The first openly gay actor to have worked in Hollywood was silent film superstar William Haines. Haines’ staunch refusal to hide his homosexuality, or to deny his relationship with his life partner, Jimmie Shields, set a true precedent still felt today.
The historic Supreme Court decision over the weekend that officially legalized same sex marriage in all 50 states is a watershed moment in American history. It is only right to stop and look back at the first Hollywood actor who proudly stood up for what he believed was his right to love. As a result of Haines’ refusal to be anything other than who he was, his relationship with Shields, which lasted until Haines’ death in 1973, was, as Joan Crawford famously said, the “the happiest marriage in Hollywood.”
The handsome, witty Haines was one of MGM’s hottest properties in the 1920s and a consistent top box-office draw into the early 30s. He had a knack for natural, fluid comedy, always coming across as nothing less than completely authentic and making him America’s ideal boy-next-door. The cheeky, mischievous, youthful exuberance that made him so popular with audiences (and among his friends) suggests the unapologetic self-assurance that allowed him to live his life by his own rules.
For a taste of Haines’ infectious screen persona, here’s a clip from one of his most successful films, King Vidor’s Show People (1928), opposite Marion Davies:
Billy Haines met the slim, dashing Jimmie Shields in 1923 and they moved in together soon after. At first, the two enjoyed an open relationship, living a surprisingly free, out of the closet life among the Hollywood set at a time when homosexuality was taboo and simply never discussed–whether in private or in public.
The 1998 biography Wisecracker: The Life and Times of Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star, by William Mann, paints the societal picture this way:
The social constructs of homosexuality were not what they were today … it took courage to refuse to play the Hollywood game of arranged marriages and photo-op dates (Anita Page notwithstanding). There was no gay movement in 1930, no political imperative to identify in the public arena as homosexual. While Billy Haines might have refused to take seriously publicity linking him to Pola Negri, he also never introduced Jimmy Shileds to the pages of Photoplay. Such was simply not part of the social consciousness of the time. Yet he lived a completely authentic life. In the more permissive days of the 20s and early 30s, being homosexual was simply something that was— at least in Hollywood. There might have been no such animal as a “public identity” of a gay man in those days, but Billy Haines came close. He was a man perfectly suited for his times.
Things changed drastically in 1933 when Haines was arrested for propositioning a young sailor in downtown Los Angeles. Shields took the news rather well, given their hitherto free relationship, but Haines’ big boss Louis B Mayer was quite another story. Mayer, quick to squelch the scandal, ordered Haines to choose: it was either his MGM contract or Jimmie. “I’ll be glad to give up my boyfriend,” Haines told Mayer, with the added provision: “Just as long as you give up your wife.”
There would be no sham, lavender marriages for Haines. He was going to live his life exactly as he wanted.
This ballsy, triumphant declaration would cost him his film career: Haines was promptly dropped from MGM and was Doom-Booked by the Hays office. Haines career as an actor was over.
But Hollywood’s loss was, well, Hollywood’s gain. During his MGM years, Haines had dabbled in the antique business and now, stripped of his contract, Haines proved himself to be an entrepreneur. He was chummy with such influential designers as Orry-Kelly, and was fast friends with a number of powerhouse leading ladies such as Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Constance Bennett, Gloria Swanson, Marion Davies, and Rosalind Russell.
Hollywood welcomed Haines, and Shields, with open arms.
The indomitable Haines went into business with Shields and, thanks to his star-studded clients, quickly became Hollywood’s resident celebrity interior designer.
As Haines himself said, “I would rather have taste than love or money.”
His designs are, today, probably best known as “Hollywood Regency”–a dramatic yet modern take on Old World style. And his talents were far from overrated. In 1939, his work was even part of the monumental (and highly impactful) World’s Fair in New York.
Haines’ most loyal client was his dear friend Joan Crawford. Their friendship lasted their entire lives, and Crawford trusted Haines’ taste implicitly. They held a deep connection that went back to their days in the 20s. As Haines once recounted, “Crawford thought we should get married. This was back in the 1920s, when I was a star and she was a rising flapper. It wasn’t just a crass question of her ambition; we were very good but platonic friends. I told her, ‘Cranberry’ – my pet name for her – ‘that isn’t how it works in Hollywood. They usually pair men who like men and ladies who like ladies.’ Because if we both liked men, where would we be as man and wife? She’d resent me, and that would be the end of our beautiful friendship.”
Regarding Shields, their love lasted unto death. Haines succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 73, which proved too much to bear for Shields. Six months after Haines’ passing, Shields committed suicide by overdosing on pills, dying in their bed. Both Haines and Shields are interred side by side.
Even today, more than 40 years after his death, Haines’ designs remain a major influence within the design community; his work being re-issued on a regular basis. He even has a showroom, headquartered in Los Angeles, that to this day retains an exclusive, glittery clientele.
In the mainstream, Haines is shrouded in relative obscurity, but his role as a gay icon– and an icon for marriage equality– is in a position for serious reevaluation and appreciation. As the President of the United States stated over the weekend, “… The Supreme Court [has] recognized that the constitution guarantees marriage equality. In doing so they have reaffirmed that all Americans are entitled to equal protection of the law, that all people should be treated equally regardless of who they are or who they love.”
Somewhere, both Billy and Jimmie are smiling. Just like their countless millions of fellow members of the LGBT community, their love is proof that, against all odds: #LoveWins.
Excellent piece Carley!