Holman, Libby (1904–1971)
Holman, Libby (1904–1971)
American actress and singer whose indictment for the murder of her husband, despite her subsequent release, effectively ended her career. Born Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman (legally changed to Holman two months before the end of World War I) on May 23, 1904, in Cincinnati, Ohio; died on June 23, 1971, in Stamford, Connecticut; middle of three children (two girls and a boy) of Alfred (a stockbroker) and Rachel (Workum) Holzman; graduated from Hughes High School, Cincinnati, 1920; University of Cincinnati, B.A., June 1923; attended Columbia University, New York; married (Zachary) Smith Reynolds (a pilot and adventurer), on September 16, 1931 (died 1932); married Ralph Holmes (an actor), on March 27, 1939 (died 1945); married Louis Schanker (an artist), in late 1960s; children: (first marriage) Christopher Smith "Topper" Reynolds (died in a mountain climbing accident in 1950); (adopted) sons, Timmy and Tony.
The Sapphire Ring (1925); The Garrick Gaieties (1925); The Greenwich Village Follies (1926); Merry-Go-Round (1927); Rainbow (1928); Ned Wayburn's Gambols (1929); The Little Show (1929); Three's a Crowd (1930); Revenge with Music (1934); You Never Know (1938); Mexican Mural (1942); Blues, Ballads, and Sin-Songs (1954).
"Libby Holman sells the blues like a Gideon salesman to a hotel chain," proclaimed Variety following the opening of the Broadway revue The Little Show in 1929. "The torch singer par excellence," echoed Walter Winchell, "the best of those female troubadours with voices of smoke and tears, who moan and keen love's labors lost to the rhythm and boom of the Roaring Twenties." Holman was indeed one of Broadway's brightest stars when a bizarre scandal diverted her promising career and set off a chain reaction of personal tragedies that haunted her for the rest of her life.
Holman was the middle child of a failed Cincinnati stockbroker. Her childhood was dominated by the family's slide into poverty and by her morbid jealousy of her older sister Marion Holzman , whom she believed was more beautiful and talented than she. As a child, Libby was precocious, skipping two grades in her first four years of school. In high school and later at the University of Cincinnati, where Marion had matriculated two years earlier, Holman had a stellar academic record but continually pushed the boundaries in dress and behavior. (At the time, bobbing one's hair, wearing make-up, swearing, and flirting were considered major infractions.) She was regularly cast in student productions and also performed at the small Art Theater in downtown Cincinnati, although it was Marion who got the starring roles. Holman graduated from college at the age of 19 (wearing her mortarboard at a cocky angle) and headed for Manhattan to study journalism at Columbia. However, as she told her fellow graduates, her real ambition was "to become a star and to marry a millionaire."
While enrolled in a short-story class, Holman looked for work in the theater. Exotic rather than pretty, she struggled in bit parts for a year before she was cast in Richard Rodgers' and Lorenz Hart's The Garrick Gaieties, the first of the small, literate revues that would soon become a popular Broadway alternative. Although her number was eventually cut, and she was relegated to the chorus, the show was a success and led to subsequent roles. Cast as a prostitute in The Little Show (1929), Holman sang "Moanin' Low" to her pimp, played by Clifton Webb. The number was a huge audience pleaser, and, from that time on, the song would be associated with her. "The theater had few to match her peculiarities of vocal enchantment," wrote the Mirror's critic about her earthy contralto. "In addition, she possesses striking and colorful adjuncts: a bronzed complexion, luxury of figure, a fine grace and control.…Sheis one of a species so decidedly rare that one speaks her name with unmistakable sanctity. This Holman girl is an artist."
In her next effort, Three's a Crowd (1930), Holman stopped the show with her rendition of "Give Me Something to Remember You By" and again with "Body and Soul," which she performed in a long black dress with a plunging neckline. The song was later banned in Boston
because of the word "body" in the song title. The New York censors also objected to the line, "My life, a hell you're making," which was eventually replaced with, "My life, a wreck you're making."
