Libby Holman

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Libby Holman
Libby Holman in 1930
Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman

(1904-05-23)May 23, 1904
DiedJune 18, 1971(1971-06-18) (aged 67)
Other namesElizabeth Holman
OccupationActress, singer
(m. 1931; died 1932)

Ralph Holmes
(m. 1939; died 1945)

(m. 1960; her death 1971)

Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman, best known as Libby Holman (May 23, 1904 – June 18, 1971), was an American actress, singer, and civil rights activist who also achieved notoriety for her complex and unconventional personal life. In her lifetime she became widely known in the press as "the dark purple menace." [1]

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.[2][3] Their other children were daughter Marion H. Holzman and son Alfred Paul Holzman.

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[4] around World War I due to anti-German sentiment.[5] 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.[6]

1923 yearbook photo of Libby Holman at the University of Cincinnati.

Theatrical career[edit]

In the summer of 1924, Holman left for New York City, where she first lived at the Studio Club. 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. 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".

Sheet music cover from Three's A Crowd

Her Broadway theatre debut was in the play The Sapphire Ring in 1925 at the Selwyn Theatre, which closed after thirteen 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.[7] Also in that show, she sang the Kay Swift and Paul James song, "Can't We Be Friends?" She became known for singing torch songs.

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.[8] 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 tempestuous Mexican actress Lupe Vélez;[9] 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,[10][11][12] or at least being one of its first high-profile wearers.[13]

Personal life[edit]

Holman was married three times and had a variety of intimate relationships with both men and women.[14] Her lesbian lovers included DuPont heiress Louisa d'Andelot Carpenter, actress Jeanne Eagels, and writer Jane Bowles.[15] 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.[14]

Holman took an interest in one fan, Zachary Smith Reynolds, the heir to the R. J. Reynolds tobacco company. 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.

With the persuasion of her former lover, Louisa d'Andelot Carpenter, Holman and Reynolds, who went by his middle name, married on November 29, 1931 in the parlor of a house in Monroe, Michigan. Reynolds wanted Holman to abandon her acting career. She took a one-year leave of absence. But his family was unable to bear Holman and her theater friends, who at her invitation often visited Reynolda, the family estate in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Arguments were common.

Death of Zachary Smith Reynolds[edit]

At a party at Reynolda in 1932, Holman told her husband she was pregnant. The party was for Charles Gideon Hill Jr., a friend of Reynolds and a cousin of his first wife, Anne Ludlow Cannon Reynolds. A tense argument ensued. Later in the evening a shot was heard. Friends discovered Reynolds bleeding and unconscious with a gunshot wound to the head. Authorities ruled the shooting a suicide, but a coroner's inquiry ruled it murder. Holman and Albert Bailey "Ab" Walker, a friend of Reynolds and an alleged lover of Holman, were indicted for murder. 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.[16]

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.[3] 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.

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,[17] and he thought that if the case had gone to trial there might have been violence similar to the Leo Frank case.[16]

A 1933 film, Sing, Sinner, Sing, was loosely based on the allegations surrounding Reynolds' death,[18][19] as were the films Reckless and Written on the Wind.[3]

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.[20]

During World War II, she tried to organize shows for servicemen with her friend Josh White, but they were turned down on the grounds that "we don't book mixed company."[21]

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?"[22]

Libby Holman and Josh White in a program of early American blues and other songs, Geary Theater, Sunday Evening, March 11.

