Gay Founding Fathers: William Haines

Welcome to “Gay Founding Fathers,” an exclusive series that will look back — sometimes way back — through queer culture to introduce you to gay men who made a difference, made history, made us swoon, and just plain made us be proud to be who we are.

Showbiz is a notoriously tough game for actors, especially if they’re not willing to play by the rules. Image is everything, and one misstep can turn even Hollywood royalty into box office poison faster than you can scream, “Cut!”. But the first entry in our Gay Founding Father series, actor turned interior designer Billy Haines, managed to buck that trend with a second act that was even more successful than his first.

Born on January 2, 1900 in Staunton, Virginia, Haines became fascinated with movies as a child and spent a great deal of time watching silent films at the local theater. Recognizing his homosexuality at an early age, he ran away from home with a boyfriend to the bigger City of Hopewell, Virginia where the two opened up a dance hall. Haines knew there was more out there waiting for him, so like thousands of other young men with big dreams at that time, he moved to New York City where he worked odd jobs including modeling. He also became quite the presence in Greenwich Village’s burgeoning gay community.

His move to New York City soon paid off. Spotted by a talent scout, who was taken by the 20-year-old’s handsome good looks and silver screen appeal, Haines signed a $40-a-week contract with mega movie producer Samuel Goldwyn. His career took off slowly with a string of small supporting roles in less-than-memorable films, but audiences quickly took to his brash, wise-cracking personality. Within a few years, Haines ascended to leading man status, appearing alongside some of the leading ladies of the day, including Joan Crawford and Anita Page. After only a few years, Haines was a bonafide movie star, just like the ones he had watched growing up, but a change was coming to Tinseltown.

Silent films were giving way to talkies, and many actors who once seemed smooth and debonair suddenly became stiff and screechy in stereo. Not all stars could make the transition, including Haines, whose off-screen homosexuality was becoming clear on-screen as well. Haines lived as an openly gay man, and his relationship with longtime partner, James Shields, was well known to industry folk. Ultimately, studio execs gave him an ultimatum. Enter into an arranged marriage of convenience with a young starlet or be dropped from his contract. Unwilling to live life in the closet, Haines chose the latter. Admirable, for sure, but the kiss of death for a big-time movie star in those times. 

True to its word, the studio promptly dropped him. Haines’ career on the big screen was essentially over. Though he was no longer popular with studio execs, Haines was still beloved by many of his fellow stars. Good friends like Crawford, Gloria Swanson, and Marion Davies admired his suave style and taste. They all hired him and Shields to decorate their palatial homes. Word of Haines’ and Shields’ interior design talents quickly spread, and a Haines-designed home soon became de rigueur for anyone who was anyone in Hollywood. It was a blockbuster second act that lasted until his death in 1973.

Haines and Crawford not only clicked on-screen (check out the clip below), they were also best friends in real life.

Haines’s contemporary design style, much of which is captured in the 2005 book “Class Act,” is still in vogue today.

So, tell us, which openly gay actors do you admire? Do you think Haines would have had an easier time in today’s Hollywood? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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