Tag Archives: Gloria Swanson

THE HAPPIEST MARRIAGE IN HOLLYWOOD: The Story of William Haines and Jimmy Shields

William Haines and Jimmy Shields with Jean Harlow, William Powell, and friends.

William Haines and Jimmy Shields with Jean Harlow, William Powell, and friends.

In 1933, a young and successful actor lost his job in Hollywood. His name had been featured in many wildly popular hits in the 1920s, and his appeal was so great that he had been one of the lucky ones to make the transition to sound. The public loved him, and his contemporaries loved him. He was a huge moneymaker at the studio. So what could have prompted Louis B. Mayer to let him go so abruptly?

Louis B. Mayer called William Haines into his office one day in 1933, to deliver him an ultimatum. He had been seen with a man, and to quiet rumors about his sexuality, Mayer wanted Haines to enter into a “lavender marriage” that would save the studio from public scandal. If he did not, Mayer would have to let him go. Haines looked Mayer straight in the eye and stated “But I am already married.” He was referring to his relationship of 7 years with his partner, a man named Jimmy Shields.

Gay classic Hollywood is a topic that is little discussed in mainstream circles, and its neglect in general discourse has led to surprise from an unaware public when they hear of the gay community’s thriving existence in the Golden Age of Hollywood. The beautiful 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet works to ease that surprise and clarify misunderstandings, and it has become essential viewing for anyone interested in the inner workings of Hollywood. But for many, the vibrant gay community of classic Hollywood remains an enigma, and many of the stars who were part of that community have sadly disappeared into obscurity.

For William Haines, the decision to allow his career to lapse was an easy one.

Born in Staunton, VA, Haines became enamored with the movies at a young age. After winning the “New Faces of 1922” contest, he traveled to Hollywood to begin his movie career, which took off the following year with his first film Three Wise Fools at Goldwyn Pictures (a studio that would merge with Metro in 1924 to become Metro Goldwyn Mayer). The studio was impressed with him, and began building him as a star. By 1926 he was an established name, and his role in Brown of Harvard (1926) cemented his onscreen persona as a young man “too big for his britches” that ultimately comes around.

On a publicity trip to New York during the same year, Haines met Jimmy Shields for the first time. It is unclear exactly how they met, but scholars believe that Jimmy may have been down on his luck, working as a prostitute on the streets of New York. Haines picked him up, telling him that he would bring Jimmy out to Hollywood to work as an extra, and soon they fell in love and were living together as a couple.

With Joan Crawford and her husband, Al Steele.

Haines and Shields were very well-liked in Hollywood, counting Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, and Gloria Swanson as close friends. They were invited to all the parties around town, treated just as any other couple would be, with no attention to their sexuality.

Haines, with his melodic and pleasing voice, made an easy transition to sound. The public still flocked to his pictures. But the country remained very religious and intolerant of “alternative lifestyles,” and Louis B. Mayer knew this. If MGM were to keep William Haines on and the public got a hold of the fact that he was in a long-term, committed relationship with a man, it could spell ruin for the studio. By this time, Haines and Shields were inseparable. They were married in everything but name, and Haines refused to give Jimmy up for the sake of his career. So he opted to be fired, and his film career was over.

This could have easily meant financial and emotional disaster for Haines and Shields. But drawing on the huge affection that their Hollywood friends felt for them, they decided to go into business together and open William Haines Designs, an interior decorating company that became very successful. They gave free decorating advice to their friends, and many became loyal clients. Joan Crawford, unhappy with the dark look of her home, hired her good friends to do a complete overhaul and transform it into a softer and more sophisticated style. Crawford was one of Haines and Shields’ oldest and dearest friends, and she called their relationship “the happiest marriage in Hollywood.”

Joan Crawford in the home designed by William Haines and Jimmy Shields.

In 1936, Haines and Shields were staying at their beach home in Manhattan when they were accosted, dragged outside and beaten by 100 members of the Ku Klux Klan, after a neighbor accused the two of propositioning her son. The accusations were wildly unfounded, and the scandal infuriated those who knew the couple well. Marion Davies, another very close friend, pleaded with her companion William Randolph Hearst to use his influence to make sure the neighbor was prosecuted and punished for what she had said about Haines and Shields. But ultimately, Haines and Shields did not press charges, and they were cleared of all wrongdoing due to lack of evidence against them.

The two continued their design business until the early 1970s. Haines’ death from lung cancer came shortly thereafter, in 1973, and after 47 years of companionship, Jimmy Shields could not go on. He slipped into Haines’ pajamas, took a bottle of pills, and wrote a note:

Goodbye to all of you who have tried so hard to comfort me in my loss of William Haines, whom I have been with since 1926. I now find it impossible to go it alone, I am much too lonely.

They are buried next to each other at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica.

A true Hollywood love story.

If you haven’t seen The Celluloid Closet, I would highly recommend it. It is available on Netflix, and it is a loving and informative tribute to a part of Hollywood history that is sadly and unfairly overlooked.

See you next time!

Advertisements

What Happened at the 23rd Academy Awards?

As the Academy Awards are broadcast from Hollywood, Gloria Swanson anxiously awaits the announcement of Best Actress.

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

On a whim yesterday, I removed my trusty VHS of Sunset Boulevard from its spot in my movie library (organized alphabetically, by year) and put it in for an  impromptu viewing. Sunset Boulevard is one of those movies with everything–flawless plot, perfect script, skillful directing, and tour-de-force acting by Gloria Swanson, whose portrayal of fictional fallen screen star Norma Desmond, whose life has unraveled to the point of insanity, is one for the ages. As a friend of mine puts it, “Gloria Swanson tore her heart out and bled that role.”

Rightly, she was remembered in the Best Actress Oscar nominations for 1950, along with Bette Davis (All About Eve), Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday), Anne Baxter (All About Eve), and Eleanor Parker (Caged).

All About Eve is similar to Sunset Boulevard in many ways. Both were directed by writer-directors (Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s script for All About Eve is a phenomenal triumph, and Billy Wilder’s script with Charles Brackett for Sunset Boulevard is famous for being the pair’s last collaboration) and both deal brutally with the issues of stardom as one ages. The main characters are stubborn and vulnerable larger-than-life personalities. We are led to realize the unfairness in life that has been dealt to them–where Norma Desmond’s fragile mental state leads those close to her (namely her strangely devoted butler Max) to treat her with kid gloves, no one takes Margo’s guff and it is assumed that she can take care of herself–when in reality she is in desperate need of protection.

Hollywood loved its own. It was going to be either Bette Davis or Gloria Swanson, no one else had much of a chance.

But when the announcement was read, there was an upset.

So what happened?

I think the nomination of two actresses portraying similarly themed characters, both giving the performance of their respective careers, was too much for that year. The votes were split down the for Davis and Swanson, relegating each of them to the minority allowing Judy Holliday to win with the “outlier” votes. Essentially, 1950 was so good, it backfired.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think Judy Holliday was brilliant in Born Yesterday. It remains one of my favorite movies of 1950, and Judy Holliday was what made it. Check out this wonderful scene of her playing cards, and the subtle expressions and physical movements that drive the scene. I apologize for the poor quality, but it’s very much worth watching.

Had this been any other year, I would have applauded Holliday’s win, but it was an inappropriate result for a category that included Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Bette Davis in All About Eve.

I would like to pose the question to you, readers–what are your opinions on the 23rd Academy Awards? Who do you think should have won? What do you think happened? Leave a comment in the comments section and let’s discuss it!

I look forward to reading your comments!