Libby Holman: A Sinner and a Saint

Today a look at singer, socialite, activist, philanthropist, social progressive, and all around trouble magnet and tabloid topic Libby Holman (Elizabeth Holzman, 1904-1971), whose time of relevance stretched from the Jazz Age to the Civil Rights era, and (posthumously) to our own.

Holman graduated from the University of Cincinnati (her hometown college) in 1923 with a major in French. She graduated in 3 years and was the young woman to graduate from that college until that point. She immediately moved to New York to break into theatre. She immediately obtained work in a tour of Channing Pollock’s The Fool. Her Broadway debut was in The Sapphire Ring (1925) with Helen Gahagan. A long string of Broadway hits followed: The Garrick Gaieties (1925) with Sterling Holloway, Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg (!); Merry-Go-Round (1927) with William Collier, Billy Murray, and Leonard Sillman; Rainbow (1928) with Brian Donlevy and Charles Ruggles; Ned Wayburn’s Gambols (1929) with Lew Hearn and Fuzzy Knight; and The Little Show (1929-30) with Fred Allen and Clifton Webb. Her performance of “Moanin’ Low” was a hit of the show and became a hit record as well. Several more hit singles followed (there are plenty of them available to listen to on Youtube. I highly recommend it). Much like Helen Morgan, Holman became associated with torch songs. Sleeveless or shoulderless dresses were another trademark. Her next show Three’s a Crowd (1930-31) showcased her alongside Allen and Webb yet again. It was Webb who nicknamed her “The Statue of Libby”.

Webb, Holman and Allen.

At this point, Holman’s private life overwhelmed her career. She was sexually liberated in advance of her time, and in some quarters, ours: bisexual and by nature non-monogamous. It was bound to lead to problems. She was the lover and close personal friend of du Pont heiress and aviatrix Louisa d’Andelot Carpenter. Jane Bowles and Jeanne Eagels were also among her lovers. Her pals included Talullah Bankhead and Bea Lillie. She delighted in cavorting around town with this bunch in male drag, dressed in men’s suits, bowlers or top hats.

In 1931 Carpenter encouraged Holman to marry tobacco heir and aviator Zacahary Smith Reynolds. Already married to another woman at the time, Reynolds was obsessed with Holman, and threatened to kill himself if she didn’t accept his proposal. With Carpenter’s agreement she did. Reynolds divorced his first wife and married Holman. She briefly quit the theatre and moved in with him in his North Carolina estate. There ensued immediate and constant culture clash between Holman and her theatre crowd and the stodgy, conservative Reynolds family. Most of their time was spent entertaining. In July 1932, the tension exploded in tragic violence. At a drunken barbecue Holman had revealed to Reynolds that she was pregnant. This might have been deemed joyous news, but for the fact that Holman was allegedly having an affair with Reynolds’ boyhood friend and personal bodyguard Albert “Ab” Walker at the time. After much fighting, in the wee hours of the morning a shot rang out and Reynolds was discovered dead of a gunshot wound to the head. The circumstances were not unlike those of the later George Reeves death. It looked sort of like suicide, but was also mighty suspicious. Who commits suicide with a lot of people around, in the next room? Walker and Holman were held on suspicion of murder. Carpenter paid Holman’s bail and she was ultimately exonerated, but for a while things were tense. Holman’s swarthy, Semitic features and Free Love lifestyle incited Southern prejudice. Political pressure to prosecute and convict her and Walker must have been immense.

In 1932 Holman bore a son, Christopher “Topper” Reynolds. But there were other fruits of the events of 1931. Several works of art were based on the real life drama. There were the Hollywood films Sing Sinner Sing (1933) with Paul Lukas and Leila Hyams; and Reckless (1935) with William Powell and Jean Harlow. Then there was Robert Wilder’s 1946 novel Written on the Wind, adapted into a Hollywood film a decade later by Douglas Sirk and starring Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall. In addition to these fictionalizations, there was a 1996 play by Sky Gilbert that was more frankly biographical entitled Murder. 

