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A Name From History: Famous singer/actress Libby Holman nurtured fiery spirit in Cincinnati

Youngest female UC graduate led tabloid life
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Posted at 12:00 PM, Oct 30, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-30 12:00:07-04

CINCINNATI -- Had Libby Holman — accused murderer, Broadway star, torch singer, open bisexual and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Parker and Montgomery Clift — graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2003 instead of 1923, she would have been a YouTube and tabloid sensation.

Vivacious, outrageous, courageous, intelligent and decades ahead of America's cultural curve, Holman told a friend upon becoming the youngest woman to graduate from UC at age 19 that she would become a star and marry a rich man — and she did.

But her life was an extremely bumpy ride, one that is documented in numerous online articles and in great detail in Jon Bradshaw's 1985 biography "Dreams That Money Can Buy: The Tragic Life of Libby Holman." In the book, Bradshaw describes Holman's "madcap career" and how it "toppled into ruin."

Future Broadway star and popular singer Libby Holman boldly chose to pose in profile for her senior yearbook portrait at UC. (Photo provided, University of Cincinnati)

He takes you to that night in August 1932 when an intoxicated Libby told her husband, R.J. Reynolds tobacco company heir Zachary Smith Reynolds, that she was pregnant, how they likely argued and how a bullet allegedly fired by Holman ended his young life. The story ran on page one of The New York Times several times, but it disappeared after charges were dropped with the approval of the stunned and embarrassed Reynolds family.

Holman went on to appear in more than 10 Broadway musicals, charted four Top 20 hits — including her signature song, “Moanin’ Low”  — and ended her career by performing two concerts at the United Nations in New York. She ran with a who's-who crowd that included Parker, H.L. Mencken, Noel Coward, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and Gertrude Lawrence, as well as lesser-known players who were part of the New York theater scene in the 1920s and '30s.

Success had not made her rich, but her son's inheritance did, and she built a 30-room Georgian estate mansion on 110 acres in Connecticut where she entertained progressive-thinking celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Tennessee Williams, Tallulah Bankhead, Truman Capote, Imogene Coca, Martha Raye and Roddy McDowell.

But her life was deeply scarred by the disappearance of two uncles, the suicide of another uncle and her estranged second husband, the 1950 mountain climbing accident that killed her only biological son, Topper Reynolds, and the mysterious 1966 death of Clift, who was one of many gay men and women Holman loved.

In the end, the Cincinnati woman whose family ironically nicknamed her “Baby” couldn't take anymore tragedy. According to UC Archives & Rare Books Library head Kevin Grace's 2001 book, "Legendary Locals of Cincinnati," on June 18, 1971, at the age of 67, "Libby Holman put on a bathing suit, sat in her garaged Rolls Royce, started the engine and committed suicide."

These chapters of Holman's life unfolded after she left Cincinnati for Broadway in 1924. What happened before then is fodder for armchair psychologists and Queen City history buffs. Her 20 years here shaped who she became and are more than review-worthy.

German-Jewish roots

Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman was born to Jewish parents Alfred and Rachel in their spacious Walnut Hills home on a "warm and windless day" in late May 1904, according to Bradshaw's biography. (She would later lie to the Social Security Administration that she was born in 1906.) Alfred, who was upset that Libby wasn't a boy, was a successful stockbroker in business with one of his younger twin brothers, Ross. Libby's sister, Marion, was two years her senior, and a brother, Alfred Jr., would come along a few years later.

One of her uncles, Charles Holzman, had run away and disappeared at age 16. Facing theft and embezzlement charges that dogged Alfred for the rest of his life, his partner-brother Ross ran off in 1905 — supposedly to Honduras — and was never seen again.

Libby, Bradshaw wrote, was fascinated with Ross, who was a dapper, silver-tongued man with a seductive smile and swagger that made his goal of becoming a millionaire seem probable. Ross' waywardness was a source of "curious reverie" for Libby, Bradshaw wrote, and surely influenced her thinking and future behavior.

Life for the Holzmans went downhill after Ross vanished. After covering about $250,000 in debts Ross had secretly accrued and tied to the family business, Alfred sold the family home in 1908 and moved into a small apartment on Cleveland Avenue in Avondale. Libby shared a room with Marion. Alfred Jr. slept in the dining room, and "mightily mean" Rachel ran a tight household in order to make ends meet, according to Bradshaw.

Off to school at Avondale

None of this thrilled Libby, who entered kindergarten at Avondale School on Reading Road in 1909. She wore hand-me-downs from Marion and felt like she was hidden in her older sister's shadow. Nevertheless, she played the role of Puck in the school's rendition of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and went downtown with her father to see live shows. Libby was so precocious, she skipped two grades.

