Betsy Bloomingdale’s elegant home in Holmby Hills was a showcase for the Hollywood Regency look pioneered by William Haines. Meredith Etherington-Smith looks at the life and work of the legendary decorator and designer
William Haines’ transformation from debonair leading man of silent movies to decorator of choice among Hollywood’s leading lights was nothing short of extraordinary. During the 1920s Haines was one of the biggest box-office draws in cinema, but in 1933 his refusal to end his relationship with Jimmie Shields, his partner, prompted Louis B. Mayer to cancel his MGM contract.
Having begun dealing in antiques part-time while still working as an actor, Haines set about reinventing himself as a decorator and accomplished furniture designer. Among his first clients was Joan Crawford, who commissioned Haines to decorate her Brentwood home and remained a close friend for the rest of his life. Other leading ladies soon followed, including Carole Lombard, Constance Bennett and Tallulah Bankhead.
Video: Betsy Bloomingdale and the art of entertaining
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.
Such was his attention to detail that once Haines had finished a house, clients tended not to change even the smallest feature. On occasion he did return to refresh an interior design, but invariably he kept all of the essential details in place — as was the case when he updated Betsy Bloomingdale’s home, which remained as he had originally envisaged it more than 30 years earlier.
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.
Specially designed table and floor lamps were important features in every house Haines decorated, often museum-mounted and featuring ceramics ranging from Chinese Blanc de Chine to fine export porcelains, individually chosen for each project.
The Haines legacy also encompasses impeccably buttoned and upholstered low-level chairs and sofas in quilted leather or trapunto. Intended to create intimate, informal groupings to suit the busy social lives of his clients, they were usually arranged around low card or coffee tables.
Internationally acclaimed decorator Michael S. Smith, who rediscovered Haines when the contents of the Jack Warner house were sold in 1990, is now one of a number of contemporary designers who avidly collect such pieces.
Each house Haines took on was changed and sometimes completely rebuilt. Walls with small windows in them might be knocked down to create floor-to-ceiling openings, which allowed the Californian sunshine to flood the interior and afforded views onto swimming pools and gardens.
As the grandeur of old Hollywood gave way to a more casual, breezy society built upon the new fortunes being established in sectors such as finance and publishing, Haines’ interiors began to feel more modernist.
He designed the interior of Sunnylands, the desert house built for Walter and Lee Annenberg, members of the so-called Kitchen Cabinet that formed around Ronald and Nancy Reagan. He also worked on the interiors for Winfield House in London, the residence of the American ambassador, when Annenberg, a publishing magnate, was appointed to the post by President Nixon.
Video: Inside the Bel Air home of President Reagan and his First Lady — also designed by William Haines
Other members of the select and influential Californian group that helped to propel the Reagans to the White House via the Governorship of California included Earle and Marion Jorgensen, Armand and Harriet Deutsch and, of course, the Bloomingdales.
Nancy Reagan admired Haines’ work in the houses of her friends and chose Ted Graber, who took over Haines’ practice following his death in 1973, to restore the private family rooms and some of the main public areas of the White House. Not surprisingly, the schemes they settled on were heavily influenced by Haines’ signature Hollywood Regency aesthetic.
Today, Haines’ furniture looks wonderfully fresh, from the quilted gondola sofas to the hostess chairs and the chaises longues designed for outdoor swimming pools.
Following the 100-per-cent-sold sale of the The Private Collection of President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan in September 2016, the concluding parts of the Betsy Bloomingdale: A Life in Style sale offer collectors the opportunity to acquire classic pieces by William Haines from one of the great homes of Hollywood.