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Meher Tatna

Meher Tatna was born in Mumbai, India and came to the U.S. on a scholarship to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts where she graduated cum laude with a degree in economics. For the past 20 years she has freelanced for publications in Asia and her film criticism, essays and interviews have appeared in Vogue, Grazia, Femina and Elle in India, IMN in Singapore and Malaysia, and The New Paper in Singapore. Tatna was a member of the HFPA since 2002, serving in every position in the association’s administration including president from 2017 to 2019. During her presidency, the HFPA significantly increased philanthropic giving by expanding its film restoration funding and inaugurating its support of journalistic organizations with million-dollar grants announced at the Golden Globes. In 2018 she was invited to chair the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Awards in New York with host Bill Whitaker of CBS News.

  • Industry

Forgotten Hollywood: William Haines

In 1930, when 90% of the population was going to the movies every week, William Haines was the biggest box office star in Hollywood. By 1927, he was only one of seven MGM stars to have his name above the title in his movies.

Three years later, after he had made more than 50 silent films and successfully transitioned to talkies, Louis B. Mayer, studio chief of MGM, tore up his contract and threw him out of the studio. Haines was gay, lived openly with his boyfriend Jimmie Shields, and refused to hide his lifestyle and enter into the ‘lavender’ marriage Mayer was demanding.

In the Roaring ’20s, Hollywood was a permissive society with free-flowing booze, drugs and sexual freedom. Prohibition was established in 1920, but that was not a problem in Tinseltown. Haines lived the Bohemian lifestyle to the fullest, counting on the studio ‘fixers’ and the bought-off press to keep his sexuality from audiences.

The 1930s brought a series of scandals to Hollywood and the backlash from conservative and religious groups was so severe that it threatened the existence of the movie industry. Will H. Hays, a postmaster general, was appointed Hollywood’s morals czar by the studio heads. He produced a ‘Production Code,’ a series of regulations that forced the studios to censor their own films. By 1934, the Code was thoroughly enforced and the Production Code Office handed out seals of approval before a film could be released.

In this climate, the last straw for Mayer was when Haines was arrested in 1933 in a YMCA for picking up a sailor in Pershing Square, and rumors began to fly about his sexuality. He issued his ultimatum to Haines. “I am already married,” Haines told Mayer, referring to Shields. “I’ll be glad to give him up just as soon as you give up your wife.” So ended his movie career as Haines picked an authentic life over stardom.

Haines was born on January 2, 1900, in Staunton, Virginia. He grew up fascinated by movies and ran away from home at 14 with another boy he called his ‘boyfriend’ to Hopewell, Virginia where the two got jobs working at the DuPont factory. In 1919, Haines moved to New York City, living in laissez-faire Greenwich Village and working as a model when he was discovered by a talent scout as one of the “New Faces of 1922” for Goldwyn Pictures. He then went on to Hollywood where he was signed by Goldwyn for $40 a week. After appearing in a series of small roles, Haines achieved his breakthrough with The Midnight Express in 1924, followed by Little Annie Rooney (1925) with Mary Pickford, and continued his success with Brown of Harvard in 1926 by which time he was a big star.

 

In 1926, on a trip to New York, Haines met Shields who traveled back to Hollywood with him and worked as his stand-in for a while. The two would stay together for 47 years till Haines died.

More successful movies like Alias Jimmy Valentine, his first talkie in 1928, Show People (1929), Navy Blues (1929) and Way Out West (1930) cemented Haines’ position as the number one star in Hollywood.

In a Vanity Fair article written by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in 1932, Fairbanks describes his friend thus:

“Billy Haines is, physically, a most annoying and contradictory person. He is gigantic of stature – with extraordinary large bone structure, together with a deep resonant voice. He is muscular without being athletic, yet when he walks there is a certain grace that suggests delicacy. There is masculinity in his actions, yet a definite tendency toward femininity in his thoughts …

“He is embarrassingly frank in everything that he does. He carries about him no inhibitions or “spooks” as to convention or precedents, and does what he damn well pleases, either because he wants to, or because he thinks it is right. He is candid to a fault . . . He is the life of every party — its most likable fool, and at the same time its most profound philosopher … He is a diligent worker and the majority of his most amusing scenes are the result of an impromptu inspiration. He would rather be a serious actor than a comedian, but being a good business man, he knows that at the moment his success lies in comedy.”

After his firing, Haines managed to pick up a few minor movie roles, but a new chapter began for him, that of interior decorator to the stars based on his lifelong love of antiques. He gave up acting, saying, “It’s a rather pleasant feeling of being away from pictures and being part of them because all my friends are. I can see the nice side of them without seeing the ugly side of the studios.”

 

His good friend Joan Crawford hired him to decorate her Brentwood house – all in white – and launched him as the go-to designer to the stars. He became known as the “King of Hollywood Regency,” and his signature style was creating movie set-like spaces that people could live in.

According to Christies.com, “Haines’s genius was to look beyond the dark, Spanish-influenced, neo-colonial interiors that were typical of the silent-movie era, and to introduce a lighter, prettier look based on 18th-century English manor houses in its place. The aesthetic proved popular and was quickly adopted by major film industry players such as director George Cukor and studio boss Jack Warner, among many others … Key Hollywood Regency ingredients included hand-painted, restored or specially commissioned Chinese floral wallpapers, fine English furniture such as Chippendale chairs of the George III era, and chinoiserie, such as George Cukor’s wall-mounted aquarium in a chinoiserie frame.”

Haines designed the interior of press baron Walter Annenberg’s estate, Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, as well as the interior of Winfield House in London, the US Ambassador’s residence in London, when Annenberg held the post, appointed by Richard Nixon. (Nancy Reagan had Haines decorate her house in California and had William Haines Designs decorate private rooms at the White House as well as some public areas after Haines’ death when his work was carried on by his associate, Ted Graber.)

Other clients included Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard, Marion Davies, Betsy Bloomingdale, Constance Bennett and Tallulah Bankhead.

Life as an out gay man still wasn’t easy for Haines. In 1936, a group of a hundred men severely beat up Haines and Shields at their house in Manhattan Beach, accusing them of child molestation. The accusations were never proved but the perpetrators were never punished either.

Haines died from lung cancer in 1973. Three months later, Shields swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills, saying in his suicide note, “Goodbye to all of you who have tried so hard to comfort me in my loss of William Haines, whom I have been with since 1926. I now find it impossible to go it alone, I am much too lonely.”

The two, called by Joan Crawford “the happiest married couple in Hollywood,” rest together in Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica.