William Haines, Hollywood's First Out Gay Superstar

In an era where actors covered up their sexual orientation, Haines let Hollywood know who he really was.
William Haines.
William Haines. / John Springer Collection/Getty Images (Haines), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

William Haines was sure he’d be fired one day. The twentysomething worked as an errand runner for a financial office in New York City in the early 1920s, and he was self-admittedly low on work ethic. Given a task, he would end up wandering about the city instead.

But fate intervened in the form of a woman who accosted him on the street and asked if he had ever considered being in the movies. A slightly puzzled Haines followed her directions to an address where he got a screen test, and within five years, he was considered one of the top box office attractions in America.

For those who followed Haines in the press, certain words and phrases kept cropping up. He was a “bachelor,” journalists wrote; studio moguls insisted he “lacked sex appeal,” slotting him into a wisecracking screen persona. Underneath it all, Haines was a gay man in both a business and an era that was intolerant of that. Even so, he made no effort to conceal it in Hollywood circles, and his career ascended—until he was forced to choose between his further success and staying true to himself. Haines’s decision would affect him for the rest of his life.

A Broadway Debut

William Haines was born in Staunton, Virginia, on January 2, 1900. As a teen, he had a rebellious streak. He ran away from home at the age of 14 and settled in Hopewell, Virginia, where he and a boyfriend got jobs working for the Du Pont chemical company. By his late teens, he had grown into a tall, athletic man possessed of good looks, good taste, and a sardonic disposition—all traits that could help a person succeed in the bustle of New York City.

Haines later said that his father worked in finance and arranged for his son to get a job as a messenger on Wall Street. In Wisecracker, William J. Mann's biography of the star, Mann wrote that Haines’s father was actually a cigar maker and that his mother, a dressmaker, led him to the job in New York. In either case, the work kept him fed and housed but was unrewarding: Haines assumed he would have been terminated if not for parental influence.

William Haines is pictured
William Haines. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

In 1921, Haines was walking on Broadway when he was approached by Bijou Fernandez, a talent scout for Samuel Goldwyn Studios, which was soon to be part of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), then one of the studio giants in the nascent motion picture industry. Goldwyn was in the midst of their New Faces Contest, which tasked both their own employees as well as theater owners with finding the next crop of stars—men and women—to populate their films. Though there was no guarantee of stardom, it meant getting a foot in the door.

“Imagine it,” Haines told The Morning Call in 1929. “She was actually walking the streets of New York, looking for prospective motion picture stars and that’s exactly how I broke into pictures.”

Fernandez instructed Haines to walk to an office several blocks away so he could be photographed and evaluated for any hint of a screen presence. With nothing to lose, he submitted to the cattle call and waited to hear something.

While Haines awaited word, he was fired from his job as an errand boy and took on work as a commercial model. But before the year was out, he learned he was the top male pick for MGM’s contest. (Eleanor Boardman, whom he actually met while modeling, was the studio’s female choice.) Both were packed off to Los Angeles, where MGM offered them steady work—for a little while.

“We got contracts for six months at $40 a week and moved on to Hollywood,” he said.

Today, actors are largely free to entertain roles anywhere. In Haines’s time, they were usually under the thumb of exclusive contracts that kept them at one studio and with little choice of parts. One of Haines’s first tasks was being an understudy for actor Antonio Moreno in the film Passions of the Sea, which shot in an exotic locale that made executives nervous that one or more of their stars might fall ill. It was an ignoble start, though at least Haines could say he was actually working in Hollywood.

A number of small parts followed, all of which were part of the silent film era. But the public seemed apathetic at best to Haines. After a series of films failed to result in any buzz, he was called to see MGM executive Abe Lehr. As Haines later recalled, Lehr dressed him down, dubbing him a bad actor with no romantic appeal.

Haines had a reasonable explanation: MGM had literally picked him off the street.

Lehr was amused by his brashness and reconsidered firing him. Haines went on to star in several sports pictures, playing boxers and ball players. While he may have appeared convincing as an athlete, it wasn’t his favorite theme. “I’m fed up on athletic roles,” he said, before adding that he knew it was a fortunate position to be in.

“Don’t get the idea that I’m temperamental. I’m not. I hate to hear some of these stars say ‘I cawn’t do this’ or ‘I cawn’t do that.’ Whenever I hear ‘em I ask, ‘What did you do before you got into pictures?’ When I feel that way myself I stop and think that I might have been doing hard work if it wasn’t for this picture racket, and then I’m satisfied.”

 In 1926, Haines scored a breakthrough role in Brown of Harvard, a football-themed college comedy that became his first sizable hit.

“The director wouldn’t have me, but the executives won, as usual, and I was starred,” he said. “The picture made a great deal of money, so my troubles were over.”

It was also the year Haines met the man who would become his partner for the next half-century. In some ways, his troubles were just beginning.

The Haines Code

During a trip back to New York City in 1926, Haines met Jimmie Shields, another bachelor and a former sailor. The two hit it off: Haines spirited Shields back with him to Los Angeles, where he found Shields work as an extra and stand-in.

