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Charles William "Billy" Haines (January 2, 1900December 26, 1973) was an American film actor and interior designer. A star of the silent era, Haines' career was cut short in the Thirties as a result of his refusal to deny his homosexuality.

Life and career[]

Early life[]

Haines was probably born on January 2, 1900,[note 1] the third child of George Adam Haines, a cigar maker, and Laura Virginia Haines (née Matthews). Two older siblings died in their infancy.[1] He had four younger siblings: Lillian, born in 1902; Ann, born in 1907; George, Jr., born in 1908;[2] and Henry, born in 1917.[3] He was baptized at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton at the age of eight, where he later sang in the choir.[4] He became fascinated with stage performance and motion pictures at an early age, spending hours watching early silent films in the local theatres.

Haines ran away from home at the age of 14, accompanied by another unidentified young man whom Haines referred to as his "boyfriend".[5] The pair went first to Richmond and then to Hopewell, which had a reputation for immorality.[6] Haines and his boyfriend got jobs working at the local DuPont factory, producing nitrocellulose for $50 a week.[7] To supplement their income, the couple opened a dance hall (which may have also done duty as a brothel).[8] His parents, frantic over his disappearance, tracked him through the police to Hopewell. Haines did not return home with them, instead remaining in Hopewell but sending money back home to help support the family. The couple remained in Hopewell until most of the town was destroyed by fire in 1915. Haines moved to New York City; it is unclear whether his boyfriend accompanied him.[9] Following the bankruptcy of the family business and the mental breakdown of George, Sr., the family moved to Richmond in 1916; Haines returned home in 1917 to help support them.[10] With his father recovered and employed, Haines returned to New York City in 1919, settling into the burgeoning gay community of Greenwich Village.[11] He worked a variety of jobs and was for a time the kept man of an older woman[12] before becoming a model. Talent scout Bijou Fernandez discovered Haines as part of the Samuel Goldwyn Company's "New Faces of 1922" contest and the studio signed him to a $40 a week contract. He traveled to Hollywood with fellow contest winner Eleanor Boardman in March of that year.[13]

Film career[]

Haines's career began slowly, with him appearing in extra and bit parts, mostly uncredited. His first significant role was in Three Wise Fools (1923), He attracted positive critical attention and the studio began building him up as a new star. However, he continued to play small, unimportant parts at Goldwyn. It was not until his home studio loaned him to Fox in 1923 for The Desert Outlaw that he got the opportunity to play a significant role. In 1924, MGM lent Haines to Columbia Pictures for a five-picture deal. The first of these, The Midnight Express (1924), received excellent reviews and Columbia offered to buy his contract. The offer was refused and Haines continued in bit roles for Goldwyn. Haines scored his first big personal success with Brown of Harvard (1926) opposite Jack Pickford and Mary Brian. It was in Brown that he crystalized his screen image, 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.[14] Haines convinced Shields to move to Los Angeles, promising to get him work as an extra. The pair were soon living together and viewed themselves as a committed couple.[15]

Haines's string of hits continued with Little Annie Rooney (1927) with Mary Pickford and Vola Vale, and Show People (1928), costarring Marion Davies. Haines was a top-five box office star from 1928 to 1932. He made a successful transition into talking pictures in the part-talkie Alias Jimmy Valentine (1928). His first all-talkie, Navy Blues, was released the following year. He starred in Way Out West in 1930. The 1930 Quigley Poll, a survey of film exhibitors, listed Haines as the top box office attraction in the country.

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 or "lavender marriage," or his relationship with Shields. Haines chose Shields and they were ultimately together for 50 years. Mayer subsequently fired Haines and terminated his contract, quickly recasting Robert Montgomery in roles that had been planned for Haines. Haines did make a few minor films at Poverty Row studios, then retired from film. His final films were made with Mascot Pictures, Young and Beautiful and The Marines Are Coming in 1934.