Sometime during her childhood, she had a tonsillectomy. Legend has it that the surgeon slipped and his scalpel cut into her palate, ruining her soprano voice, but creating a deeper, throatier one that became Libby's signature on Broadway and records.

Olive-skinned with raven hair, Libby longed to be a blonde. She feigned closeness with Marion, who was a success at everything she tried and their mother’s favorite. Libby began to exhibit a special type of individualism at an early age, but she was just 11 years old when her beloved uncle Wallace, a superintendent of a downtown distributorship and father of three, shot himself dead while alone in his office.

"I am nearly mad and I want to end it before the worse happens," Wallace wrote his wife in a note left on his desk. Newspaper articles reported he had been suffering head pain and occasional depression for a year.

Hughes High standout

Libby was profoundly affected by the loss of a third uncle, but she persevered and entered Hughes High School at age 12, two years after World War broke out in Europe. Being of German heritage suddenly became worse for Libby than it had been being Jewish, which she disdained. Anti-German sentiment spread throughout Cincinnati, and the city expunged German names from streets. The big-business world Libby’s father had struggled to re-enter became even harder to crack.

Alfred Holzman thought he had a solution, and Libby loved it: He would legally change the family's name to Holman. Libby blossomed under her new name. When a senior at Hughes at age 15, Libby was 5 foot 6 inches with wide hazel eyes, a weak chin and teeth that seemed too small for her mouth, Bradshaw wrote. But she had style and spunk and was considered by Hughes boys to be "hot stuff."

Libby penned a popular gossip column for the school paper that she titled “Remarks of a Rambler.” She ran with numerous “beaux,” riding the streetcar downtown, to Redland Field for Reds games and to a popular jazz hangout for teenagers called the Toad Stool Inn. Her peers felt there was “something of the Gypsy about her.”

Libby graduated from Hughes three weeks after her 16th birthday on June 11, 1920. She was named the “nerviest” senior student in the Hughes Annual, which printed this description of one of its best-known graduates: “Elizabeth is one of the most original girls in our class. Her contributions to ‘Old Hughes’ have made her famous. She is a talented actress, too. We all expect to see Libby before the footlights someday.”

'Aesthetic flapper' at UC

At UC, the nervy Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman from Avondale stepped up her game and grew into her lifelong role as Libby Holman. She adopted a new, conspicuous look in her sophomore year by bobbing her hair and topping it with a rakishly angled man’s fedora. She put on heavy eye makeup, bright red lipstick and revealing clothes that were trending on the East Coast, not in the conservative Midwest. There would be no more hand-me-down outfits for Libby, no more shadow dancing.

Her behavior set her apart as well, according to Bradshaw. She attended prom without a date and was one of the first women on the UC campus to smoke cigarettes openly. She became an “audacious flirt,” Bradshaw wrote. While her female peers labeled her “vamp,” her many male friends considered her “worldly.”

Libby Holman sang publicly into her 60s, mostly in a style that blended blues and folk into what she called "Americana" music. (Photo provided, Louisschanker.info)

In her third year, Holman played the ingénue, “an aesthetic flapper,” in a racy campus comedy called “Fresh Paint,” which became the foundation of a new troupe that reflected the changing times of the Roaring ’20s. Critics adored her but said she sang with a voice that one said was more impassioned than good.

Holman clearly was good academically, so much so that she tutored and wrote essays for her classmates. She even attended school at the University of Michigan for two summers so she could graduate in three years, less than a month after her 19th birthday.

Holman stuck around UC after graduation, honing her singing and acting skills with the newly formed Fresh Painters and other theater groups. Her goal to become a star meant she had to become more at ease on stage. And in typical Libby Holman style, she found an outlandish way to achieve that. At the suggestion of one of her directors, Holman started walking naked among friends until she could do so naturally, without inhibition.

'A smart old witch'

Holman left Cincinnati for New York in June 1924. Uninhibited by poverty and the odds stacked against her, she landed her first Broadway role the following year, launching a meteoric yet catastrophic life of a star whose peaks and valleys mirrored those of her childhood.

She returned to her hometown on occasion to visit her sister and go to the theater, but in the years after Broadway stopped calling and her recording career had waned, she spent her time rearing two adopted boys, championing civil rights and entertaining her famous friends at the Connecticut mansion she called Treetops.

With her at all times, however, was that fiery spirit she developed as Elizabeth Holzman, one she expressed to a New York World reporter in 1931 when she was just 27 years old:

“At fifty, sixty and seventy, I want to have enough charm and fascination to draw the love of men to make them forget lush young girls. I want to live to be a smart old witch who rules her kingdom with an iron scepter.”

That kingdom, her Treetops estate, became her final resting place. Her cremains were scattered on its grounds following her death on June 18, 1971. And although her life story is mostly forgotten in her hometown, more than 20 YouTube videos seen by almost 1 million viewers keep her bluesy voice alive.