Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

William "Billy" Haines

Out & Gay in Hollywood

William “Billy” Haines was born the evening of January 1, 1900, in Staunton, a railroad town in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (my home state!). Although it is still possible to stand in awe before the house he was born in, the small city of Staunton doesn't make a fuss over its famous citizen, likely because so few people are still alive who remember his meteoric rise to Hollywood stardom. 

He has my never-ending admiration, because he stood up to movie studio heads, refusing to "pretend" to be straight for the sake of the publicity machines. He chose dignity and respect for his lover over hypocrisy and ill-gotten fame. Haines, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Farley Granger and others were all told that their movie careers would be over if they came out of the closet. Out of those men, only Haines had the courage to defy the studios; the others chose to enter into sham, studio concocted relationships or marriages to cover up their sexual orientation.

While Cary Grant and Randolph Scott and their like tried to put one over on the public, Haines chose an honest life and did one better for himself. He switched careers, becoming fabulously wealthy as an interior designer to the stars. While he never left the glamorous world of Hollywood, he never again stood before a camera. Surprisingly, he had not longed to be a movie star, nor did he dream about being a decorator. Haines, an exceptionally bright and talented young man, recognized opportunity when it was thrust in front of him, and he took advantage of it. He lived by his wits, always seeming to make the right moves. Astonishingly, he reached the pinnacle of success in successive careers for which he had no training.

Haines was the grandson of one of Staunton's most prominent citizens, but at age 14 (!) he ran away from home with his boyfriend and opened a dance hall in Hopewell, VA, a city so known for wickedness and lawlessness that it was called "Sin City." His place of business, like everything else in the town, was burned to the ground in a great fire in 1915. Rather than go back to Staunton, he struck out for New York City, where he took a factory job at age 16. A tall, exceedingly handsome young man, Haines soon returned to Virginia to help support his family; his mother was pregnant, and his bankrupt father was in a mental institution following a breakdown. At 19 he returned to NYC, where an elderly gentleman arranged a job for Billy at a brokerage firm. He lived in an apartment in Greenwich Village for two years, becoming friends with Archie Leach (later known as Cary Grant), who was then in a gay relationship with costume designer Orry-Kelly. 

Restless and opportunistic, Haines found work as a model. He sent in his photograph to the "New Faces of 1922" contest sponsored by movie producer Samuel Goldwyn – and won. A screen test followed, and he packed up and moved to Hollywood, where he became one of the leading silent film stars of the 1920s and 1930s. Haines was named the leading male film star for 1930. His closest friend was Joan Crawford, much less well-known at the time. William Haines appeared in over fifty films, was the first MGM star to speak on film, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, just a few feet from the entrance to the Roosevelt Hotel, where the Academy Awards were first presented in 1929. 

Haines with co-star Joan Crawford in West Point (1928): 

However, gossip about his openly gay life threatened his leading man image, and MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer gave Haines an ultimatum: deny his homosexuality by engaging in a sham marriage or be shown the door. Haines refused to lie about his personal life, and Mayer did not renew his contract. He never worked in films after 1934, but pursued a stupendously successful career as an interior designer, which made him a multi-millionaire. Billy's life-long adage was, "One could be forgiven for illiteracy, but never for lack of good taste."

His Hollywood clients included prominent figures of the film community such as Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Frank Sinatra, Lionel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, studio head Jack Warner and director George Cukor. His social standing was decidedly A-list. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were frequent guests at his house. In 1969, most importantly, he was hired by Ambassador Walter Annenberg to design the interiors of Winfield House in London, the official residence of the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The million-dollar commission received international attention. In a career that continued until his death in 1973, he achieved fame as one of the most influential interior decorators of the 20th century. William Haines Designs remains in business to this day, with main offices in West Hollywood and showrooms in New York, Denver and Dallas. Many of his original furniture designs are still produced for the high-end interior design trade.

Winfield House, the U. S. Ambassador's House in London, as decorated by William "Billy" Haines.

Haines also made a name for himself outside of the Hollywood social circle of clients. His celebrated oval "Desert Living Room" showcased at the 1930 World's Fair in San Francisco featured geometric shapes, much leather, custom designed furniture and walls clad in Joshua wood. Photo below:

As well, he completely transformed the home of Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale in Beverly Hills. When purchased, it was a Spanish revival structure with red tiles on the roof, arched openings everywhere and stucco-clad exterior walls. In the late 1950s Haines gave it a total makeover inside and out, in a style he had created -- Hollywood Regency. Betsy Bloomingdale retained the Haines interiors until her death on July 19, 2016. Trivia: in December of 2016 out and proud polymath Tom Ford purchased the Bloomingdale estate (as seen from the rear, below) for $39 million.