Now at the height of her popularity, Holman partied nightly with New York's elite and drank more than her share of bootleg whiskey. She was seen on the arms of Manhattan's most eligible men and had numerous love affairs, including an on-again-off-again liaison with Louisa Carpenter , an aviator and one of the wealthy Du Pont clan. In 1931, having achieved her goal of stardom, she married her millionaire—Smith Reynolds, the son of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, and heir to a fortune. Smith, a pilot and adventurer of sorts, was known as a strange character, even to his friends. "He was moody, he was wild, he stammered, he was sullen and non-committal," writes Jon Bradshaw in his biography of Holman, Dreams That Money Can Buy, "and he gave a palpable impression of stupidity, although he wasn't stupid."
After a honeymoon in Hong Kong, the couple settled in at the 60-room Reynolds estate in Winston-Salem ("Reynolda"). The marriage was troubled from the start. Smith was possessive and pressured Holman to give up the theater. On one occasion, he reportedly brandished his Mauser, which he claimed to have for protection, and threatened to shoot himself unless she agreed. At first, Holman adored her pampered life, but she eventually grew bored and longed to move back to Manhattan. Smith resisted, grew increasingly moody, and frequently talked of suicide.
In July 1932, following a wild party at Reynolda, Smith was found dead in his bedroom, a bullet wound in his head. After a grand jury ruled out suicide, Holman, now several months' pregnant, was indicted for murder, along with Reynolds' best friend Albert Walker, who came upon the body shortly after Holman. The incident unleashed a frenzy of publicity, including a 27-part series in the New York Daily Mirror which, according to Bradshaw's summary, "accused Libby of being haughty and tactless, of wearing mannish attire, of being a heavy drinker and attending mad midnight revels, of being a sensuous sex pirate, a red hot mama, an iceberg of disdain." Holman, however, never went to trial. A month before the court date, the chief prosecutor received a letter from Will Reynolds, Smith's guardian, requesting that he drop the case. Two days later, both Holman and Walker were set free. (In the summer of 1935, MGM released the film Reckless, based on the Smith Reynolds tragedy and starring Jean Harlow as Holman.)
Three months after her release, on January 9, 1933, Holman gave birth prematurely to a three-and-a-half-pound boy, whom she named Christopher Smith Reynolds ("Topper"). In the settlement of Smith Reynolds' estate, which took two years to untangle, the infant was awarded $6.25 million, prompting the New York tabloids to dub him the "richest baby in America." Holman received $750,000.
Holman retired to a Rhode Island estate with Louisa Carpenter and her fragile son. In the year that followed, she turned down several chances to return to Broadway, including a request that she join the cast of Cole Porter's Anything Goes in the role that Ethel Merman would make famous. Holman was finally urged back to the stage in 1934 by her old friend Howard Dietz, who cast her in Revenge with Music, an operetta based on an old Spanish folk-tale. The musical eked out a short, undistinguished run, and Holman did not return to Broadway again until 1938, in an ill-fated Cole Porter musical called You Never Know. Following another four-year hiatus, Holman accepted the part of a peasant woman in Mexican Mural, an experimental play that ran for just three weeks. Then the offers dried up. During the 1940s, she enjoyed some success with a nightclub act she performed with African-American singer and guitarist Josh White, featuring a repertoire of early American blues and ballads. (The duo also cut one album, Blues Till Dawn, a classic of early American blues.) Later, with pianist Gerald Cook, she toured concert halls and college campuses with a one-woman show, Blues, Ballads, and Sin-Songs. The production, which did well in Europe, failed miserably when Holman brought it to Broadway in 1954.
While her career was foundering during the 1930s and 1940s, Holman sought solace with a cadre of friends from the theater and literary world, among them Paul and Jane Bowles , Clifton Webb, Tallulah Bankhead , John Latouche, and Tennessee Williams. In 1938, she constructed an enormous house ("Treetops") on a 55-acre site in Stamford, Connecticut, where she lived extravagantly and threw lavish parties. Later, she acquired a town house in Manhattan, so she would have a place to entertain when she was in the city. In the 1940s, she temporarily housed two foster children, then adopted two boys (Timmy and Tony). But eclipsing any positive events in Holman's life were the tragedies, most of them involving the violent deaths of nearly all the men whose lives she touched.
The eerie pattern that began with Smith Reynolds continued with the death of actor Phillips Holmes, with whom Holman had had an affair before marrying his younger brother Ralph Holmes in 1939. Phillips was killed in an air collision aboard a Royal Canadian Air Force plane in 1942, during service in World War II. Holman separated from Ralph Holmes in 1945, after which he committed suicide with sleeping pills. Clifton Webb called Holman "the black angel of death."
