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Libby Holman

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Libby Holman
Holman in 1935
Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman

(1904-05-23)May 23, 1904
DiedJune 18, 1971(1971-06-18) (aged 67)
  • Socialite
  • actress
  • singer
  • activist
Years active1924–1971
(m. 1931; died 1932)
Ralph Holmes
(m. 1939; died 1945)
(m. 1960)

Elizabeth Lloyd Holman (née Holzman; May 23, 1904 – June 18, 1971) was an American socialite, actress, singer, and activist.

Early life[edit]

Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman was born May 23, 1904, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of a lawyer and stockbroker Alfred Holzman and his wife Rachel Florence Workum Holzman. Her family was Jewish, but she was not raised religiously.[1][2] Their other children were daughter Marion H. Holzman and son Alfred Paul Holzman.[citation needed]

In 1904, the wealthy family grew destitute after Holman's uncle Ross Holzman embezzled nearly $1 million of their stock brokerage business. Alfred changed the family name from Holzman to Holman[3] around World War I due to anti-German sentiment.[4] Libby graduated from Hughes High School on June 11, 1920, at the age of 16. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati on June 16, 1923, with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Holman later subtracted two years from her age, insisting she was born in 1906, the year she gave the Social Security Administration as the year of her birth.[5]

Theatrical career[edit]

Holman left her hometown in the fall of 1924 to pursue acting in New York City. She first lived at an all-women's dormitory at a YWCA and took classes at Columbia University. She began working for female pimp Polly Adler in the winter when her savings ran low. Adler arranged her shift schedule to accommodate her classes. She later remembered of Holman: "Every afternoon she would arrive after her classes, carrying her schoolbooks, wearing the short skirts, oxfords and beret that were the thing among coeds, and settle down to work..." She was "pleasant, smiling, and matter-of-fact about her method of earning a living, and no matter what amount of money was offered her after her deadline of eleven o'clock [the curfew of the YWCA], her answer was always 'No.'"[6]

Her first theater job in New York was in the road company of The Fool. Channing Pollock, the writer of The Fool, recognized Holman's talents immediately and advised her to pursue a theatrical career. She followed Pollock's advice and soon became a star. Producer Leonard Sillman relates, in his autobiography Here Lies Leonard Sillman: Straightened Out at Last, that he "liked the name Libby much better than her legal one and under my gentle prodding, 24 hours a day, she changed it.”[7] An early stage colleague who became a longtime close friend was future film star Clifton Webb, then a dancer. He gave her the nickname, "The Statue of Libby".

Her Broadway debut was in the play The Sapphire Ring in 1925 at the Selwyn Theatre, which closed after 13 performances. She was billed as Elizabeth Holman. Her big break came while she was appearing with Clifton Webb and Fred Allen in the 1929 Broadway revue The Little Show, in which she first sang the blues number "Moanin' Low" by Ralph Rainger, which earned her a dozen curtain calls on opening night, drew raves from the critics and became her signature song.[8] Also in that show, she sang the Kay Swift and Paul James song, "Can't We Be Friends?". She became known as the “premier torch singer” of Broadway.[9]

Holman in 1930, wearing her signature strapless dress

The following year, Holman introduced the Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz standard "Something to Remember You By" in the show Three's a Crowd, which also starred Allen and Webb.[10] Other Broadway appearances included The Garrick Gaieties (1925), Merry-Go-Round (1927), Rainbow (1928), Ned Wayburn's Gambols (1929), Revenge with Music (1934), You Never Know (1938, score by Cole Porter), during which production she had a strong rivalry with the Mexican actress Lupe Vélez;[11] and her self-produced one-woman revue Blues, Ballads and Sin-Songs (1954).

One of Holman's signature looks was the strapless dress, which she has been credited with having invented,[12][13][14] or at least being one of its first high-profile wearers.[15]

Personal life[edit]

In the industry, press, and among friends, Holman was known for her bold personality. She was the frequent subject of contemporary gossip columns,[16] and became known in the press as "the dark purple menace."[17] Memories of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues detail the stage manner and individuality she was known for. For example, friend and colleague Howard Dietz, who described her as "the swarthy, sloe-eyed houri,"[18] recalled:

No one in the theatre was more discussable than Libby Holman, who came from Cincinnati and was game for anything...She did outrageous things. For example, one Friday she said she was tired of being nice and proposed that on the weekend at the Henri Souvaines to which we were both invited we should act disagreeably instead of our usual selves. I said I didn’t think I could carry it off. ‘Well, try,” said Libby. Mabel showed us the garden and Libby said, 'I hate flowers.' Henri, who is a well-known composer, played one of his songs and Libby said 'I don’t like what you’re playing.' Mabel caught on to her line and said to Libby, 'I don’t like you.' It was the beginning of a great friendship.[19]