From the mid-1920s Haines lived openly with his lover Jimmy Shields (his former movie stand in) for nearly 50 years. Joan Crawford described them as "the happiest married couple in Hollywood." Haines died from lung cancer at the age of 73. Two months afterward, a grief-stricken Shields put on Haine’s pajamas, took an overdose of pills, and died in his sleep. Their ashes are interred side by side in the Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica, CA.

The dashing Billy Haines with his great friend and actress Anita Page.

William Haines, dashingly handsome in a white suit, acting opposite his best friend Joan Crawford in a flirty, comic scene from Spring Fever (1927). Haines and Crawford remained devoted friends until Haines’ death in 1973. Every time she changed husbands, Haines redecorated her home. Kept him busy.

Principal source:
Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines
Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star
by William J. Mann (1999)
480 pages; Penguin Paperback edition

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Gilbert Roland

In order to be accepted in Hollywood, bisexual Mexican-born actor Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso (1905-1994) not only had to anglicize his name to Gilbert Roland, he also married a woman in order to maintain his commercial appeal as a "Latin Lover." Roland was one of the most handsome icons of the silent screen and one of the lucky ones whose career flourished in the subsequent sound era.  Not only that, he was able to retain his looks and youthful physique well into old age.

His father owned a bull fighting ring in Juarez, where five-year-old Luis helped out by selling seat cushions, handing out programs and attending the matadors. However, his family fled to El Paso, Texas, to escape the violence of Pancho Villa, and Luis’s fascination with bull fighting was soon replaced by an obsessive interest in Hollywood films.  Inspired by Rudolph Valentino, at the age of fourteen Luis hopped a freight train with just three dollars in his pocket and headed to Hollywood, sure he could become the next big movie star. Instead, he had to work unloading boats on Catalina Island in order to support himself. He found other menial jobs in Los Angeles, and his family followed him to make their home in California. 

By 1925 Luis had become a stunningly handsome six-foot tall 20-year-old who began to be noticed around town. He played a small part in the silent film The Lady Who Lied (1925) with Nita Naldi and next appeared in producer B. P. Schulberg’s The Plastic Age (1925), starring Clara Bow. Schulberg wanted Luis to change his name to John Adams. Instead, Luis chose a combination of the last names of his two favorite screen stars, John Gilbert and Ruth Roland.

It was not long before Gilbert Roland realized that, in order to get ahead in Hollywood, he needed to do more than anglicize his name. His heavily accented English and homosexual proclivities were standing in his way, so he began a short affair with the promiscuous Clara Bow, followed by a fling with Norma Talmadge, eleven years his senior and very much married to produced Joseph Schenck, who cast Roland with Talmadge in the important role of Armand in Camille (1927), and two other silent films with Talmadge – The Dove (1927)  and The Woman Disputed (1928) . When Talmadge and Roland premiered as co-stars in their first talking picture, New York Nights (1929) , Roland's voice captivated the audience, while the glamorous Talmadge was laughed at and ridiculed for her Brooklyn accent, effectively destroying her career. Keeping his eye on the prize, Gilbert moved on and ended his relationship with Norma.

During the 1930s Gilbert Roland distinguished himself in films starring Hollywood A-list actors such as Mae West, Constance Bennett, Don Ameche, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. In 1940 Roland married his co-star Constance Bennett (sister of Joan), who had already been married three times, but their stormy union ended five years later. Gilbert’s good looks, on-screen charisma and youthful physique helped him maintain a solid career into his forties and well beyond, highlighted by starringas The Cisco Kid in six films. 

His role in The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952) led him to be invited to Fatima, Portugal, to participate in the annual religious services commemorating the miracle that occurred in 1917. In 1954 he wed Mexican-born Guillermina Cantu to form a childless union that nevertheless lasted the rest of his life. Roland expanded his career with many successful television appearances and maintained his film career until 1982 (Barbarosa, a western), twelve years before his death in Hollywood at age eighty-nine. 