At any rate, the scandal seems to have halted any Hollywood career Holman might have had herself. Although one suspects that same prejudices that inflamed the Reynolds affair might have also have come into play. Once can’t help but note that other major female Jewish stage stars of the time like Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker never managed to secure more than a toehold in Hollywood, and like them (and unlike many others) there was little likelihood of making her over to pass for WASP as was the common practice at the time. It wouldn’t be until decades later, with the advent of Barbra Streisand, that that particular culture hurdle would be cleared. Holman has but one major studio credit: in 1931 she was Talulah Bankhead’s singing coach on a film with the appropriate title Tarnished Lady.

But Broadway however welcomed her back. In 1934 she starred in Revenge with Music with Charles Winninger. This was followed by the Cole Porter show You Never Know (1938), with her old friend Clifton Webb, Lupe Velez, and Toby Wing. Around this time she purchased the 24-acre Connecticut estate “Treetops” located between Stamford and Greenwich Connecticut (she’s inherited her late husband’s fortune).

But the personal drama was not over. In the late ’30s she got involved with a pair of notable Holmes brothers. First she dated movie actor Philips Holmes, who’d been in Dinner at Eight (1933) and played Pip in the 1934 version of Great Expectations. In 1933 Holmes was the subject of a scandal when he was sued by Mae Clarke after her face was damaged in a car crash caused by his being inebriated at the wheel. Holmes’ ended up marrying Philips’ younger brother Ralph Holmes (whose name, as with Ralph Fiennes, was pronounced “Rafe”) in 1939. Holman had a thing for younger men. Reynolds had been seven years her junior; Holmes was 12 years younger. When World War Two broke out, both brothers joined the Canadian Air Force (Holman apparently had a thing for flyers as well, both Carpenter and Reynolds were amateur pilots). Philips Holmes died in a plane crash in 1942. That same year she appeared in (and backed) an experimental play called Mexican Mural, directed by Bobby Lewis, and starring a young Montgomery Clift.

Holman fell madly in love with Clift. They would become intimately entwined throughout the 1950s, but first there much would be more tragedy. Her young husband Ralph Holmes returned from the war in August 1945. It rapidly became apparent that the marriage was virtually nonexistent and the pair separated. Holmes was found dead of a barbiturate overdose in November of that year. Then, in 1950 her young son Topper, only 18 years old, died with friend while climbing Mount Whitney in California. This was a lot of death to take in. Drugs and alcohol would help her ease the pain but no doubt also added to depression.

At the same time she took solace in positive action. During the World War Two era she had toured nightclubs and cabarets with African American singer folksinger and activist Josh White, refusing to play venues that wouldn’t treat him equally. In 1947 she appeared in her only film, the experimental Dreams That Money Can Buy, alongside White. White’s influence was no doubt a factor in her 1954 self-produced one woman Broadway show Blues, Ballads, and Sin Songs. ironically this period of blues exploration resulted in a sound very much like the one that antedated her own advent in the late ’20s — a very roots classic blues and jazz sound unlike the big band and swing stuff that was going on at the time, and a sort of preview of a lot of the folk revival stuff that would happen in the late ’50s and ’60s. After Topper died in 1950, she used part of his substantial fortune to start a foundation in his name that underwrote progressive causes, including the anti-war and anti-nuke movements, and Civil Rights. It was this foundation that underwrote Martin Luther King’s influential trip to India, where he studied Gandhi’s non-violent protest tactics, which he then brought back to the U.S. to fight Jim Crow.

In 1960 Holman married abstract artist Louis Schanker, but towards the end of the decade depression set in, as the deaths she’d already known were joined by the loss of her friend and former lover Jane Bowles (who would outlive Holman but had had a stroke in 1957), as well as the deaths of Montgomery Clift, the Kennedys, and Dr. King. She must have also been despondent about the impasse of her progressive causes as these leaders died, Nixon became President, and the Vietnam War showed no sign of ending.  In 1971 she asphyxiated herself by running her car in the garage. Schanker died 10 years later. Treetops is now part of a Connecticut State Park.

For more show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,