William “Billy” Haines
Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star
William Haines was born Charles William “Billy” Haines on January 2, 1900 in Staunton, Virginia. At the age of 14 he left his parents’ house and eventually found his way to New Your City. En Route to New York, and with a boyfriend, he would open a dance studio, and work in a factory. He was discovered by Bijou Fernandez in New York City’s up and coming Greenwich Village, a center for the gay population of the city. In 1922, he was signed by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, and moved to Hollywood.
Haines stared in several silent movies, getting noticed in films like Three Wise Fools (1923) and The Midnight Express (1924) before gaining success in MGM’s 1926 film, Brown of Harvard. The same year Brown of Harvard was released he would meet James Shields. He would star in the 1928 film, Alias Jimmy Valentine, his first film that was partly sound. His first movie that was a complete “talkie” was 1929’s Navy Blues. Haines was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars between 1926 and 1931; during these years, the fortunes of many changed.
In the early days of Hollywood, the studios controlled the media, what to print, and what to say. The box office money dictated the press and the power of the studios. The studios also would create publicity stunts for its stars. They would arrange dates and marriages for single actors, including homosexual actors. Haines refused to deny his homosexuality; he and his lifelong partner, James “Jimmie” Shields would be the center of Hollywood society, hosting parties, and setting a standard in interior design.
Billy and Jimmie’s open homosexuality was not an issue with many in Hollywood until the stock market crashed. Once the crash of 1929 happened the acceptance toward their open life style began to change. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios wanted Haines to marry a woman, and he flat out refused. Unlike many other stars who caved to studio demands, Haines stuck his ground and refused to marry a woman, staying openly gay and keeping his relationship with Jimmie Shields in the public eye. That would be his downfall of his acting career.
His last acting film was in 1934’s The Marines Are Coming. He would then move into the career of interior design, a standard that he had set when designing and decorating his home when hosting Hollywood society during his film career. He would have a successful business with his interior design with clients including Joan Crawford, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, George Cukor, and Gloria Swanson. In 1936 both Haines and Swanson were falsely accused of propositioning a neighbor’s child, and both men were dragged out of their homes by 100 White Supremacists.
Fully recovered from their attacks, Haines would move to Brentwood, CA. He would have a successful career with his interior design business, and his relationship with Jimmie Shields would last until Billy died of lung cancer on December 26, 1973.
The Harvard Crimson: Bio of Gay Actor Gives Rich Portrait of ’20s Hollywood