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.[23]

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.[7]

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,[24] whom he referred to as "the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change".[25]

On December 27, 1960, she married artist and fellow activist Louis Schanker. She continued to perform and make records. The couple entertained and organized charitable events at their homes in Stamford Connecticut, Manhattan and East Hampton, New York. Guests included musician Gerald Cook, Monty Clift, and Coretta King and family. * Louis Schanker and Libby Holman: The Hamptons Connection

Death and legacy[edit]

The Treetops Mansion viewed from Treetops State Park

Holman reportedly suffered from depression because of: 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.[22] Friends said she lost her vitality after the death of Montgomery Clift in 1966.[26] 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.[27]

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.[28] Her death was ruled a suicide due to carbon monoxide poisoning.[29] In view of her bouts with depression and reported past suicide attempts, none of Holman's friends or relatives was surprised by her death. She was cremated and her ashes scattered at Treetops.[30]

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, which is overseen by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. Treetops is south of the Mianus River Park.[31] 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.[32]


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


  1. ^ Whitburn, Joel (January 1, 1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop memories, 1890-1954. Record Research Inc. p. 216.
  2. ^ 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 (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.
  3. ^ a b c "Libby Holman | Jewish Women's Archive". Retrieved October 10, 2019.
  4. ^ "At "Reynolda"". Time. 1932-08-15. p. 2. Retrieved 2009-02-06.
  5. ^ "Tragedy Shatters Triumph". Xenia Evening Gazette. July 15, 1932.
  6. ^ Social Security Death Index: SSN 073-14-3155 under the name "Elizabeth Schanker",; accessed December 23, 2015.
  7. ^ a b New York Times: Jack Cavanaugh, "Treetops: An Aura of Glamour, a Trail of Tragedies," May 18, 1997, accessed January 7, 2011
  8. ^ Original sheet music for "Something to Remember You By" is inscribed with the subtitle "Introduced by Libby Holman."
  9. ^ "Lupe Vélez/MEXICAN SILENT CINEMA". Retrieved 4 February 2018.
  10. ^ Scheper, Jeanne. Libby Holman profile, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, March 1, 2009; accessed March 25, 2013.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ a b Faderman, Lillian (1991). Odd girls and twilight lovers : a history of lesbian life in twentieth-century America. Penguin. p. 175. ISBN 0-231-07488-3.
  15. ^ "Jane Bowles, Libby Holman Reynolds and Barbara Hutton". The Authorized Paul Bowles Web Site.
  16. ^ a b Perry, Hamilton Darby. (1983). Libby Holman : body and soul (1st ed.). Boston: Little, Brown. pp. 285–289. ISBN 0316700142. OCLC 9686617.
  17. ^ Machlin, Milt (1980). Libby. Tower Books. pp. 363.
  18. ^ "Sing, Sinner, Sing: Moans, Groans, and Murder on a Gambling Ship". Newsweek. 1933.
  19. ^ Determeyer, Eddy (2008). Rhythm Is Our Business: Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express. University of Michigan Press. p. 65. ISBN 9780472033591.
  20. ^ "Milestones". Time. 1945-12-03. Retrieved 2009-02-06.
  21. ^ Perry. Libby Holman, Body and Soul. Little, Brown. p. 254.
  22. ^ a b "The Jewish Quarterly". Archived from the original on April 15, 2012. Retrieved October 10, 2019.
  23. ^ Scheper, Jeanne (2009-03-01). "Libby Holman profile". Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2016-01-12.
  24. ^ "Libby Holman profile". Retrieved 2017-10-10.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ Machlin, Libby, 353
  27. ^ Bradshaw, Jon. (1985). Dreams that money can buy : the tragic life of Libby Holman (First ed.). New York. ISBN 0688011586. OCLC 11751839.
  28. ^ Nash, Jay Robert (2004). The Great Pictorial History of World Crime. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 1246. ISBN 1-928831-22-2.
  29. ^ Frasier, David K. (2002). Suicide in the Entertainment Industry: An Encyclopedia of 840 Twentieth Century Cases. McFarland. p. 147. ISBN 0-7864-1038-8.
  30. ^ 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.
  31. ^ "Friends of the Mianus River Park: History of Treetops State Park". Retrieved 21 June 2011.
  32. ^ Friends of Mianus River State Park: Harry Day, "Libby Holman, the SLCT and the Treetops Legacy," Spring 2009, accessed January 7, 2011
  33. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Pop Memories: 1890-1954. Record Research. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.

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