Palm Springs Gay History Revealed

2.11.2013

By Andrew Belonsky

"It was the sexual freedom that was the most popular draw of Palm Springs..."


Silent film star William Haines

Palm Springs's early days unfolded in a time when "gay" was something completely different, and not something an uninitiated American public associated with Hollywood, where agents and publicists very much forced stars like Rock Hudson into marriages of convenience. If there existed a glass closet, it was fogged up.
Here, Wallace explains how public scandals, starting with the gay-flavored controversy that brought down famous actor William Haines (pictured with Anita Page, a woman he definitely didn't desire), created Hollywood codes and reinforced the closet:

In much of America, the part that people occasionally dismiss today as “fly-over” country—places like Wichita, Omaha, and other cities, towns, and wide places in the road where the only entertainment may have been a weekend screening of the latest movie—most people had never heard the word “homosexual.” And the term “gay” (derived from the French “gai” meaning high-spirited or merry) in its homosexual meaning didn’t become part of the vernacular until the late 1960s, although it had been in use as self-reference among homosexuals since the 1920s. Those millions of ticket buyers in America and the rest of the world were the last people that the studios wanted to learn that the latest matinee idol preferred men as sexual partners rather than women, and that the hottest leading lady liked ladies.

Then a major gay scandal exploded. In 1933 William Haines, a name unfamiliar to most people these days but at that time one of the most popular actors in the country, was caught having sex with a man and was immediately fired.

This was just the latest of a growing list of Hollywood scandals, including the 1923 death of another leading man, Wallace Reid, by a drug overdose, the arrest and trials of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for bringing about the death of a popular Hollywood starlet (he was acquitted after three trials but his career was ruined), and the 1922 murder of William Desmond Taylor, a famous director rumored to be having a clandestine gay relationship with his chauffeur as well as a straight relationship with Mary Miles Minter, one of the most famous silent stars.

The industry reacted by installing a self-censor and then, in 1934, a production code. Eventually it realized it had to do more; it toughened the code and required all films to obtain a certificate of approval before release. Among the casualties of such censorship was the double bed…it was sleeping solo on the silver screen from then on for more than a generation, and of course any reference to homosexuality as well as the ridicule of religion was expressly banned. The new rule would precipitate the end of the career of Mae West, famous for her sexual double entendres, and would radically change the films.

The newly toughened censorship bureau (it was formally known as the Production Code Administration but everyone called it the Breen Code after its head, a notoriously conservative and anti-Semitic Roman Catholic named Joseph Breen). The tighter rules also demanded that the studios make sure their stars never strayed from the (literally) straight and narrow path by forcing them to insert morality clauses into their contracts.

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