Additionally, Leonard Sillman remembered of her:

She was a large girl with a fuzzy head of hair. She had slits for eyes and a bee-stung mouth and a somewhat unreliable singing voice. When she felt good, she was a fabulous singer. When she was not fabulous, she was flat. She went around in a ratty old beret and an overcoat made from the pelts of one fox and several rabbits with rabies. From all this, I realize, it may be difficult to conjure up an image of a rather fey, irresistible enchantress. But that’s exactly what she was; she could exert a strange fascination. There was a boy in the show we all called ‘horseface.’ He has such a lech for Libby that he followed her around like a puppy, which meant following me around because by that time I was never far behind the witch myself. After the show each night the three of us would sit around till dawn drinking milk, eating coleslaw, hating life. It was at one of these bull and beef sessions one night that Libby got up, walked to the writing desk and proceeded to write a letter. She put it in an envelope and left the room. I picked up the envelope and saw that it had been addressed to - of all people- Miss Libby Holman. Naturally, I read the letter. It said: "My divine Libby, how can you tolerate two such stupid people as Leonard and Horseface? They are without doubt the most dreadful, most common and vulgar people I have ever seen. I love you, divine Libby, wonderful Libby, beautiful Libby. Love, love, Libby."[20]

Libby Holman had a variety of relationships with both men and women during her lifetime, including Jeanne Eagels, Tallulah Bankhead, Josephine Baker,[21] and, later in her life, writer Jane Bowles.[16] Although friends observed her to be a "ball breaker" with men, she was tender and intimate in her same-sex relationships.[22] Her most prominent relationship was with DuPont heiress Louisa d'Andelot Carpenter. The couple's relationship lasted until Holman's death in 1971; during Libby's Broadway career in the early 1920s, they went to parties and jaunts in Harlem dressed identically in men's suits in bowler hats, joined by other lesbian and bisexual contemporaries such as Tallulah Bankhead, Beatrice Lillie, Joan Crawford, and Marilyn Miller.[23] Carpenter was to play a significant part throughout Holman's lifetime. They raised their children and lived together and were openly accepted by their theater companions. She scandalized some by dating much younger men, such as American actor Montgomery Clift, whom she mentored.[23]

Holman took an interest in one fan, Zachary Smith Reynolds, a hobbyist aviator and heir to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company 7 years her junior . He was known to friends and family as just "Smith." They met in Baltimore, Maryland in April 1930 after he saw her perform in The Little Show. He asked his friend Dwight Deere Wiman, the producer of the show, to introduce him to her. He pursued her around the world in his plane, and became known as "Smitty, the traveling bear" in Holman's friend group, referencing his pet-like devotion to following her around the world.[24] Although Holman's friends didn't like Reynolds, finding him moody and difficult to talk to, they tolerated his presence, as he paid for the entourage's visits to New York speakeasies and nightclubs.[24] The couple argued often and occasionally descended into fights in front of Holman's circle of friends.[25] Reynolds threatened suicide to Holman on multiple occasions; In a letter to her, written while on an aviation journey, he once wrote: "Darling Angel. I would gladly come home if you were not going on with the show. I'll gladly give up this trip or anything I have to devote all my time to you, if you would do the same for me. If I get to the point where I simply cannot stand it without you for another minute, well, there's the old Mauser with a few cartridges in it. I guess I've had my inning. It's time another team went to bat."[26]

Despite the tempestuous nature of their relationship, Holman and Reynolds married on November 29, 1931, in the parlor of the Justice of the Peace's house in Monroe, Michigan. Reynolds wanted Holman to abandon her acting career. She took a one-year leave of absence to stay at the Reynolds family estate in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.[citation needed]

Death of Zachary Smith Reynolds[edit]

Holman at her bond hearing in 1932

On the night of July 5, 1932 at Reynolda, Reynolds and Holman threw a 21st birthday party for Smith's childhood friend Charles Gideon Hill Jr. After the party attendees had left, with only Reynolds's best friend and secretary Albert "Ab" Bailey Walker, and Holman's friend, actress Blanche Yurka, remaining in the house, Reynolds died of a gunshot wound to the head in the morning of July 6. As many witnesses had been drunk, statements about the event were conflicting and muddled. Holman said she was unable to remember much of the night or the following day; the numerous testimonies given by Walker in the inquest contradicted each other. Authorities ruled the shooting a suicide, but a coroner's inquiry ruled it murder.[27]

The death was front-page news, and the local sheriff leaked details to the press, inciting more speculation. Carpenter paid Holman's $25,000 bail at the Rockingham County Courthouse in Wentworth, North Carolina. Holman wore a heavy veil and dark dress, and bystanders and reporters thought she was black or of mixed race—a common misconception because of her olive skin tone.[2] Holman left for Cincinnati to seek the help of her father, who was a lawyer. Fearing further scandal, the Reynolds family contacted the local authorities and had the charges dropped. On January 10, 1933, Holman gave birth to Christopher Smith "Topper" Reynolds.

