The Courageous Choice of William Haines

Mad respect this day for the example of William Haines (1900-1973) who was given a choice: to be himself or to continue being one of Hollywood’s top movie stars. He chose the former. Haines was gay, and seems to have known it from his earliest teenage years. He ran away from his Virginia home at age 14, and later moved to Greenwich Village, where he worked as a model, but not before partaking in more marginal occupations; he’d operated a dance hall, had been a sex worker, and was kept by an older woman for a while. Goldwyn Pictures sponsored a talent search in 1922 and this is how he came to Hollywood, arriving with fellow contest winner Eleanor Boardman. His period of stardom lasted roughly a decade, straddling both the silent and early sound eras, mostly at MGM. His notable pictures included Three Wise Fools (1923), Little Annie Rooney (1925), Sally Irene and Mary (1925), Brown of Harvard (1926), Tell it to the Marines (1926), Slide Kelly Slide (1927), Show People (1928), Alias Jimmy Valentine (1928), Way Out West (1930), and New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford (1931), with cameos as himself in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, Free and Easy (1930) and The Stolen Jools (1931).

Since 1926 Haines had been living fairly openly with his male lover Jimmie Shields, whom he’d met in New Yok. His Hollywood colleagues knew about his identity; the public did not. In 1933 he was arrested for picking up a sailor in a park. This was when Louis B. Mayer offered him the famous choice: live a lie by marrying a woman (what was colloquially known as a “Lavender Marriage”) or forfeit his career. He chose to leave acting. He and Shields remained together and hung out a shingle as interior decorators and antiques dealers. Their clientele was to include some of the most popular people in Hollywood. To his dying day, some 40 years later, Haines appears to have had no regrets about the seeming demotion. He retained the same social set, continuing to hobnob with friends like Joan Crawford and Marion Davies and the like, but without the pressure of keeping a secret about one of the most fundamental aspects of his identity. Still, it was a choice he should not have had to make, and classic movie fans rue the forced early retirement of one of their favorite stars.

Haines’ company still exists, by the way! Check out the official website here.

For more on silent and early film read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.