William Haines and Jimmy Shields
William Haines said he was born on the 1st of January, 1900. He was actually born on the 2nd of January, but that flair for the dramatic didn’t make him any less of a 20th Century man. His storied life began in Virginia where, at just 14 years old, he ran away from home with his first boyfriend. Later, on the streets of Greenwich Village, he was a model and, for a time, the kept man of a rich dowager. After winning a “new faces” contest in 1922, he headed west to a contract with Hollywood.
In the silent film era, Billy Haines was a critically-acclaimed comedian, the arrogant wisecracker who always got his comeuppance by the last reel. He was a golden boy of the early cinema and worked with the likes of Lon Chaney, Mary Pickford and Joan Crawford, whom he had known since she was Lucille Le Seur (he nicknamed her “Cranberry”).
On a publicity tour to New York in 1926, he met Jimmie Shields who soon joined him in Los Angeles where they made no secret of living together. Although Shields had little interest in pursuing acting, Haines got him work as an extra and stand-in on several of his films. Unlike many of his contemporaries, William Haines had survived the transition from silent film to the talkies with his career intact. According to a 1930 public poll, Haines was the top box office draw in the nation (“Cranberry” was the top female). He would not survive, however, the advent of censorship.
Haines and Shields enjoyed an open relationship and there are even reports of them cruising together, but in 1933 the press got wind of Haines’ arrest for picking up a sailor in LA’s notorious Pershing Square. While it’s unclear how Shields took the news, it was certainly better than MGM’s tyrannical boss, Louis B Mayer.
Joan Crawford called Shields and Haines the happiest married couple in Hollywood.
The anything goes, libertine 1920s had given way to arch conservatism and Hollywood was feeling the pressure. With the introduction of sound, the film industry was not just more popular than ever, its power to influence the public was ever-more apparent. Not only did the public needed to be protected from lewd sexual innuendo, evildoers, drugs, sin and nudity, Hollywood had to pretend to care – the industry was concerned about possible government intervention.
To ward this off, Hollywood installed its own overseers. It was called the Hayes office and it was to decide what could and couldn’t be shown on screen. Their strict code of morals was an industry joke at first but, by 1934, was enforced with an iron fist. In order for a film to pass for public consumption, it was intensely scrutinized according to a puritanical list of prohibitions including: profanity, ridicule of the clergy, mixed-race marriage, kisses longer than three seconds and “inference of sexual perversion”. In order to maintain that squeaky clean image of American wholesomeness, an actor’s off-screen image was whitewashed by extension and studio bosses regularly used their power to edit unsuitable material from the lives of their stars.
Seeking to avoid further scandal, Louis B Mayer summoned Haines to his office and gave him an ultimatum: leave Jimmie Shields and enter into an arranged marriage or suffer the consequences. “Lavender” marriages, performed exclusively for the press, were becoming more common. Until this point, male actors like Haines could live (and love) together in Hollywood, and this applied to other couples including their close friends: the increasingly talked about up-and-coming hunks Cary Grant and Randolph Scott who bought a house together and had a live-in (leg over?) arrangement.
Haines, however, refused to let Mayer change his script. He would not give up Jimmie Shields. Although a major star, and therefore an asset to the studio, nobody was irreplaceable. Mayer was the boss and always got his way. He re-cast Haines’ intended roles with the dashing Robert Montgomery and let his contract expire in 1934. That same year, a similarly pressured Cary Grant moved out of the home he shared with Scott and married a naïve actress named Virginia Cherrill. She divorced him after 7 months. William Haines would never be friends again with Cary Grant, whom he later referred to as a phony.
William Haines would also never again appear on film. He even denied a personal request by Gloria Swanson to make a cameo as one of the “waxworks” playing cards in her 1950 classic, Sunset Boulevard. In a 1949 interview he had said, “It’s a rather pleasant feeling of being away from pictures and being part of them because all my friends are. I can see the nice side of them without seeing the ugly side of the studios.”
Although Haines and Jimmie Shields could have easily sunk into obscurity, they had industry friends who wouldn’t let them. His sense of style had long-charmed co-stars and when his film career abruptly ended, he and Shields set up an interior design and antique business. Their celebrity clientele included luminaries like Swanson, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, William Powell, Frank
Sinatra, George Cukor, and later expanded to American royalty: the Bloomingdales, Reagans and Annenburgs.
With their thriving design business, the pair altered the way stars lived. They lightened up the prevailing heavy-handed Gothic style of decorating with simplistic, restrained touches, pieces such as Chinoiserie panels, stunning artifacts and long signature sofas to facilitate entertaining. They soon opened a landmark office on Sunset Boulevard and Haines later began to design his own line of furniture.
Lifelong friend Joan Crawford had always depended upon her friend William to edit her jewels, her image and her career, now she relied on him to makeover her home. Christina Crawford said that after Haines’ re-design, Mommy Dearest rarely allowed her in the living room because it was almost entirely white. But uncle Jimmie and uncle Willie, as she called them, are remembered fondly by Christina. “Mom was always in a better mood when they were around. Her relationship with Haines was extremely rare. She behaved toward him like a best friend and allowed him to tease her. He was like her big brother, and I never saw her act that way with anyone.” According to legend, Joan Crawford also called Shields and Haines “the happiest married couple in Hollywood.”
Their life together was constant, dependable and without incident aside from one bizarre, well-publicised disruption. On June 3, 1936, the couple was out walking their poodle (famous for having been dyed purple) when a six-yearold neighbour boy tagged along. When the boy was sent home with six cents, his father accused the men of attempting to proposition his son. That night, a group of local white supremacists, the White Legion, surrounded their Manhattan Beach home, dragged the couple outside and beat them in the streets. Haines and Shields quickly put their home on the market, but they declined to press charges against their attackers. The accusations against them were dismissed as unfounded.
Despite a brief interruption while Haines served in WWII, the interior decorating business prospered with commissions and the office moved to Beverly Hills. Haines and Shields had become the premier decorators to the stars and their design style, transitioning with the times, came to define the movement known as Hollywood Regency.
The couple lived together until William Haines died of lung cancer at the age of 73. In his LA Times obituary, there was no mention of Jimmie Shields or the nature of his film retirement.
Just a few months later, on March 6, 1974, Jimmy Shields put on Haines’ pajamas, swallowed a bottle of pills and crawled into their bed for the last time. The note he left read, “Goodbye to all of you who have tried so hard to comfort me in my loss of William Haines, whom I have been with since 1926. I now find it impossible to go it alone. I am much too lonely.”
The couple’s ashes are interred side by side in Santa Monica’s Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery. more: Their business, William Haines Designs, remains in operation to this day. Haines life story is told in William J Mann’s biography, Wisecracker: The Life And Times Of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star.
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