The trauma of Reynolds' death followed Holman until the end of her life. She died by suicide June 18, 1971. Friend and former lover Ned Rorem recorded in his diary on June 22:

Libby Holman has killed herself. Somehow this doesn't come as a surprise. For if Libby was the richest woman in the world (becoming richer as the men in her life died off,) also celebrated and honored with special friendships, the specter of violence tracked her from the start. (She once said: You want to know the truth? The night Smith Reynolds died I was so drunk I can't remember what happened!)

That Holman was unable to remember what happened is repeated by biographer Jon Bradshaw's work. Bradshaw relates from interviews with still-living close friends that Holman called them on the telephone in a panic: "She told Louisa [Carpenter] that the Reynolds family were being horrible to her, almost as though they suspected that she had something to do with Smith's demise. But unfortunately Libby could not remember anything. 'I was so drunk last night,' she said, 'I don't know whether I shot him or not.'"[28]

Journalist Milt Machlin investigated the death of Reynolds and argued that he committed suicide. In his account Holman was a victim of the anti-Semitism of local authorities. The district attorney involved with the case later told Machlin that she was innocent,[29] and he thought that if the case had gone to trial there might have been violence similar to the Leo Frank case.[27]

The 1933 film Sing, Sinner, Sing was loosely based on the allegations surrounding Reynolds' death,[30][31] as were the films Reckless and Written on the Wind.[2]

Later years[edit]

In March 1939, Holman married Ralph (pronounced "Rafe") Holmes, a film and stage actor. She had dated his older brother Phillips Holmes. In 1940, both brothers, who were half-Canadian, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Phillips Holmes was killed in a collision of two military aircraft on August 12, 1942. When Ralph Holmes returned home in August 1945, the marriage soured and they separated. On November 15, 1945, Ralph Holmes was found dead in his Manhattan apartment from a barbiturate overdose at age 29.[32]

During World War II, she tried to organize shows for servicemen with her friend, African-American musician Josh White, but they were turned down on the grounds that "we don't book mixed company."[33]

Libby and Josh were beyond brave, although perhaps she did not quite realize what she was taking on in 1940s America. When they started rehearsals for their first show in a New York club, she arrived at the front door and was welcomed. Josh was directed to the staff entrance round the back. Libby waited till the day they were due to open, after the owners had spent a vast amount on publicity, and told them she was not going to sing in their club until they changed their racial door policy. She won. In Philadelphia, Josh was refused a room at the hotel in whose bar they sang nightly. Libby ranted and told them: "Take down the American flag outside and fly the fucking swastika, why don't you!" When they were told by officials that the US Army did not tolerate mixed shows, Libby replied: "Mixed? You mean boys and girls?"[34]

Holman and Josh White in a program of early American blues and other songs

Holman adopted two sons, Timmy (born October 18, 1945), and Tony (born May 19, 1947). Her biological son Christopher ("Topper") died on August 7, 1950, after falling while mountain climbing. She had given him permission to go mountain climbing with a friend on Mount Whitney, the highest peak in California, but was unaware that the boys were ill-prepared for the adventure. Both died. Those close to Holman claim she never forgave herself.[35]

After the death of her son Christopher, Holman (who had some money from her marriage to Reynolds) created the Christopher Reynolds Foundation to support equality, international disarmament, and the resolution of environmental problems. Over time the foundation narrowed its scope to more specific causes, such as relations between Cuba and the U.S. She contributed to the defense of Benjamin Spock, the pediatrician and writer arrested for taking part in antiwar demonstrations.[8]

In the 1950s, Holman worked with her accompanist, Gerald Cook, on researching and rearranging what they called earth music. It was primarily blues and spirituals that were linked to the African American community. She was involved in the Civil rights movement and became a close friend and associate of Martin Luther King Jr. Through her foundation she provided funds for King's trip to India with his wife Coretta Scott King to meet followers of Mahatma Gandhi,[36] whom he referred to as "the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change".[37]

