Hollywood in the 1920s. Movies were silent, studio bosses ruled the Tinseltown system, and the nascent self-censorship of the Motion Picture Production Code was taking hold. Despite these limits on creative and personal freedoms, one immensely popular silent film actor refused to be silenced, or have his life dictated by the changing tides of oppression. He was William Haines, openly gay superstar, likely Hollywood's first openly gay movie star. While Haines is known among those versed in LGBTQ+ Hollywood history, the larger world is unfortunately unaware of his story, and the trails he blazed for so many.
A little Billy Haines bio: his life began in Staunton, Virginia, on January 2, 1900, though he claimed he was born January 1: evidence he was a "true child of the twentieth century." As a young man, he moved to New York City and was persuaded by an acquaintance to send a photo of himself to a talent manager. He'd never considered acting, but was young, handsome, and in possession of a firecracker wit and a sparkling-champagne personality. His agent submitted him to the New Faces of 1922 contest, and, much to Haines' surprise, he won. He was whisked off to Hollywood and given a contract.
It would take a few years for Haines' career took off, but when it did, it exploded. His success started with silent comedy Brown of Harvard and continued through more than 50 motion pictures. The public adored him, as did his colleagues and directors. In 1930, he was the No. 1 male box office star in the nation (and a Top 5 box office star from 1928 – 1932).
Then, Haines disappeared from public life. Studio bigwigs did not adore Haines, chief among them MGM's tyrannical Louis B. Mayer. Though Haines' films made money, the star's refusal to dump long-term partner, Jimmie Shields and enter into a "lavender marriage" enraged Mayer ("I'm already married," Haines reportedly told Mayer).
The Production Code, which set strict rules about morality in motion pictures and the lives of motion picture actors, was becoming the norm by the early '30s; Haines living his life openly and unashamedly was perceived as a threat. Mayer fired him, and Haines began a career as an interior designer; William Haines Designs is still in operation today.
So why did Billy Haines walk away from a level of fame most people, past or present, would do anything for? He had made a choice to stay out of the closet, and he stood firmly by that choice for the rest of his life. And, as it turns out, there were many, very good reasons he did.
He Was In Love And Refused To Live A Lie
He Already Had A Second Career As An Interior Decorator
Hollywood In The Roaring '20s Was A Freer Place Than In Subsequent Decades, And He Had No Interest In Remaining As It Changed
He Never Took His Career All That Seriously And Saw His Popularity Waning When Mayer Threatened Him