designs are now high cult in 21st century American decorator-land.
From 1939 on Haines took on board the new architecture, particularly the impact of huge plate-glass windows and poolside living. By the time he decorated the new Holmby Hills house of Edie Goetz, Louis B. Mayer’s daughter, in 1949, this new luxury modern style was fully-formed and so forward-looking you’d mistake the photographs for 1956 or later.
The Goetz sitting room has no cornice, a huge plate-glass coffee table on plain square legs, a Van Gogh above the completely plain fireplace opening and coffee-coloured shag-pile. Later in the 1950s working with the American modernist architects like A Quincy Jones, Haines produced his own luxury take on the Noguchi coffee table and the chunky shelf.
Haines’s social highpoint was probably re-doing Winfield House, the US ambassador to London’s 1930s mock Georgian residence in Regent’s Park, for Walter Annenberg in the 1960s. It’s some of his worst work, painfully ‘posh’ and piss-elegant and desperately careful, full of expensive real things looking as dated and unconvincing as a 1960s hotel. (His successor Ted Graber went on to do something equally unconvincing to the private apartments in the Reagan White House in the 1980s.)
But at his best – the distinctively Californian mid-1950s luxury modern look – Haines was completely brilliant, making houses for wannabe sophisticated billionaires that look utterly modern and hugely copiable now.
Class Act is a book fit for the trainee billionaires, too. Every spread shows serious money, most are filmic and OTT; nothing looks secondary or padded out. The chapter ‘essays’ by different heavyweight hands like Vanity Fair’s Bob Colacello, are intelligent and socially savvy. And the production values, of course, are just terrific.