Then, in August 1950, Holman's 17-year-old son Christopher died in a mountain-climbing accident in California. His death was "Libby's crucifixion," wrote Bradshaw. "Never again was she to love so yieldingly, so spontaneously. All that remained was remorse and endless recrimination. Her friends agreed that when Libby returned from California, she wasn't Libby anymore." In 1952, after a year in France, Holman established the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, through which she channeled her later work for the environment, civil liberties, race relations, peace, and disarmament. (As of 1985, the foundation had made grants and endowments of $3.5 million, a third of which were awarded in the area of civil rights.)
During much of the 1950s, Holman was involved in an affair with actor Montgomery Clift, whom she first met when they worked together in Mexican Mural. "Monty was the abiding obsession of Libby's middle life," writes Bradshaw. "Indeed, he was practically an occupation." The relationship may have been passionate, but it was hardly exclusive, for either of the partners. Clift was bisexual. A talented but troubled man, he nearly lost his life in an automobile crash in 1956. He never fully recovered from the accident, which also altered his appearance and destroyed his acting career. Even with Clift in and out of her life, Holman, still mourning the loss of her son, suffered periods of dark depression and a worsening ulcer condition. Following the failure of her one-woman show, Blues, Ballads, and Sin-Songs, in 1954, she attempted suicide by taking an overdose of Seconal, but only succeeded in making herself seriously ill. On New Year's Day, 1956, she underwent surgery to remove a large portion of her stomach. There followed a slow recovery, through which Holman somehow managed to maintain a sense of humor. When a visiting friend asked her if she had finally given up smoking, Holman quipped, "Yes, I have, but every time the doctor puts a thermometer in my mouth, I'm tempted to light it."
In late 1960, at age 56, Holman married Louis Schanker, an abstract expressionist painter whom she had met through a friend. The marriage surprised Holman's friends, who considered Schanker gruff and opportunistic. "Libby wanted to marry someone solid," said her friend Oliver Smith, "and she succeeded in marrying cement." With the marriage came a new house in East Hampton, New York, which Holman bought so Schanker could mingle with the artists who summered there. She threw her usual large bashes for the Hamptons' social set, but friends remarked that she often seemed like a stranger at her own parties. True to most predictions, the marriage barely limped along, giving Holman little joy. She was besieged by yet another series of tragic losses beginning in December 1963, when her sister Marion committed suicide. A year later, her close friend Jack Neustadt, the director of the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, hanged himself. "Libby was distraught, convinced that it was she who inspired her tragedies," writes Bradshaw. "She thought of herself as a kind of medium, a conduit, through which death not only quickened, but radiated to others."
Beginning with a benefit concert in East Hampton in July 1964, Holman embarked on what turned out to be a last burst of activity. She gave additional concerts, made another album (The Legendary Libby Holman), and threw another round of lavish parties. But following Montgomery Clift's death in 1966, Holman began to grapple with her own mortality. She became obsessed with Zen, hoping to find peace and dignity, but enlightenment eluded her. Holman spent her final years plagued by ill health and a growing depression that she once described as "bottomless." On the afternoon of June 18, 1971, after a particularly difficult morning, she had lunch by the pool, then simply disappeared. Later, she was found sprawled out on the front seat of her prized Rolls-Royce, barely breathing. She died in the hospital of carbon-monoxide poisoning. Her body was cremated and her ashes scattered at Treetops, in one of the large daffodil beds that adorned the grounds.
In June 1971, some of Holman's friends gathered for a memorial service in New York, among them songwriter Alec Wilder. In a series of somber tributes, those in attendance spoke of her talent, her spirit and energy, and her devotion to the downtrodden and underprivileged. Yolanda Denise King , daughter of Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, Jr., recalled Holman's donations to her father's work and said she hoped Holman would find her happiness in heaven. As Wilder left the service and made his way down the street, he remembered a remark Holman had once made to him, and started to laugh. "Alec, can you imagine spending an eternity in heaven?," she had said. "So dull, so commonplace, like being detained in some quack's waiting room."
Bradshaw, Jon. Dreams That Money Can Buy: The Tragic Life of Libby Holman. NY: William Morrow, 1985.
Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of…? 1st and 2nd Series. NY: Crown Publishers, 1967.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts