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.
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.”
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!