While coming out and being openly gay in Hollywood these days isn’t very controversial, back in the mid-20th century, it was something that could very well end even the most well-established star’s career.
William Haines might not be a name that comes up very often today, but back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he was one of the film industry’s best-known stars. Sadly, in the 30s, Haines’s acting career was cut short due to his refusal to deny his homosexuality.
He went on to start a successful interior design business with his life partner Jimmie Shields. If the two were alive today, it’s reasonable to assume that they would have taken advantage of the modern world’s more progressive laws and gotten married.
Keep watching to learn all about their passionate and heartwarming love story.
From Teen Runaway To Hollywood Movie Star
William Haines was born on the 2nd of January, 1900, in Staunton, Virginia. As a child, Haines was baptized at the Trinity Episcopal Church. Later, he sang in the church’s choir. It didn’t take him very long to discover his passion for stage performance and motion pictures. He spent much of his free time watching early silent films at the local movie theater – all the while dreaming of one day becoming a star himself.
When Haines was 14, he ran away from home with another unidentified young man that he referred to as his boyfriend. The two lovers first made their way to Richmond and then to Hopewell – a town with a reputation for “immorality”.
They both found work at the local DuPont factory manufacturing nitrocellulose for $50 a week. In order to supplement their income, they opened a dance hall which possibly also served as some kind of brothel.
Haines parents were naturally quite distressed over his disappearance, and they eventually tracked him down via the police to Hopewell. Despite their insistence, Haines refused to return home. Instead, he remained in Hopewell, where he would send money back home regularly to support his family.
Haines and his boyfriend remained in Hopewell until 1915 when the town was destroyed by a massive fire. He then moved to New York City, but it’s unclear if his partner came with him.
In 1917, Haines moved back to Richmond to help support his family following the bankruptcy of his father’s business and his subsequent mental breakdown. After his father recovered from that setback and found employment, Haines moved back to New York City in 1919, where he settled into the burgeoning gay community in Greenwich Village.
He spent the next few years working a variety of odd jobs. At one point, he was even a ‘kept man’ of an older woman. Eventually, Haines found work as a model. In 1922, Talent scout Bijou Fernandez discovered Haines and signed him to a $ 40-a-week contract with Goldwyn Pictures. He then moved out to Hollywood, where he began his film career.
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From Top Billing To Hollywood Outcast
Once in Hollywood. William Haines quickly became one of the most celebrated leading men of his time. He appeared in such films as 1926s Brown of Harvard, 1928s Alias Jimmy Valentine, and 1931s A Tailor Made Man.
In 1930, he topped the Quigley Poll, a survey of film exhibitors, and from 1928 to 1932, he ranked among the top five box office stars. Seemingly at the peak of his career, Haines walked away from his acting career in 1933 and never acted again.
But to understand how that played out, let’s rewind a bit.
In 1924, Loew’s Theatres Incorporated acquired Metro Studios, Louis B. Mayer Pictures, and Goldwyn Pictures and merged the studios to form MGM. Later that year, MGM lent Haines out to Columbia for a five-picture movie deal. Columbia was so impressed by his performances that they made an offer to buy out his contract. MGM, not wanting to lose one of their star players, refused to accept that offer.
It was around this time that Haines’s good fortune with MGM would begin to take off. Up until this point, he had only appeared in minor roles with the studio but beginning with 1925s Little Annie Rooney, he would be given more significant roles.
He followed that role up with another major role in 1926s Brown of Harvard. This was the first time that he would play the sort of role for which he is best remembered – that of the wisecracking, haughty young man.
While 1926 was a big year for Haines’s acting career, it was also a very important year for another reason. That was the year that he made a publicity trip out to the Big Apple, New York City. There, he met his future life partner Jimmie Shields. Haines managed to convince Shields to return to Hollywood with him to work as an extra.
The two quickly fell madly in love and began living together. While it was obvious that they were very committed to each other, the press refused to comment on their relationship.
For the next couple of years, Haines’s career continued to blossom. He starred in films such as West Point and The Smart Set – both of which hit theaters in 1928. That same year, he shared the screen with Marion Davies in Show People.
Haines managed to successfully make the transition to starring in talkies. His first talkie was Alias Jimmie Valentine which proved to be a commercial success. He followed that up with 1929s Navy blues. Over the next couple of years, he found more success with films like 1930s Way Out West, 1931s A Tailor Made Man, and 1932s Are You Listening.
While Haines’s career was thriving, Hollywood was in a state of flux. Following the murder of William Desmond Taylor and Virginia Rappe and several other scandals, some people throughout the country became convinced that Hollywood was a place of debauchery and sin. All the while, there were those who were becoming increasingly concerned about the content of movies produced at the time.
The Catholic Legion of Decency was organized in 1934 to identify objectionable material in films for Catholics. Several other religious and moral watchdog organizations began to express concern over the content of motion pictures as well. Ultimately, this moral outcry resulted in the implementation of the strict content enforcement guidelines known as the Production Code. This brought about the end of the Pre-Code era of Hollywood.
While the Production Code had an impact on the films that were being made during that era, it also had a significant impact on the personal lives of movie stars. During that time period, homosexuality was widely considered to be nothing short of immoral and sinful.
In 1933, Louis B. Mayer presented Haines with a difficult choice. He could either choose to continue his career if he agreed to enter into what’s known as a Lavender marriage – a union with the opposite sex meant to conceal one’s sexual orientation – or quit acting altogether.
This must have been an awful decision that Haines had to make. On the one hand, his acting career was still very much so alive. He could have easily gone on to star in dozens of more commercially and critically successful films. On the other hand, he deeply loved Jimmie Shields and didn’t want to do anything that would result in their relationship coming to an end. At that point, even though same-sex marriage wouldn’t be legalized in the US for another 80+ years, Haines considered Shields to be his husband.
Ultimately, Haines chose to remain by Shield’s side – even if that meant giving up his career. He would star in one last film, 1934’s The Marines Are Coming, before giving up acting entirely.
Haines and Shield’s Successful Business
After giving up on his Hollywood dreams, Haines and Shields opened up their own interior design firm. The company proved to be quite successful, and the couple ended up working with high-profile clients like Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, Ronald Reagan, and Carole Lombard. In fact, the company that Haines and Shield’s started was so successful that it continues to exist to the present day.
Haines and Shields ultimately remained together for 47 years – outlasting many other heterosexual Hollywood marriages. Joan Crawford once even called their relationship the happiest marriage in Hollywood.
William Haines passed away in 1973, succumbing to lung cancer at the age of 73. Jimmie Shields was so filled with grief that he took his own life in 1974 by overdosing on sleeping pills. In the note that he left behind, he bid farewell to everyone who had tried to comfort him after Haines death.
Haines and Shields were an openly gay couple during a time when it was dangerous to be one. On top of that, Haines refused to compromise his love for Shields to simply save his career. His love for his partner and his refusal to hide his sexuality was an enormous act of courage, and in many ways, he was a true pioneer who was many decades ahead of his time.
With that, we’ll go ahead and wrap this video up.
But before we sign out, we’d love to hear what you have to say about William Haines and Jimmie Shields’s remarkably touching relationship.
Do you think that William Haines made the right decision when he refused to conceal his sexual orientation just to save his acting career? And did you know that the interior design firm that he set up with his long-term lover Jimmie Shields is still around today? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section down below.
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