By Maureen Lee Lenker
June 04, 2021 at 08:30 AM EDT
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In 1930, the wisecracking matinee idol William "Billy" Haines was America's top box office star — and openly gay.

The Show People star regularly hit the town, including Hollywood premieres and parties, with his live-in partner, Jimmie Shields. But in 1933, as the Motion Picture Production Code ushered in narrow morality guidelines, MGM tyrant Louis B. Mayer issued an ultimatum: break up with Shields for a studio-arranged marriage or lose his career. Haines chose Shields.

"What makes him revolutionary is the authenticity with which he lived his life at a time when there were no role models," says William J. Mann, author of Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines. "He was an example of someone living with integrity and not letting himself be defined by others."

William Haines
William Haines
| Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

That even extended to his screen persona, the "wisecracker," a figure who was both a romantic lead and tipping his hat to Haines' sexuality. "He became popular as an actor not by hiding his gayness, but by actually making that part of his persona," Mann explains. "The 'wisecracker' was a little campy, a little flashy, a little bit sneaky, a little bit frivolous, and he brought his very openly gay, unapologetic personality into his screen performances, even when he was playing ostensibly heterosexual."

Mann adds, "The fact that he was able to do that and become the top box office star of 1930, it's because he didn't pretend to be anything other than what he was, and the industry knew that he was gay."

Haines' openness clashed with the introduction of the Production Code, which partnered with the Catholic Legion of Decency and sought to instill a distinctly straight, white, Christian, middle-class set of values in Hollywood.

Haines was first asked to tone down his flamboyant nature on screen, before being presented with the ultimatum about Shields. "He loved Jimmie, he wasn't about to give him up — and you don't see that very often," Mann says. "Someone so ambitious and focused on their career, they don't walk away, but Billy Haines did. It's an early example of affirming one's queer identity as an essential part of who he was. He was not going to change to fit the expectations of the time."

Legend has it that Haines told Mayer, "I'll give up Jimmie when you give up your wife," reasserting his commitment to Shields as a life partner.

Haines perhaps was overly convinced that his fame was robust enough to survive Mayer's attempts to blackball him. He assumed he'd easily find work elsewhere but was quickly hit with the reality that only Poverty Row studios with low budgets and reputations for lesser product wanted to work with him.

JUST A GIGOLO
William Haines in 'Just a Gigolo'
| Credit: Everett Collection

But Haines hardly left Hollywood with his tail between his legs. Though he retired from acting in 1935, there was no fade into obscurity. He flourished as an interior designer, decorating the homes of Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Nancy and Ronald Reagan, and even… Mayer.

His second career started rather accidentally, within the confines of his own home. His first big project was his own movie star abode, and his friends would often marvel at his good taste. Crawford was Haines' best friend, and she hired him to do her house and promptly encouraged everyone in Hollywood to follow suit, leading to a slew of other big-name clients that left him with a career to fall back on when his acting opportunities petered out.

Haines did have one notable opportunity to return to the silver screen. Billy Wilder wanted him to portray one of the "waxworks" playing cards with Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard, alongside the likes of Buster Keaton. But Haines was an extremely prominent designer by that time, and he declined.

Haines and Shields' love story had a tragic, if still bleakly romantic, end after nearly 50 years together. Haines died of lung cancer in 1973, and not long after, Shields took his own life, leaving behind a note intimating he couldn't go on without the man he loved.

Though Haines' choice was revolutionary in 1935, it remains monumental today. "It's still a decision an actor has to make," Mann says of the fraught nature of coming out in Hollywood and the implications it could have for the types of roles offered or assumptions made. "They still have to make that decision about how authentic they're going to be in their public lives."

Mann likens Haines to Edward VIII, giving up everything for love. "He put authenticity and integrity above career and ambition, recognizing there are more important things than material success," he reflects. "Joan Crawford said [Haines and Shields] were the two happiest people in Hollywood, and that's the legacy: recognizing what's really important in life and standing up for it."

If more actors today are able to live their truth, it's in part because Haines laid the foundation — and then redecorated.

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