Holt, Nora 1885(?)–1974
Nora Holt 1885(?)–1974
Critic, vocalist, composer, educator
Hot from Harlem author Bill Reed called Nora Holt a “classical composer-blues singer-cabaret star-educator-radio personality-courtesan-public school teacher-magazine editor-social activist.” He might have added several more occupations to the list: international traveler, musical organization founder and executive, pianist, and literary inspiration, among others. And in the African-American press of the 1920s and beyond, Holt’s life was grist for the scandal pages. Ebony magazine included her on its 1949 list of “Most Married Negroes,” for Holt was married five times. Nora Holt was, in short, a bombshell, and one of the most fascinating figures of the Harlem Renaissance era.
Holt was born Lena Douglas in Kansas City, Kansas, perhaps in 1885 (the date 1890 has also been given). Her father was a minister and longtime elder in the local African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church, and she began to take piano lessons at age four, entering private school a year later. As a young woman she played the organ in an A.M.E. church, but also apparently consorted with other kinds of musicians as well; she married a musician named Sky James when she was 15. Two years later she married politician Philip Scroggins, and shortly after that she was married again, to a barber, Bruce Jones. Various sources describe her as a stunning red-haired or blonde-haired beauty.
This rush of marital activity did not in the least distract Holt from her studies. She graduated as valedictorian of her class from Western University, an A.M.E.-affiliated school in Quindaro, Kansas, and may also have attended Kansas State College (now Kansas State University). During World War I she moved to Chicago and enrolled at Chicago Musical College, earning a bachelor’s degree in music in 1917. After studies with such European-born masters as Felix Borowsky and Thorwald Olterstrom, she earned a master’s degree a year later. She was probably the first African American to be awarded a master’s degree in music, and her thesis was a piece for symphony orchestra called Rhapsody on Negro Themes.
Meanwhile, she married her fourth husband, elderly hotel owner George Holt, in 1917; she took the first name Nora at that time. She had already begun to travel effortlessly in the highest circles of white Chicago society, paying her music-school tuition bills by performing light classical vocal pieces and spirituals at parties hosted by wealthy local industrialists. (Although she counted a number of influential white men among her friends, all five of Holt’s husbands and all of her known lovers were African American.) Prior to her marriage she also played piano and sang in Chicago’s notorious Everleigh Sisters’ house of prostitution. George Holt’s death in 1921 left her a wealthy woman and put an end to her need to perform for purely financial reasons.
Increasingly devoted to the cause of classical music, Holt wrote a column for the Chicago Defender, the city’s black daily newspaper, from 1917 to 1921. She was probably the first African-American classical music critic whose work appeared on a regular basis in the
At a Glance…
Born in 1885 (some sources say 1890) in Kansas City, KS; died January 25, 1974, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Calvin (an African Methodist Episcopal minister) and Gracie (Brown) Douglas; married five times; took first name Nora on marriage (her fourth) to George Holt, a hotel owner, Education: Graduated as class valedictorian from Western University, Quin-daro, KS; earned bachelor’s degree in music, Chicago Musical College, 1917; earned master’s degree, Chicago Musical College, 1918; studied music education at University of Southern California, late 1930s.
Career: Performed at high society parties and at Ever-leigh Sisters’ house of prostitution to pay tuition bills, mid-1910s; music critic, Chicago Defender, 1917-21; publisher and editor, Music and Poetry, 1919-21; co-founder and vice president, National Association of Negro Musicians; composed over 200 works, all but one lost in theft, mid-1920s; became associated with leading figures of Harlem Renaissance, late 1920s; traveled to Europe and Asia, 1930s; taught music in Los Angeles public schools and operated a beauty shop, 1937-43; music critic, Amsterdam News, New York, 1943-56; hosted program devoted to blacks in classical music, WNYC radio, 1945-53; host, “Nora Holt’s Concert Showcase,” WLIB radio, 1953-64.
Selected memberships: Became first black American member of the Music Critics Circle in 1945.
United States. She also published and edited a journal called Music and Poetry from 1919 to 1921, and co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians in 1919, where she served for several years as vice president.
As her financial situation became more secure, Holt threw herself into creating classical compositions of her own. By the mid-1920s she had written nearly 200 works, in genres ranging from symphony to song. But in 1926, when Holt sailed for Europe, she put all her manuscripts in storage, and when she returned she found that they had been stolen. Only one ragtime-like Negro Dance for piano, which had previously been published, survived. A scholar lucky enough to unearth Holt’s manuscripts would contribute mightily both to the historical picture of a unique figure and to an understanding of the early days of African-American classical music.
It was not Holt’s classical compositions, however, that landed her on the front pages of newspapers like the Defender and the tabloid-like Inter-State Tattler and Heebie Jeebies. Her tumultuous romantic life was the talk of the African-American community during the 1920s. The drama began with her fifth marriage, in 1923, to Joseph Ray, assistant to the Pennsylvania tycoon Charles Schwab and himself one of the wealthiest blacks in the country. Holt arrived for the wedding bedecked in a spectacular cloud-like veil studded with diamonds and pearls, but insiders speculated that the veil was meant to conceal a black eye given to her by a man whom she had thrown over for Ray.
The marriage, however, did not last. Ray installed his wife in a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, mansion, but Holt began drifting back to the bright lights of New York. She was linked romantically with several other men, and a hotel maid claimed to have served breakfast in bed every day for a week to Holt and Leroy Wilkins, brother of the deceased Harlem nightclub owner Barron Wilkins. Holt claimed that Ray was given to insane bouts of jealousy, and she in fact won several court judgments against him. A divorce was granted after several years of legal wrangling.
The now-liberated Nora Holt became part of the cream of Harlem society. Much of what is known about her life in the 1920s and 1930s comes from the writings of her friend Carl Van Vechten, a white novelist and cultural critic who, loved by some and hated by others, moved mostly in black social circles. Van Vechten and black novelist Countee Cullen both based characters in their books on Holt. Author Bill Reed, in Hot from Harlem, quoted Van Vechten’s description of Lasca Sartoris, a character in one of his books: “She was rich and successful and happy. She had won. Problems didn’t bother her. She had found what she had wanted by wanting what she could get, and then always demanding more, more, until now the world poured its gifts into her bewitching lap.”
Still intensely involved with music, Holt resumed her nightclub-singing ways. Much of her time was spent in Europe, where she performed at swank parties and clubs in London and Paris, hobnobbed with expatriate American intellectuals such as Gertrude Stein, and is said to have taken composition lessons with the celebrated French music teacher Nadia Boulanger. She learned to speak French fluently. As a performer, Holt titillated audiences with double-meaning blues pieces like “My Daddy Rocks Me with One Steady Roll,” a song whose name evolved into that of a whole musical genre a generation later. Apparently her music-making was never captured on records. In the 1930s Holt ranged even farther abroad, living and performing in Shanghai, China, for a time, until Japanese armies invaded that city in the early days of World War II.
Back in the United States at the end of the 1930s, Holt studied at the University of Southern California, taught music in the Los Angeles school system for several years, ran a beauty shop, and became involved with the Los Angeles school board. Her advancing age barely slowed her down. She returned to New York in 1943 and took a position as an editor and classical music critic with the black-oriented Amsterdam News, and beginning in 1956 she wrote criticism for the New York Courier as well. Holt organized a radio concert series featuring African-American classical artists that began a successful run on station WNYC in 1945, and she worked closely with the first generation of black opera stars, including Leontyne Price, William Warfield, and Martina Arroyo, among others.
In 1953 Holt began to host and produce a similar concert series, “Nora Holt’s Concert Showcase,” on New York’s WLIB radio, which ran until 1964. By that time the octogenarian Holt was ready for retirement in Los Angeles, although she emerged in 1966 as a committee member at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. Nora Holt died on January 25, 1974, and Van Vechten’s contention (reprinted in the collection Keep a-Inching Along) that she “deserves a biography of her own” still seems richly justified.
Kellner, Bruce, ed., Keep a-Inching Along: Selected Writings of Carl Van Vechten about Black Art and Letters, Greenwood, 1979.
Reed, Bill, Hot from Harlem: Profiles in Classic African– American Entertainment, Cellar Door Books, 1998.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992.
Southern, Eileen, The Music of Black Americans: A History, 3rd ed., Norton, 1997.
New York Times, January 30, 1974.
Leonard Records, http://www.leonarda.com
—James M. Manheim
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