LIBBY HOLMAN was born Elizabeth Holzman in Cincinnati on May 23, 1904, to a Jewish couple, Alfred and Rachel Workum Holzman. Her father was an Ohio-born lawyer, whose family probably emigrated from Germany like many others in Cincinnati. It was her father who dropped the "z" from his last name, perhaps to disguise his ethnic origin. (Smith Reynolds' relatives would refer to Holman as a "Jewess," perhaps harboring prejudice; one piece I read said the singer herself had nothing but disdain for her Jewish heritage.)
According to her biography on imdb.com (Internet Movie Database), Holman's family was wealthy until 1904 when an uncle embezzled nearly $1 million, "leaving her innocent father scandalized and bankrupt."
Stories about her early life vary on some important points. Some accept Libby Holman's lie that she was born in 1906. That makes it difficult to believe she was a college graduate at the age of 18. Wikipedia has her graduating from the University of Cincinnati at the age of 19, then moving to New York City. From there she was offered a role in a touring company of "The Fool," a play by Channing Pollock, who advised her to pursue a career in the theater.
The imdb.com biography doesn't say how or where she joined the cast of that play, but indicates she was still a college student at the time and that Pollock advised her to drop out of school and become an actress.
No story says what seems obvious — that Libby Holman had decided at an early age to become a stage actress. She also must have been a singer, too, though journalists reported that her voice was changed by a botched tonsillectomy. One version of this story claims Holman believed the operation had ruined her voice.
IN ANY EVENT, she left Cincinnati and headed for New York in 1923 or '24.
In 1925 she was on Broadway in the supporting cast of "The Garrick Gaieties," the first successful musical for Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. Her next show, "Merry-Go-Round," in 1927, was a flop, but she attracted attention for her rendition of a song called "Down in Hogan's Alley."
A year later she was cast with Brian Donlevy and Charles Ruggles in "Rainbow," which featured music by Vincent Youmans, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, with Max Steiner as the musical director. It couldn't miss ... but it did (though it was turned into a John Boles-Joe E. Brown movie operetta, "Song of the West," in 1930, in Technicolor yet).
Holman bounced right back — into another flop, "Ned Wayburn's Gambols," in January 1929. She was now discouraged enough to consider going to Hollywood, even though she had another Broadway offer. Some stories say she was set to board a California-bound train when her friends convinced her to stay in New York and accept a starring role in "The Little Show" with Clifton Webb and Fred Allen.
HOLMAN BECAME became an overnight sensation with her singing of "Moanin' Low," and what was termed "a torrid dance" with co-star Webb. (Anyone who remembers the characters Webb went on to play in movies — "Laura," "Mr. Belvedere Goes to College," "Cheaper By The Dozen," etc. — might snicker at the word "torrid," but in his younger days Webb apparently was quite good in musicals and had an excellent singing voice.")
"Moanin' Low" became one of her signature songs, the other being "Body and Soul," which she introduced in her next show, "Three's a Crowd," also with Webb and Allen. (Today people are more likely to associate "Moanin' Low" with actress Claire Trevor, who sang it during her Oscar-winning performance as a washed up, alcoholic singer in the 1949 film, "Key Largo.")
When 1931 began, Libby Holman was as successful as she would ever be. Her singing, delivered in an unusually deep voice, was considered soulful, exotic and strongly influenced by Negro spirituals. It was rumored that she was mulatto — half white, half black — but that may have come from misconceptions that exist even today. African-Americans aren't the only people who sing the blues. (They certainly don't have anything on the Irish.)
As for the botched tonsillectomy, it's more likely she simply worked with the tools she was given at birth. (One of her songs available online, "My Man Is On the Make," from 1929, is not especially deep or soulful. Years later no one felt it necessary to explain why Marlene Dietrich's voice was so low and husky when she crooned "Falling in Love Again." In other words, Libby Holman's voice probably was what it was; no explanations or labels required.)
According to "Jews, Race and Popular Music" (2009) by Jon Stratton, Libby Holman said this to a reporter from the Daily Mirror in 1931:
“My singing is like Flamenco. Sometimes it’s perfectly hideous. I try to convey anguish, anger, tragedy, passion. When you’re expressing emotions like these you cannot have a pure tone.” She said the songs she sang were about people who have had difficult times in love, but who don’t surrender. “They just say, ‘that’s my plight and I’m going to take it in my stride.’ That’s what torch singing is about.”
Holman, the singer, developed a cult-like following after the Reynolds tragedy detoured her theater career. There are several Holman songs that can be sampled online, including a 1940s version of "House of the Rising Sun," which is a test. Anyone who can make it through the entire song qualifies for the Libby Holman fan club. Her ver ... sion ... is ... ex ... cru ... ci ... at ... ing ... ly ... slow.
