As we celebrate Pride each June, it’s easy to overlook those courageous souls who forged the path for LGBT rights well in advance of the Stonewall Riots in 1968. Elsie de Wolfe, William Haines and Philip Johnson are three people who are known primarily as iconic designers and who should also be recognized as for the courageous way they chose to live their lives.
Elsie de Wolfe, (1859–1950) is said to have created the field of interior design at the turn of the 20th century. As the country’s first female interior decorator, she introduced a fresh and stylish aesthetic that defied the dark Victorian fashion of the day. De Wolfe embraced simplicity and comfort as her credo and in doing so, set the tone for American home decorating for the next 100 years.
In 1891, Elsie de Wolfe fell in love with Elisabeth Marbury, a successful New York theatrical agent who represented Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw and other famous playwrights. Both women created successful careers in an era when society women didn’t typically work, especially not in occupations dominated by men. Elsie and Elisabeth remained together as inseparable companions for forty-two years until Marbury’s death in 1933.
William “Billy” Haines (1900-1973) ran away from his Virginia home at the age of 14 with his first boyfriend and landed in Hollywood at the start of the silent film era. With his good looks and “wisecracking” personality, Haines quickly becoming a major star and number one box office draw. In 1926, William Haines met Jimmy Shields and the two started living openly as a couple despite major objections from M.G.M, the studio that held Haines’s contract. In 1932, Haines refused the studio’s mandate that he leave Shields and marry a woman, bringing an abrupt end to his film career.
Haines and Shields leveraged their connections to start an interior design business working with clients such as Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard, Marion Davies and George Cukor. William Haines went on to create a sleek, modern aesthetic that became the prevailing look for Hollywood homes in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Many of his iconic furniture pieces look as modern today as they did when he first designed them, 60-70 years ago.
William Haines and Jimmy Shields remained together for forty-seven years. Joan Crawford described them as “the happiest married couple in Hollywood.”
Philip Johnson (1906 –2005) was a Harvard-educated, Pritzker Prize-winning, American architect who founded the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. During his prolific career, Johnson designed the Seagram Building and MOMA (New York City), the JFK Memorial (Dallas), 101 California Street (San Francisco) and the Glass House (Connecticut) and many other famous buildings.
In 1960, Philip Johnson met David Whitneyand the two settled into a forty-five year relationship that lasted for the rest of their lives. Philip Johnson came out publicly in 1993 and was a vocal advocate for LGBT rights until his death in 2005 at the age of 99.
We should be grateful to people like Elsie de Wolfe, William Haines and Philip Johnson for defying the social codes of their day, setting a courageous example for the generations that would follow in their footsteps.