Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

William Haines was out and proud in silent-era Hollywood

Illustration for article titled William Haines was out and proud in silent-era Hollywood
Photo: John Kobal Foundation (Getty Images)

We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 6,101,066-week series, Wiki Wormhole.


This week’s entry: William Haines

What it’s about: Old Hollywood! Where the stars shone brightly… at least, the heterosexual ones. It was a different story for gay actors, and William Haines gave up his career as a successful leading man rather than stay in the closet.

Biggest controversy: Haines did quite a bit of bouncing around before finding fame. He knew he was gay at an early age, and ran away from home with a boyfriend at age 14. They both got jobs in a munitions factory (WWI was just starting, and although the U.S. wouldn’t enter the war for several years, there was big business in supplying our allies with arms). To supplement their income, the couple opened a dance hall (how two teenagers managed this is not clear), which may have also served as a brothel. The police helped Haines’ parents track him down, but he didn’t return home, instead sending money home to help out his family.

Haines lived in New York briefly, but his family’s business collapsed and his father had a mental breakdown, so still-teenage Haines returned home in 1917 to support them. Two years later, his father had recovered and found employment, so Haines returned to New York, living in Greenwich Village (already a center for the LGBT community) and was at one point a kept man for an older woman. He eventually became a model, entering a “New Faces Of 1922” contest held by Goldwyn Pictures’ (the G in MGM, which resulted in 1924 merger between Metro, Goldwyn, and Mayer studios). The studio signed him to a contract and he moved to Hollywood.

Strangest fact: Signing with MGM may have done Haines’ career more harm than good. The studio fed him a string of mostly uncredited bit parts, even after he got critical praise for 1923’s The Three Wise Fools. It wasn’t until MGM began lending him out to other studios that Haines’ career took off, doing a string of films for Columbia, after MGM “lent” the rival studio Haines’ contract for a five-picture deal. Haines did well enough for Columbia that the studio offered to buy out his contract, but MGM refused, and then continued to put him in bit parts. He also got away from MGM to star opposite Mary Pickford in 1925’s Little Annie Rooney for United Artists, the studio she co-owned.

Rooney was a hit, and Haines’ career continued to build steam thanks to starring roles like 1926’s Tell It To The Marines, until by 1928, he was one of the five biggest box-office draws in Hollywood. He kept that position even while making the transition from silent pictures to “talkies.” But in 1933, at the peak of his fame, Haines was arrested during a liaison with a sailor at a YMCA. He had also been in a steady relationship with Jimmy Shields, who he had been living with for several years. MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer pressured Haines to dump Shields and enter into a “lavender marriage”—a sham to convince the public he was straight. Haines refused, and Mayer fired him.


Thing we were happiest to learn: Choosing love over his movie career worked out for Haines in the long run. After losing his MGM contract, Haines appeared in a few B movies and then quit acting. (He was offered a cameo in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, but refused, later saying, “It’s a rather pleasant feeling of being away from pictures… I can see the nice side of them without seeing the ugly side of the studio.”)

After retiring from the silver screen, Haines and Shields went into business together as interior designers and antique dealers, with a star-studded clientele that included Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, Jack Warner, and Haines’ former co-star Marion Davies. Even Ron and Nancy Reagan hired the couple. They remained together until Haines’ death from lung cancer in 1973, and Crawford called them, “the happiest married couple in Hollywood.” Soon after Haines’ death, Shields died by suicide after an overdose of sleeping pills. The heartbreaking note he left behind said that after 47 years together, “I now find it impossible to go it alone, I am much too lonely.”


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Like virtually all of Haines’ contemporaries, a good deal of his work has been lost. Because early film stock was made from highly flammable nitrocellulose, fires have wiped out countless original prints from the silent era. Add to that studios not taking care of their archives (or folding and not having the money to continue storing old film), and nine of Haines’ films are partly or completely lost.

Also noteworthy: Haines’ story has been retold more than once. William J. Mann wrote an biography in 1998, Wisecracker: The Life And Times Of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star, and Jean H. Mathison and Peter Schifando wrote Class Act: William Haines Legendary Hollywood Decorator in 2005, focusing more on Haines’ second career. AMC aired Out Of The Closet, Off The Screen: The Life Of William Haines in 2002, and film critic Karina Longworth devoted an 2015 episode of her You Must Remember This podcast to Haines and Shields, “William Haines And Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Marriage.” Haines even got a biopic with a short title: stage play The Tailor-Made Man, which playwright Claudio Macor staged in London in the mid ’90s, which was later adapted for TV and radio.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: When teenage Haines and his boyfriend ran away together, they settled in Hopewell, Virginia, which according to Wikipedia, “had a reputation for immorality.” When Haines arrived there in 1914, it was a factory town where DuPont made dynamite and guncotton (nitrocellulose, the stuff that made early film so flammable, was also used in munitions). In 1915, a fire nearly destroyed the entire town (and prompted Haines to move to New York; whether his boyfriend was still with him is unclear). But Hopewell quickly bounced back, going from a population of 400 at the start of 1916 to 20,000 by year’s end, earning it the nickname “Wonder City.” But after the demand for munitions died down after WWI, DuPont shuttered its factory, and Hopewell became a ghost town. In 1923, the Tubize Corporation (later acquired by Firestone Tire) took over the DuPont factory and Hopewell was back in business.

Further Down the Wormhole: While same-sex relationships have only reached a widespread level of social acceptance relatively recently in this country, homosexuality was widely accepted and even celebrated in Ancient Greece. This continued in the Roman Empire until the reign of Theodosius I, one of the early Christian Roman Emperors, who in 390 made gay sex punishable by burning at the stake (but only for “passive males,” i.e., bottoms). Despite this harsh prohibition, the Roman government continued to collect taxes on all-male brothels until well into the Byzantine era. In sharp contrast to Theodosius, 600 years earlier, the throne was occupied by Elagabalus, the bisexual teenage Emperor who may be the earliest transgendered person on record. Stay safe out there, and we’ll take a look at Elagabalus’ brief, controversial reign next week.


Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in fall 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.