Refusing to Stay Silent: Remembering William Haines

Words by William Miller

Hollywood, 1933. Louis B Mayer, the co-founder of MGM studios and a giant of the industry, calls celebrated star William ‘Billy’ Haines into his office. Soon after this meeting, Haines’ acting career is over.

Haines was a hugely successful leading man in the silent era but, with the advent of sound in 1927, many actors lost their careers to newer, younger actors trained in the theatre. People who knew how to speak, unlike Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Mary Philbin, Mae Murray. When sound arrived, many stars could not make the transition, but Haines continued to thrive. He was the biggest box-office attraction of 1929 and 1930, he had already made half a dozen “talkies” and all of them were successful. Studio boss Irving J. Thalberg regarded him as the new model of the male romantic lead for the talking age.

So what was Haines’ issue? He refused to deny his sexuality.

Mayer thought the meeting would go as so many had before and so many would after. Haines had been seeing a man named Jimmy Shields for the past seven years and had recently been arrested for his “alternative lifestyle”. To quell public rumours, Mayer arranged a lavender marriage to save him and the studio from embarrassment and scandal. If he refused to marry, he would never make a picture with MGM again. Haines responded simply, “I am already married. I’ll be glad to give him up, just as long as you give up your wife.” With that, he chose his relationship with Shields over his status as a Hollywood star.

Haines had been openly seeing Shields for years and never attempted to hide it from those he worked with. When Irving J. Thalberg called him the new model of the male romantic, he was well aware of his homosexuality. In the 1920s, despite his sexuality, Haines was as popular offscreen as he was onscreen. He was a member of the exclusive inner circle of William Randolph Hearst, the vastly wealthy newspaper tycoon with one of the largest private residences in history and the inspiration for Citizen Kane. His sexuality had not been an issue for many in the silent era and it did not affect his stardom. The iconic Joan Crawford had even asked him to marry her. Haines responded cooly, “That isn’t how it works in Hollywood.”

Maybe because of his stature in and out of roles Haines thought he wouldn’t have to play by the rules, that when he was told to present himself as straight he could snub Louis B Mayer and continue on. Evidently, this was not the case, and once it was public Haines faced greater hardship. In 1936, over one hundred members of the Ku Klux Klan broke into the couple’s home and dragged them onto the beach, publicly beating both men for unfounded claims they had propositioned a neighbour’s son. No charges were ever brought against their attackers.

When Haines contract was terminated with MGM the movies abandoned him, but Hollywood did not. Haines and Shields began a new career following their joint passion for interior decoration and antique dealing. The couple were supported by film stars, famed directors and media moguls who rallied behind them and refused to shun Haines as the industry had. Parties received them as Hollywood royalty and many iconic figures, such as Crawford, counted them among their closest friends. In 1939, paintings were borrowed from Haines’ personal collection to grace the grand plantation home in Gone with the Wind. Screen legends Gloria Swanson, George Cukor, and Crawford had them design their villas in high-profile manners to bolster their new career. They ran their business successfully as the most highly sought after interior decorators in Hollywood for decades, even being the designer of choice for Nancy and Ronald Reagan. Haines enjoyed his life after acting, stating, “It’s a rather pleasant feeling of being away from pictures and being part of them because all my friends are. I can see the nice side of them without seeing the ugly side of the studios.”

Crawford called them “the happiest couple in Hollywood”, and they remained together until Haines’ death on Boxing Day, 1973. Soon afterwards, Jimmy Shields overdosed on sleeping tablets, his suicide note reading “I now find it impossible to go it alone, I am much too lonely.”