Libby Holman (1904 – 1971) by Sarony New York, ca. 1928.
The torch singer Libby Holman had a life so wild there have been at least two films inspired by it. In 1904 she was born to what had been a well-to-do Jewish family in Ohio—that is until her uncle embezzled all their money. Young Elizabeth graduated from the University of Cincinnati but she soon headed to Broadway to pursue the glitter. She became pals with actor Clifton Webb (noiristas know him as Lyle Waldecker in Laura), who dubbed her ‘The Statue of Libby’ (witty guy).
They both appeared in the revue The Little Show in 1929, which proved to be her big break. Her torchy rendition of the bluesy ‘Moanin’ Low’ struck a chord and she had curtain calls every night to hear her sing it again.
Soon everyone on Broadway was gaga for her sexy delivery and her signature style: she has been credited as the inventor of the strapless dress. Holman lived up to the reputation with an eclectic love life including lovers included DuPont heiress Louisa d’Andelot Carpenter (who stood by her through a lot), actress Jeanne Eagels, and the writer Jane Bowles, as well as Montgomery Clift.
The real drama that inspired the films, however, was her marriage with tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds. Seven years her junior he was nonetheless completely obsessed and used his wealth to fly around after Holman until she agreed to marry him and give up her career. That lasted a year: she was a born performer. His snooty family hated her theatrical friends visiting the estate in Winston-Salem. At a party where she told her husband she was pregnant—rumour had it, by Albert Bailey ‘Ab’ Walker and not by Reynolds—yet another argument flared and then a shot rang out. Reynolds was found shot in the head.
While authorities accepted the death was suicide, a coroner’s inquiry suggested murder. Holman and Walker were charged. Then some weird things happened. Local gawkers saw the heavily-veiled Holman at court and a rumour that she was ‘mixed race’ stirred up the hand-wringers. Holman biographer Milt Machlin also suggests that anti-Semitism played a role. All the controversy riled up the Reynolds family who pressured the DA to drop all the charges. Libby was free and gave birth in 1933 to her son Christopher Smith “Topper” Reynolds.
The films, not surprisingly, focus on this time. Reckless (1935) stars Jean Harlow, William Powell and Franchot Tone. Harlow’s Mona Leslie is a stage star, William Powell the gambler/manager who loves her but won’t admit it and Tone is the wealthy playboy who drinks too much and convinces her to marry him one night when they’re both drunk. Regrets and a hangover ensue.
Sing, Sinner, Sing! (1933) is an odd little film that clearly capitalises on the notoriety of Reynold’s death without really going into any of the details. Sad torch singer and drunken impulsive rich guy leads to tragedy. But there’s screwball humour too, which is part of what makes the film so odd. As it’s out of copyright, we remixed clips from it to create a music video for the theme song to LOVE IS A GRIFT, because Libby Holman is the kind of torch singer we hoped to evoke. Leila Hyams gives the singer Lela a wistful air even in the few happy moments.
Later in life Libby Holman devoted a lot of her time and money to environment concerns and fighting for civil rights, but her life was also hounded by tragedy, including the death of her son. Eventually she succumbed to suicide in 1971. Her Connecticut estate Treetops has been preserved environmentally by joining it to the Mianus River State Park and her manor has become the home of the Treetops Chamber Music Society. It’s a lovely legacy for the singer.
A writer of bleakly noirish tales with a bit of grim humour, Graham Wynd can be found in Dundee but would prefer you didn’t come looking. An English professor by day, Wynd grinds out darkly noir prose between trips to the local pub. Publications include LOVE IS A GRIFT and EXTRICATE from Fox Spirit Books, SATAN’S SORORITY from Fahrenheit 13 Press, as well as tales in the 2016 Anthony Award-winning anthology Murder Under the Oaks and the Anthony Award-nominated Protectors 2: Heroes . Wynd’s stories have been translated into German, Italian, Polish and Slovene. See a full list of stories (including free reads) here. Find Wynd on Facebook and Twitter.