Monday, 1 September 2014

William Haines: A Brave Gay Man in Hollywood

This week was Pride Week in my hometown, and I volunteered as I always do for the Calgary's Queer History Project booth. I was speaking to a friend about the current acceptance of gay and lesbian actors in Hollywood and she asked me if I knew who the first one that was 'out'.

I do, but only because I recently read a really good book Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star. William (Billy) Haines (1900-1973) was a silent-screen movie idol. Good looks, decent acting, and a sharp tongue won him a host of fans.
William "Billy" Haines (1900-1973), silent film actor-turned-decorator to the stars - photo by Edward Steichen
I can't see why they thought he was hot in the 1920s, no not at all.
He started out in 1922, by sending his photograph to a "New Faces" contest sponsored by movie producer Samuel Goldwyn. Haines won and started his film career under contract with Goldwyn's MGM but was loaned out to other studios. His break out came with Brown of Harvard (1926) with Joan Crawford, who became a life long friend. Haines was named a top-five box office star from 1928 to 1932. He was known for being seriously hot, funny, and a smart-ass.

Then he fell in love. On a trip to New York in 1926, Haines met James "Jimmie" Shields. He convinced him to move to Los Angeles with him, where he could get him work as an extra. Shields agreed. They became a couple and stayed together for the next 40 years, until Haines death. Joan Crawford once remarked that they were the happiest married couple in Hollywood.

From left: Shields, Haines, Joan Crawford, and unknown dude in the 1940s. I love men in black tie.
While his friends had no problem with him being gay, the rest of the country had issues. In the 1920s, homosexuality and sexuality for many in big urban areas was to be celebrated. The puritanical-ism of the depression in the 1930s things changed. In 1933, Haines was arrested with a sailor he had picked up. The MGM studio head Louie B Mayer informed him that either he agree to a sham marriage or a lavender marriage, end his relationship with Shields, or his career was over.

Haines was awesome. He refused to deny his homosexuality.

He rejected Hollywood hetro-normative demands and decided to leave acting. Using his connections, Haines became an interior designer, creating furniture and designing beautiful homes for the rich and famous in Hollywood. But don't let that fool you into thinking they just gave him work. Haines was one of the best ever and became a legend in the design world. His furniture is still in demand, with two chairs having been sold recently for $43,000.

Don't think his life was easy. He and his partner were beat up at least on one occasion in 1936 by an angry mob of reportedly white supremacists from their home. No charges were laid, of course. The couple settled in Brentwood, California. Haines died of lung cancer at the age of 72. A sad ending note, however. His life partner Shields could not live without him, and committed suicide soon after.

Rest in peace, you magnificent man.

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