Quietly nestled within a lush, manicured garden in sunny Los Angeles, is a Roman marble sculpture, "The Lansdowne Herm". To understand how this historical artefact, a Roman marble herm of a Kore, (circa 2nd century A.D., with late 18th century restorations) found itself on the sunny West Coast of the United States, as part of an exceedingly long and lively life, is to understand the extraordinary life of William (Billy) Haines.
Haines, a Hollywood star of the silver screen in the 1930s, and latterly, celebrity interior decorator, was one of Tinseltown's most colourful characters. Blessed with a magnetic personality, sparkling charisma and a love of life, he flickered onto the silver screen in the mid 1920s and proceeded to charm all who encountered him.
Billy Haines was born on the second day of the 20th century. He found his way to Hollywood after being discovered by Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, while working as a model in New York. The subsequent meteoric rise in Hollywood saw Billy becoming the toast of Tinseltown, rapidly establishing himself as a box office star in roles with the likes of Mary Pickford, Marion Davies and Joan Crawford. Billy specialised in wise-cracking, leading man roles, thanks to his wry sense of humour which translated well to the emerging talkie era. By 1930, he was a cinema sensation.
However, at his peak, circumstances began conspiring against him and his movie career began to wane. So did his relationship with studio mogul, Louis B. Mayer, who was horrified by Billy’s refusal to hide his gay lifestyle. A public taboo at the time, anathema to the studio establishment, most gay actors hid their sexuality as a matter of course. But, always his own man, Billy was having none of it. Unusually for Hollywood at the time, he had been in a stable long-term relationship with his life partner Jimmie Shields since 1926, a partnership once described by Joan Crawford as being the “happiest marriage in all of Hollywood” (and one that would last til his death in 1973). Still, nervous of what would happen should Middle America discover their idol's personal preferences, in 1934 Mayer gave Haines an ultimatum. Either he undergo a sham marriage or have his contract terminated. Many stars would have buckled under this career-ending condition. Haines apparently told a thunderstruck Mayer, “I’ll leave Jimmie when you leave your wife.”
Mayer Billy was promptly ditched by Mayer and by extension, the Hollywood studio network. Forced to re-align, he turned his convivial charm and irrepressible personality to to interior design and antique dealing. This came naturally to Haines, who not only possessed an innate eye, but had a few years prior, spent a prolonged stay at San Simeon, William Randolph’s Hearst Californian castle, as a guest of Hearst’s mistress (and Billy's former co-star), Marion Davies. Whilst wandering through the attic where Hearst stored his collection of antiques and collectibles, Haines was so entranced by sheer wealth of treasures stashed away, he persuaded Hearst to let him stay another three months to catalogue the collection. Haines absorbed a lifetime's worth of experience from the great publishing magnate. Thrilled with his new obsession, Haines described Hearst as being “…incredibly knowledgeable. We had a rapport and he was very patient with me. I learned a great deal from him[i].”
The trip to San Simeon sparked a passion that was to burn for the rest of Haines's life, a deep love and appreciation of antiques. And, supported by his loyal Jimmie and encouraged by an A-list cabal of friends, Haines began decorating full time in 1934. His first major client was Joan Crawford.
Haines's arrival into the world of antiques and interior design came at a fortuitous time. With the movie industry just over a decade old, new money was cascading into Hollywood Hills and there was no shortage of newly-wealthy, style-conscious clients in the burgeoning industry. Billy began receiving commissions from big studio names such as Jack Warner and George Cukor to prominent philanthropists like Betsy Bloomingdale and the US ambassador to the UK, Walter Annenberg. Billy was also feted by the new breed of political royalty, headed up by local power couple Nancy and Ronald Reagan. They all loved Haines for his parties, his kind heart, wicked sense of humour and panache. Friends and clients would excitedly talk about Billy's knack for mixing disparate elements - chinoiserie and English furniture, for example - with more modernist touches, like hand-painted colourful wallpapers, that positively shimmered with the optimism of Hollywood’s new golden era.
Haines used his own homes to showcase his work. “This is where I bring my clients," he explained. "It’s simply the best way to expose them to a certain quality of life as I live it. Showing is always more meaningful than telling over a barren desk.”[ii] This was certainly true of the house in Brentwood where Haines and Shields lived from the 1940s until their deaths in 1973. Haines curated the house in his signature style and outside, in the lush, landscaped gardens, stood the Roman marble statue which started this story, the Lansdowne Herm.
Herms were popular Roman garden and courtyard adornments, usually placed at physical boundaries such as crossroads, or doorways, as well as in gymnasia, near tombs, and in the agora. By the Roman period, they served largely a decorative purpose, and evolved from being mounted exclusively with the head of Hermes, to being topped by either janiform or singular busts of other gods, mythical heroes and historical portraits.
A long, happy and successful life drew to a close in 1973, when Haines died of lung cancer. Six months later, heartbroken and diminished by Alzheimer's, his loyal partner for almost fifty years Jimmie Shields overdosed on pills. His suicide note read "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 house, once a place of dreams and joy, ended up in a foreclosure sale where it was eventually purchased by a young family from South America, unaware of Billy's history. But upon learning something of their home' former owner and the man behind its singular design, they left the décor of both the interior and the garden nearly intact, including the Herm, still placidly surveying its garden domain.
This piece - known over recent centuries as the Lansdowne Herm - is a storied and legendary artefact. Reputedly discovered at the site of Roman emperor Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli by Scottish antiquarian and dealer Gavin Hamilton in 1769, it is thought to have been acquired by the British collector of antique marbles, the Marquess of Lansdowne, sometime in the early 1770s. The Marquess was so taken by his sculpture collection he spent the next 45 years hiring and firing architects, none of whom seemed to be able to design a proper sculpture gallery, in his Berkeley Square home. Finally, shortly before his death, a satisfactory design was created by architect George Dance and little more was heard of the Herm, until it was included in Christie’s sale of the Lansdowne collection on March 5th, 1930. There, as the star lot of the sale, it sold for a princely £136 10s.
How it made its way to Los Angeles from London remains one tale that Billy Haines never quite got around to telling. But when a sale of pieces from Haines’ collection was previously sold by Sotheby Parke Bernet in Los Angeles in 1978, a friend told his biographer, “Billy would have loved to see his things here at Sotheby’s… I think he would have stood in a corner watching to see who came and try to overhear what his friends really thought of his pieces.[iii]”.
Nearly 50 years later, the Sotheby’s auction of Ancient Sculpture & Works of Art is delighted to share Haines’ extraordinary story through the lens of this wonderful sculpture, the thrilling centrepiece of William's garden and a quiet witness to millennia of history.
[i][i] William J. Mann, Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star, Viking, New York, 1998, p.131.
[ii] Mann, p. 318.
[iii] Mann, p. 384.