No Sound, No Tell. Gay Cinema in the Silent Era (2009) – Eric Brightwell

The Gossip Columnist (2010) – Bill Dakota

Monday, October 12, 2015

Ambassador Rufus Gifford

U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford  (right) married his partner, veterinarian Dr. Stephen DeVincent, in a ceremony in Copenhagen on Saturday, October 10.

In an Instagram post, 41-year-old Gifford wrote, “Just married in Copenhagen where the first legal gay partnerships took place 26 years ago. Now heading back to celebrate with our friends and family from all over the world at our residence under the American flag. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined such a perfect day. Life is good.”

Before President Obama nominated Gifford to be the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark in 2013, he was a former official for the Democratic National Committee, Obama for America, and the finance chair of the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

The U.S. Embassy in Denmark also congratulated the newlyweds with an official photo and a post on the Embassy’s Facebook page. Diplomatic relations between in the United States and Denmark began in 1783 when Denmark negotiated a commercial treaty with our new country.

The son of a banker, Gifford is a Boston native who graduated from Brown University in Rhode Island in 1996. A classmate was the daughter of John Kerry, for whom Gifford worked as deputy finance director for the western region, where he supervised the raising of more than $30 million in 2004. Gifford later raised $80 million from California for Obama’s presidential campaign, the largest amount from any state.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Gowns by Adrian

Gloria Swanson, playing Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard famously said, “We had faces then.” That’s true. But even more importantly, the female stars of Hollywood’s golden age had clothes.

Adrian Greenburg (1903-1959, shown at left with Greta Garbo in the pajamas he designed for her in The Single Standard (1929), generally known by the name Adrian alone, was a Connecticut born Hollywood costume designer famous for The Wizard of Oz and other MGM films of the 1930s and 1940s. During his 25-year career, “Gowns by Adrian” was a credit attached to more than 230 films. He created the padded shoulder look that Joan Crawford made famous. He dressed Greta Garbo* for virtually her entire movie career.

The December 1932 issue of Fortune magazine wrote an in-depth piece about MGM’s success. Focusing on Irving Thalberg, the studio executive in charge of production at the time, he said that the praise for MGM’s success should really go to two others – art director Cedric Gibbons and costume designer Gilbert Adrian, as he was known for a while (Gilbert Adrian was a combination of his and his father's first names).

Born Adrian Adolph Greenburg (his last name is often misspelled with three “e”s) on March 3, 1903, he graduated from Naugatuck High School (Connecticut) in 1920. His parents, Gilbert and Helena Greenburg, owned a millinery shop on Church Street.

Adrian studied art at the New York School for Fine Arts and Design (now the Parsons School of Design), then transferred to the school’s Paris campus, where American composer Irving Berlin admired one of Adrian’s costumes on a model. Seeking fresh material for his next project, Berlin asked Adrian to join him in New York to work on costume designs for the show Music Box Revue.

Although openly gay, in 1939 Adrian entered into a lavender marriage with actress Janet Gaynor, the lover of Mary Martin, in response to the anti-gay attitudes of movie studio heads, particularly Louis B. Mayer, who ran MGM studios.

In 1925 Adrian (at left) became head costume designer for Cecil B. DeMille's independent film studio. When DeMille moved to MGM, Adrian became chief costume designer at the studio, where he went on to design costumes for over 200 films. Among them were George Cukor's 1939 film, The Women, filmed in black and white; it originally included a 10-minute fashion parade in Technicolor, which featured Adrian's most outré designs. Often cut in TV screenings, the segment was restored to the film by Turner Classic Movies.

During this time, Adrian worked with some of the biggest female stars of the day like Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Jeanette MacDonald, Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. After leaving MGM, he established his own fashion house, which produced designs sold through Macy's department store. He also produced fragrances, notably"Saint" and "Sinner" perfumes and "Gilbert" cologne.

After suffering a heart attack in 1952, Adrian closed his business and retired to a ranch in Brazil, where he spent his time painting landscapes. He returned to California in 1958 to design costumes for two stage musicals. Before competing Camelot, he suffered a second, fatal heart attack in 1959 at the age of 56. However, there was rumor and speculation at the time that his death was actually a suicide.

*Garbo's film Camille (1936) is considered to be an entirely gay film, because every actor (notably Robert Taylor) and actress involved, as well as the director (Cukor) and all the designers, were either gay or bisexual.

Adrian's famous costume design for Katherine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story (1940):

...and for Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight (1933):

...not to mention Joan Crawford in Grand Hotel (1932):

...and Miss Crawford again in Letty Lynton (1932):