He and Shields attended parties and made the social rounds together, befriending the likes of Joan Crawford, Mary Pickford, and other A-listers. As some stars dropped off the radar with the advent of “talkies,” or sound pictures, Haines remained. In 1930, his first “all-talking picture,” Navy Blues, got a warm reception (1929’s Alias Jimmy Valentine had “talking sequences” but was not precisely a talkie). He was said to be just one of seven MGM stars who warranted having their name above the movie title, a status symbol in the business.

William Haines and others are pictured
William Haines lunches with his Hollywood friends. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Critical response was another story. When one reviewer labeled him a “ham,” Haines had a ready retort: All the best ham comes from Virginia, he said.

By this point, Haines wasn’t making any attempt to hide his sexuality from his peers, though the public was another story. If a journalist became privy to such knowledge, they were unlikely to report on it, as it would mean angering the studio executives who granted them access. Nor would anyone be racing to broadcast Haines’s out status in a business that relied heavily on movies with straight romantic characters.

To some, Haines’s screen persona was not dissimilar to his actual self. The Haines film Way Out West (1930) is cited by historians as having gay subtext and innuendo, though how much landed for audiences of the era is unknown.

By 1930, Hollywood began feeling pressure to police its own sense of values. Scandals involving actor Fatty Arbuckle, who was accused (and acquitted) of manslaughter, as well as others were seen by some as indicative of a moral crisis in the industry. To combat it, the studios welcomed a form of self-censorship colloquially known as the Hays Code, after moral czar (and former postmaster general) Will Hays. It forbid depictions of successful criminal enterprises, drugs, interracial relationships, and gay characters, among other things. (The code would become increasingly toothless by the 1950s and 1960s, though depictions of gay people were among the last taboos to go.)

Hollywood was also increasingly reliant on morals clauses in the exclusive contracts actors signed—including a clause that prohibited gay relationships. Haines was such a big star that he was able to negotiate out of the clause, but at a cost: His contract renewals were for two years instead of five. By 1931, after a series of disappointing films, he was released before being brought back at a reduced salary.

It’s possible the Hays Code as well as Haines’s diminishing box office returns are what led to his fateful meeting with MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer in 1933. Although no secret was made of Haines’s sexuality in the business, it's been alleged Mayer felt Haines should submit to what was referred to as a “lavender marriage”—a name-only union between a man and woman to obfuscate one or both being anything other than straight.

Haines, who had never particularly dreamed of getting into the movie business, didn’t see any reason to conform. He refused, likely knowing it would be the end of his acting career and the beginning of a new one.

Designing a New Life

Just as there was little question that Haines would remain with Shields, there was also little doubt as to what Haines would do next. For years, he had owned an antiques shop in Los Angeles that was operated under a friend’s name. He was also an accomplished interior designer, having decorated both his own home and those of other actors to great acclaim. When he was hired by Joan Crawford for a job, Crawford sung his praises, and William Haines Designs was born.

Haines helped usher in a new interior décor approach known as Hollywood Regency. Rather than dark tones and ominously oversized furniture, Haines opened up rooms and bought (or made) chairs and sofas low to the floor; walls were covered in hand-painted wallpaper; European antiques lined tables. The style was such a hit that Haines was in high demand with clients like Lucille Ball and Jack Benny. Even the studio executives who had banished him were interested: Jack Warner of Warner Bros. was a customer, as was Mayer. Then-California governor Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy later became clients. At one point, a Haines redesign could set one back $50,000 per room. Not only did the toast of Hollywood own many rooms, they owned many homes. The business flourished.

William Haines is pictured
William Haines in a publicity still. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Though he was outside the influence of the Hays Code, Haines couldn’t avoid prejudice. While staying in a vacation home near Manhattan Beach in 1936, he and Shields were cornered and beaten by a mob reported to number roughly 100 people. Some of them alleged Haines and Shields had said or done something inappropriate with a 6-year-old boy. In truth, Shields had merely given him a little money in an attempt to be friendly. Both men recovered from their injuries; news accounts appeared to dance around the issue that it may have been a hate crime.

There was no Hollywood comeback, though the opportunity was there. Director Billy Wilder was said to have asked Haines to return to acting for 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, starring his friend Gloria Swanson. But the interior design business was too good and Haines’s affection for Hollywood too scant to accept. By 1954, he had declared himself “retired” owing to his business’s success.

At the time of Haines’s death from lung cancer in 1973, he and Shields had been together for nearly 50 years. Shields, sadly, would die by suicide a short time later.

Though his designer furniture firm is still in operation, Haines’s onscreen career didn’t possess the same durability as contemporaries like Cary Grant or Clark Gable. His popularity has largely been forgotten. But at a time when stars were prone to placate moral authorities, Haines remained steadfast in his refusal to live a lie.

According to one unconfirmed story, Haines sent an invitation to a party marking his 25th anniversary with Shields to Louis B. Mayer, the man who purportedly chased him out of Hollywood. On the note was a trademark Haines line: “And you said it wouldn’t last.”

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