HER PRESS AGENTS concocted an interesting biography that was regurgitated by many journalists. In addition to subtracting the two years from her age, it says she moved to New York City to study the French literature, that singing was an afterthought, that she was an "omnivorous reader," that people were impressed by her intellectual curiosity and that she once said her greatest ambition was to assemble at her home the world's greatest minds for a mutual exchange of ideas.
I presume she also longed for world peace, was a gourmet cook and enjoyed long walks on the beach.
On May 23, 1931 Holman celebrated her 27th birthday, even if there were only 25 candles on her cake. She was single, had never been engaged nor even rumored to have a serious relationship (except for one columnist's ridiculous suggestion she was about to marry Clifton Webb, who lived with his mother — and would do so until she died in 1960, when he was 70 years old). Holman also was described as almost unique among young female Broadway stars in that she wasn't self-conscious about appearing alone in public.
SHE ALSO wasn't self-conscious about her relationship with lover and advisor Louisa Carpenter Jenney, a lesbian who wasn't above marrying a man, if for no other reason than to borrow his clothes.
One wonders what Mrs. Jenney thought when Zachary Smith Reynolds, only 18 at the time, became smitten with Libby Holman in May, 1930, when Reynolds saw her perform in Baltimore where she was in a road company of "The Little Show" after its Broadway run.
Though his wife was pregnant back in North Carolina, Smith Reynolds spent much of 1930 chasing Libby Holman from city to city in his airplane. When her tour was over and she went to work on "Three's a Crowd," Reynolds became a fixture on Broadway and became known as "The Millionaire Kid." Reynolds would take Holman up in his plane to see sunrise over New York.
Smith Reynolds was an impetuous kid. It was on November 16, 1929, a few days after his 18th birthday that he and Anne Cannon, daughter of Joseph F. Cannon, the millionaire towel manufacturer from Concord, North Carolina, eloped to York, South Carolina, referred to as that state's Gretna Green, after the Scotland village famous for runaway weddings.
The couple was driven to York by the Cannon family chauffeur and accompanied by the bride's father, Joseph F. Cannon, who didn't bring along a shotgun, but may have anticipated the need. (Anne Cannon Reynolds II was born August 23, 1930 — nine months and one week after the wedding.)
WHATEVER PASSION had fueled the courtship quickly evaporated after vows were exchanged. His wife, already estranged, was aware of her husband's intentions as he stalked Holman into 1931 and resumed a social life of her own, though still technically married.
(In December, 1930, four months after giving birth, Anne Cannon Reynolds was escorted home from a cocktail party by Tom Gay Coltrane, son of a banker. Two hours later Coltrane was found dead under a hedge. The coroner's jury ruled Coltrane had died from acute alcoholism, aided by a fall and exposure.)
According to the Holman's imdb.com biography, Louisa Jenney encouraged her friend/lover to marry the kid with the airplane because he had an endless supply of money. So when Reynolds proposed, Holman said yes and declared her undying love (a pledge Reynolds begged her to repeat many, many times).
First he needed a divorce, so nice young man that he was, Smith Reynolds flew his wife to Reno, where their marriage officially ended. At the time she said she wanted it as much as he did — because she, too, was already engaged. (In 1935, a far different version of the Reno divorce would be told by her father, Joseph F. Cannon.)
It was shortly after Reynolds had dropped his first wife off at a Reno hotel that he did something that should have given Libby Holman pause. He phoned her and asked once more if she really intended to marry him ... because if she didn't, he would kill himself. At least that's what Holman would testify the following July.
The divorce became final in November, 1931. Within days Anne Cannon married Brandon Smith, and Smith Reynolds married Libby Holman. The latter wedding took place in Monroe, Michigan, on November 29, 1931, but would remain a secret until May 12, 1932, when the couple arrived in New York City and she registered at the Ambassador Hotel as Mrs. Smith Reynolds. The New York Times took note and spilled the beans.
Holman's admission of the wedding included a lie —that they were married in April in Hawaii. It was a lie easily believed because she and Reynolds had pretty much led separate lives during the first part of 1932 — she was on tour and he was flying around the world (though not completely; he traveled across oceans aboard a ship which carried his plane).
And it was in Hawaii that they were reunited, and it was from Hawaii that they returned to New York.
From New York they would fly to Winston-Salem to spend the summer at Reynolda, the family estate where, in the absence of his siblings, Smith Reynolds reigned as king.
Sadly — and mysteriously — the king would soon be dead.