On December 27, 1960, she married artist and fellow activist Louis Schanker. She continued to perform and make records.[38]

Death and legacy[edit]

The Treetops Mansion viewed from Treetops State Park

Holman reportedly suffered from depression following the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the presidential election loss by Eugene McCarthy, the deaths of young men in the Vietnam War, the death of her son, and the illness of her friend Jane Bowles.[34] Friends said she lost her vitality after the death of Montgomery Clift in 1966.[39] The deaths of multiple people close to her, combined with the Vietnam War and the turbulent political situation took a toll on her mental health.[40]

On June 18, 1971, Holman was found nearly dead in the front seat of her Rolls-Royce. She was taken to the hospital where she died hours later.[41] Her death was ruled a suicide due to carbon monoxide poisoning.[42] In view of her bouts with depression and reported past suicide attempts, none of Holman's friends or relatives was surprised by her death (suicide).[43] She was cremated and her ashes scattered at Treetops.[44]

In 2001, a successful effort was made by citizens to save Treetops, her Connecticut estate, from development. It straddles the border of Stamford and Greenwich. As a result, the pristine grounds were preserved. Treetops is part of the Mianus River State Park, overseen by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. Treetops is south of the Mianus River Park.[45] The mansion is privately owned. In 2006, Louis Schanker's art studio on a hill overlooking the property became the home of the Treetops Chamber Music Society.[46]


Musical theater credits[edit]

Hit records[edit]

Year Single US
1929 "Am I Blue?" 4
"Moanin' Low" 5
"Find Me a Primitive Man" 19
1930 "Why Was I Born?" 19
"Body and Soul" 3
"Something to Remember You By" 6
1931 "Love for Sale" 5
"I'm One of God's Children" 14
1935 "You and the Night and the Music" 11

In pop culture[edit]

  • The 1933 film Sing, Sinner, Sing was loosely based on the allegations surrounding Reynolds' death,[30][48] as were the films Reckless and Written on the Wind.[2]
  • The song "Broken Bracelets" by Marc Almond is about Holman, referencing her suicide, "Moanin' Low," and the violence in her relationship with Reynolds. Almond also featured Holman in a retrospective of his favorite torch singers, calling her "perhaps the first bona fide torch singer."[49]