Interior design[]

Haines and Shields began a successful career as interior designers and antique dealers. Among their early clients were friends such as Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard, Marion Davies and George Cukor. Their lives were disrupted in 1936 when members of the Ku Klux Klan dragged the two men from their home and beat them, because a neighbor had accused the two of propositioning his son. Crawford, along with other stars such as Claudette Colbert, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Kay Francis and Charles Boyer urged the men to report this to the police. Marion Davies 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.

The couple finally settled into the Hollywood community in Malibu, and their business prospered until their retirement in the early 1970s, except for a brief interruption when Haines served in World War II. 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."[16]

Final years and death[]

Haines never returned to films. Gloria Swanson (another lifelong friend) extended him a personal invitation to appear with her in the film Sunset Boulevard (1950) but he declined.

Haines and Shields remained together for the rest of their lives. Joan Crawford described them as "the happiest married couple in Hollywood".

Haines died from lung cancer in Santa Monica, California at the age of 73. Soon afterward, Shields, who suffered from what many believe to be Alzheimer's Disease, put on Haines' pajamas, took an overdose of pills, and crawled into their bed to die. They were interred side by side in the Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery.


William Haines Designs remains in operation, with main offices in West Hollywood and showrooms in New York, Denver and Dallas.[17] 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 and his designs are the subject of Peter Schifando and Haines associate Jean H. Mathison's 2005 book Class Act: William Haines Legendary Hollywood Decorator. World of Wonder produced Out of the Closet, Off the Screen: The Life of William Haines, which aired on HBO in 2001. Haines has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7012 Hollywood Boulevard.[18]


  • Brothers Under the Skin (1922)
  • Lost and Found on a South Sea Island (1923)
  • Souls for Sale (1923)
  • Three Wise Fools (1923)
  • Three Weeks (1924)
  • True As Steel (1924)
  • The Midnight Express (1924)
  • The Gaiety Girl (1924)
  • Wine of Youth (1924)
  • Desert Outlaw (1924)
  • Circe, the Enchantress (1924)
  • Wife of the Centaur (1924)
  • 1925 Studio Tour (1925)
  • A Fool and His Money (1925)
  • A Slave of Fashion (1925)
  • Fighting the Flames (1925)
  • The Tower of Lies (1925)
  • Little Annie Rooney (1925)
  • Sally, Irene and Mary (1925)
  • Memory Lane (1926)
  • The Thrill Hunter (1926)
  • Mike (1926)
  • Brown of Harvard (1926)
  • Lovey Mary (1926)
  • Tell It to the Marines (1926)
  • A Little Journey (1927)
  • Slide, Kelly, Slide (1927)
  • Spring Fever (1927)
  • West Point (1928)
  • The Smart Set (1928)
  • Telling the World (1928)
  • Excess Baggage (1928)
  • Show People (1928)
  • Alias Jimmy Valentine (1928)
  • The Duke Steps Out (1929)
  • A Man's Man (1929)
  • The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)
  • Speedway (1929)
  • Navy Blues (1929)
  • The Girl Said No (1930)
  • Free and Easy (1930)
  • Way Out West (1930)
  • Remote Control (1930)
  • The Stolen Jools (1931)
  • A Tailor-Made Man (1931)
  • Just a Gigolo (1931)
  • The New Adventures of Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford (1931)
  • Are You Listening? (1932)
  • Fast Life (1932)
  • Young and Beautiful (1934)
  • The Marines Are Coming (1934)


  1. Haines consistently claimed to have been born on January 1, 1900, but his baptismal record shows January 2. There are no birth records for Staunton available for 1900.


  1. Mann, p. 2
  2. Mann, p. 8
  3. Mann, p. 29
  4. Mann, p. 9
  5. Haines, quoted in Mann, p. 16
  6. Mann, p. 18
  7. Mann, p. 19
  8. Mann, p. 20
  9. Mann, p. 25
  10. Mann, p. 29
  11. Mann, p. 32
  12. Mann, p. 43
  13. Mann, p. 48–9
  14. Mann, p. 98
  15. Marr, p. 100


Mann, William (1998) Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star. New York, The Penguin Group/Penguin Putnam. ISBN 0670871559.

External links[]