*originally posted October 3, 2009
Before Ellen and Elton, Melissa and kd, NPH, there was William Haines, the first openly gay movie star who gave up his career because he wouldn't play the straight game.
Billy Haines was born around 1900, no one knows for sure, but it is clear that he ran away from home at age 14, accompanied by a young man he called his boyfriend. The pair went first to Richmond and then to Hopewell, taking jobs at the DuPont factory for $50 a week. They used their money to open a dance hall, which, may or may not, have been a front for a brothel.
Billy's parents, frantic over his disappearance, tracked him through the police to Hopewell, but he wouldn't come home. He made a deal with them, that if he could stay in Hopewell, he'd send money home to the family. So Billy and his boyfriend stayed in Hopewell until 1915, when most of the town was destroyed by a fire, and Billy then moved to New York, and his boyfriend went back to his family.
Billy also returned home, albeit briefly, in 1917, when his father suffered a nervous breakdown and Billy's help was needed to support the family. Once his father had recovered, Billy was off again to New York City in 1919, settling into the burgeoning gay community of Greenwich Village.
He worked odd jobs -- some of them really odd; he was a model, a waiter, worked in a men's clothing store, and was also the kept man of an older woman. When talent scout Bijou Fernandez discovered Haines as part of the Samuel Goldwyn Company's "New Faces of 1922" contest, the studio signed him to a $40 a week contract and he left for Hollywood.
Haines's career began slowly, with him appearing in extra and bit parts, mostly uncredited. His first significant role was in Three Wise Fools in 1923; his performance attracted attention and the studio began building him up as a new star. However, it wasn't until Goldwyn loaned him to Fox for The Desert Outlaw that he got the opportunity to play a significant role. MGM then lent Haines to Columbia Pictures for a five-picture deal, and when Columbia offered to buy Billy's contract. Goldwyn refused. Billy Haines scored his first big personal success with Brown of Harvard in 1926 and it was in that character that he discovered his screen persona: a young arrogant man who is humbled by the last reel. It was a formula to which he was repeatedly returned for the next several years.
On a trip to New York in 1926, Haines met James "Jimmie" Shields, probably as a pick-up on the street. Billy convinced Shields to move to Los Angeles, promising to get him work as an extra, and the two men were soon living together as a couple.
Billy's career continued to flourish; he was considered a Top-Five box office star from 1926 through 1932, working with everyone from Mary Pickford to Marion Davies. Billy was also one of the lucky silent film actors to successfully transition into talkies. But in 1933, things began to change.
In 1933, Haines was arrested in a YMCA with a sailor he had picked up in Los Angeles' Pershing Square. Louis B. Mayer, the studio head at MGM, delivered an ultimatum to Haines: choose between a sham marriage--called a "lavender marriage” by the Hollywood set--and keeping his career, or choose to stay with Jimmie Shields.
Billy chose Jimmy and Mayer instantly terminated his contract, quickly recasting Robert Montgomery in roles that had been planned for Haines.
Haines and Shields began a successful career as interior designers and antique dealers to film stars like Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard, Marion Davies and George Cukor. But their lives were disrupted again in 1936 when members of the KKK dragged the two men from their home and beat them, because a neighbor had accused the two of propositioning his son.
Crawford, along with Claudette Colbert, George Burns and Charles Boyer urged the men to report this to the police. Marion Davies even asked her lover William Randolph Hearst to use his influence to ensure the neighbors were prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but ultimately Haines and Shields chose not to report the incident.
Billy and Jimmie quietly settled in Malibu, and their business prospered until their retirement in the early 1970s. Their long list of clients included Ronald and Nancy Reagan, when Reagan was governor of California, and Walter and Leonore Annenberg with their 240-acre estate "Sunnylands."
Haines never returned to films. Gloria Swanson, another lifelong friend, asked him to appear with her in Sunset Boulevard, but Billy declined. Billy and Jimmie remained together for the rest of their lives -- nearly fifty years -- prompting Joan Crawford to dub them "the happiest married couple in Hollywood".
Billy Haines died from lung cancer in Santa Monica, California at the age of 73, and then, almost a year later, still grieving over Billy's death, Jimmie Shields put on a pair of Billy's pajamas, took an overdose of pills, and crawled into their bed to die.
Billy Haines and Jimmie Shields are buried side-by-side in the Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery.
Sidenote: Haines's life story is told in the 1998 biography Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star by William J. Mann. It's an excellent book about being gay, and about Hollywood in the early days. Great read.
On This Day In LGBT History
October 3, 1847 – Hans Christian Andersen wrote to the Hereditary Grand-duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, “I love you as a man can only love the noblest and best. This time I felt that you were still more ardent, more affectionate to me. Every little trait is preserved in my heart.”
October 3, 1970 – Bisexual singer Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose.
October 3, 1980 – US Representative Robert Bauman (R-MD) was arrested in Washington DC for soliciting sex from a male prostitute. Bauman was a supporter of the Moral Majority and a founding member of the American Conservative Union.
October 3, 1992 – At the fourth annual Asian Lesbian and Gay Regional Conference in Manila, delegates voted to create the Global Alliance Lesbian and Gay Asia to promote solidarity among Asian sexual minorities.
October 3, 1997 – Paul Bradford Cain, a 26 year-old champion kickboxer, was sentenced to 25 years to life for the murder of gay scientist Dr Stanley Keith Runcorn. In a statement before his sentencing, Cain claimed he was the true victim because Runcorn made a pass at him. The judge disagreed, saying to Cain “I hope you rot in hell because what you did was callous and cruel.”
October 3, 1997 – An Ontario court ruled that the province’s Insurance Act had to include same-sex couples in the definition of spouse.
October 3, 1997 – Gay historian and Shakespeare scholar A. L. Rowse died at age 93 in southwest England. He had suffered a stroke the year before.