  1. ^ Boardman, Sam (Winter 2006). "Not Quite White: Sam Boardman Jacobs on the turbulent career of the torch singer - and political activist – Libby Holman". Jewish Quarterly. No. 204. Archived from the original on 15 April 2012. Retrieved 9 August 2012. Zach's family had always disapproved of Libby, and her Jewish ancestry was publicly known to play a large part in that disapproval.
  2. ^ a b c d "Libby Holman | Jewish Women's Archive". Jwa.org. Retrieved October 10, 2019.
  3. ^ "At "Reynolda"". Time. 1932-08-15. p. 2. Archived from the original on June 18, 2008. Retrieved 2009-02-06.
  4. ^ "Tragedy Shatters Triumph". Xenia Evening Gazette. July 15, 1932.
  5. ^ Social Security Death Index: SSN 073-14-3155 under the name "Elizabeth Schanker", Ssdi.rootsweb.ancestry.com; accessed December 23, 2015.
  6. ^ Applegate, Debby. Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age. Doubleday.
  7. ^ Sillman, Leonard (January 1, 1959). Here Lies Leonard Sillman: Straightened Out at Last (1st ed.). Citadel Press. p. 79.
  8. ^ a b New York Times: Jack Cavanaugh, "Treetops: An Aura of Glamour, a Trail of Tragedies," May 18, 1997, accessed January 7, 2011
  9. ^ Machlin, Milt. Libby. p. 62.
  10. ^ Original sheet music for "Something to Remember You By" is inscribed with the subtitle "Introduced by Libby Holman."
  11. ^ "Lupe Vélez/MEXICAN SILENT CINEMA". cinesilentemexicano.wordpress.com. 6 August 2012. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
  12. ^ Scheper, Jeanne. Libby Holman profile, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, March 1, 2009; accessed March 25, 2013.
  13. ^ Casstevens, Frances H. (2006). Death in North Carolina's Piedmont: tales of murder, suicide and causes unknown. Charleston, SC: History Press. p. 74. ISBN 9781596291966.
  14. ^ Bowie, Angie (2002). Bisexuality. Harpenden, Herts: Pocket Essentials. p. 58. ISBN 9781903047910. Libby Holman was a Jewish American who invented the strapless gown and was a celebrated torch singer.
  15. ^ Waggoner, Susan (2001). Nightclub nights: art, legend and style, 1920–1960. New York: Rizzoli. p. 18. ISBN 9780847823314. Then there was the scandalous Libby Holman, whose accomplishments ranged from challenging race and gender stereotypes to popularizing the strapless evening gown.
  16. ^ a b "Jane Bowles, Libby Holman Reynolds, and Barbara Hutton". The Authorized Paul Bowles Web Site. Archived from the original on 2019-02-16. Retrieved 2007-08-20.
  17. ^ Whitburn, Joel (January 1, 1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop memories, 1890-1954. Record Research Inc. p. 216.
  18. ^ Dietz, Howard (1974). Dancing in the Dark. New York: Quadrangle. p. 121.
  19. ^ Dietz, Howard (1974). Dancing in the Dark. Quadrangle. pp. 128–130.
  20. ^ Sillman, Leonard (January 1, 1959). Here Lies Leonard Sillman: Straightened Out at Last (1st ed.). Citadel Press. p. 81.
  21. ^ Machlin, Milt (July 1, 1980). Libby. Tower & Leisure Sales Co. p. 12.
  22. ^ Madsen, Axel (May 26, 2015). The Sewing Circle: Female Stars Who Loved Other Women. Open Road Distribution. p. 119.
  23. ^ a b Faderman, Lillian (1991). Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-century America. Columbia University Press. p. 71.
  24. ^ a b Dreams That Money Can Buy: The Tragic Life of Libby Holman. p. 85.
  25. ^ Machlin, Milt (July 1, 1980). Libby. Tower & Leisure Sales Co. p. 131.
  26. ^ Dreams That Money Can Buy: The Tragic Life of Libby Holman. pp. 94–95.
  27. ^ a b Perry, Hamilton Darby. (1983). Libby Holman : body and soul (1st ed.). Boston: Little, Brown. pp. 285–289. ISBN 0316700142. OCLC 9686617.
  28. ^ Bradshaw, Jon. Dreams That Money Can Buy: The Tragic Life of Libby Holman. p. 177.
  29. ^ Machlin, Milt (1980). Libby. Tower Books. pp. 363. ISBN 9780505515339.
  30. ^ a b "Sing, Sinner, Sing: Moans, Groans, and Murder on a Gambling Ship". Newsweek. 1933.
  31. ^ Determeyer, Eddy (2008). Rhythm Is Our Business: Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express. University of Michigan Press. p. 65. ISBN 9780472033591.
  32. ^ "Milestones". Time. 1945-12-03. Retrieved 2009-02-06.
  33. ^ Perry. Libby Holman, Body and Soul. Little, Brown. p. 254.
  34. ^ a b "The Jewish Quarterly". Jewishquarterly.org. Archived from the original on April 15, 2012. Retrieved October 10, 2019.
  35. ^ Scheper, Jeanne (2009-03-01). "Libby Holman profile". Jwa.org. Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2016-01-12.
  36. ^ "Libby Holman profile". Jwa.org. Retrieved 2017-10-10.
  37. ^ King Jr, Martin Luther (July 1959). "My Trip to the Land of Gandhi" (PDF). Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-03-29. Retrieved 2017-10-10.
  38. ^ "Louis Schanker: Hamptons Connection" (PDF). Retrieved 9 January 2024.
  39. ^ Machlin, Libby, 353
  40. ^ Bradshaw, Jon. (1985). Dreams that money can buy : the tragic life of Libby Holman (First ed.). New York. ISBN 0688011586. OCLC 11751839.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  41. ^ Nash, Jay Robert (2004). The Great Pictorial History of World Crime. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 1246. ISBN 1-928831-22-2.
  42. ^ Frasier, David K. (2002). Suicide in the Entertainment Industry: An Encyclopedia of 840 Twentieth Century Cases. McFarland. p. 147. ISBN 0-7864-1038-8.
  43. ^ "Libby Holman Suicide" (PDF). Retrieved 9 January 2024.
  44. ^ Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Locations 21849-21850). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  45. ^ Mianus River Park History
  46. ^ "Libby Holman, the SLCT and the Treetops Legacy” accessed January 9, 2024
  47. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Pop Memories: 1890-1954. Record Research. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.
  48. ^ Determeyer, Eddy (2008). Rhythm Is Our Business: Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express. University of Michigan Press. p. 65. ISBN 9780472033591.
  49. ^ "Marc Almond's Torch Song Trilogy". BBC Radio 2. 2017-12-04. Archived from the original on 12 June 2022. Retrieved 2022-06-12.

External links[edit]