HOME | FAMILY TREES | RECOLLECTIONS | STRICTLY SOLVAY | ETC. | READ ABOUT IT | NAME DROPPING
 

Syracuse Journal, January 11, 1933
PHILADELPHIA (INS) — Libby Holman Reynolds and her son, who weighs only three and a half pounds, born at Pennsylvania Hospital last night, today were reported "doing well."

The tiny infant was placed in an incubator.

"The baby is perfectly normal in every respect," said Dr. Norman W. Vaux, the attending physician. "He will thrive and grow like other babies."

The incubator, or "hot bed," as hospital authorities call it, is a tiny crib, heated and protected. The mattress is warmed with carbon resistance lamps, placed atop the springs, just under the soft down of the mattress. The crib is inclosed on two sides and at the top with sheet metal.

The mattress is maintained at a constant heat of about 98 degrees, a temperature designed to stimulate circulation and other body functions.

The infant heir to a sizable share of the Reynolds tobacco millions, born in the maternity section of the hospital at 6:48 p.m., may be named Smith, after his father, the late Zachary Smith Reynolds, mysteriously shot to death last July 6 at his North Carolina mansion.

Libby Holman Reynolds entered the hospital yesterday accompanied by Mrs. Louisa D. A. Jenney of Wilmington, wife of an official of the Dupont Company. Mrs. Jenney is a former resident of Syracuse.

The two women arrived in a limousine and entered the hospital quickly. Mrs. Jenney had one arm around the singer.

By JACK MAJOR
Mickey Baker and Sylvia Robinson (aka Mickey and Sylvia) summed it up in three words: Love is strange.

But when strange turns to weird — and violently so — you have to wonder if love entered into the situation at all.

So it was with bisexual singer Libby Holman, whose puzzling definition of love landed her in a mess that left her first husband with a bullet through his head and derailed her once-promising career.

Holman's disastrous first marriage was far too messy to be wrapped up in just one song. Perhaps not even in an Italian opera.

The 1933 news story above marked a new chapter in the soap opera that was Libby Holman's life. A home-wrecker in 1931, briefly a murder suspect in 1932, she became mother of a premature baby who was struggling to survive. It was as close as Holman would get to playing a sympathetic role.

The death of her fuzzy-cheeked, moody, millionaire husband was one of 1932's big stories. Exactly what happened remains a mystery. The forensic evidence, such as it is, can be used to support several theories, and witness statements were changeable and often contradictory.

The case inspired three movies, most famous of which is "Written on the Wind," a 1956 release based on a 1945 Robert Wilder novel of the same name.

However, that film's three leading characters, especially because of the actors chosen to play them (Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack and Rock Hudson), bore little resemblance to their real-life counterparts. Another cast member, Dorothy Malone, won an Oscar as best supporting actress, playing an entirely fictitious character.

The film was set in Texas, but the real drama unfolded in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at Reynolda, an estate built for R. J. Reynolds, the tobacco baron, who unfortunately died a few months after the home was completed in 1917. He had two sons and two daughters; the oldest, R. J. Reynolds Jr., was 11 when he passed away. His youngest, Zachary Smith Reynolds, was only six. The children would lose their mother in 1923. Both sons were spoiled, had no ambition to work at their father's company, and received allowances large enough to cover the expense of every whim.

AT THE TIME of their secret wedding – on November 29, 1931 — Libby Holman was 27, but she had an air about her, thanks to her stage experience and her association with theater people, that misled people into thinking she was mature for her age. The fact she married Smith Reynolds (his first name was seldom used) was an indication she either was the scheming gold-digger many people suspected . . . or was just as confused about love as he was.

Smith Reynolds was 20 years old, going on 13. A film of their romance might star Angelina Jolie and Justin Bieber. (If Libby Holman were reincarnated, she might well be a teacher having sex with seventh graders of both sexes.)

Strangely, Holman and Reynolds did not make public their marriage until May, 1932. Two months later her husband was killed by a bullet from his Mauser .32-caliber pistol. Libby Holman remained in the headlines for the rest of the year as authorities tried to determine whether Reynolds had committed suicide or whether he had been killed by his wife, with help from 19-year-old Albert "Ab" Walker, a lifelong friend of the victim (and the character played by Rock Hudson in "Written on the Wind").

Like Reynolds, Walker also appeared younger than he was. In stories he comes across as a rather pathetic hanger-on, faithful to his friend and boss (Reynolds), but smitten by his friend's wife. Walker aroused suspicion about the shooting by tampering with most of the important evidence. And he had plenty of time to tamper — almost six hours elapsed between the time Reynolds was shot and the police arrived at the house. In that time Walker had driven Mrs. Reynolds and her dying husband to the hospital, spent time alone with her in a private room, returned to the mansion, cleaned the room where the shooting occurred, and taken the gun (which he later put back while no one was looking).

THE VICTIM, who died about four hours after he arrived at the hospital, had one love, in addition to his wife — flying. He started when he was 15, and after that flew as much as he could. He had at least one plane of his own and used it to court Libby Holman when she was on tour in a musical.

One big problem: When he began chasing Holman, after seeing her onstage in Baltimore, he was only 18 — and married. Oh, yes, his wife was pregnant.

One wonders what his father would have thought if he had lived into the 1930s. R. J. Reynolds Jr. was about as different from his youngest son as two people could be. For one thing, R. J. Reynolds Sr. remained single until he was 55. He was too busy making money the old-fashioned way — through his own initiative and lots of hard work. (He was uncle of Richard S. Reynolds Sr. of aluminum foil fame.)

Born in Virginia in 1850, Reynolds Sr. left home, bought a tobacco farm near Winston-Salem, and struck it rich with his Camel cigarettes. Among his other early products were several brands of chewing tobacco and Prince Albert tobacco (giving rise to that old joke which had pranksters phoning merchants, "Do you have Prince Albert in a can? You do? Then let him out!")

Reynolds married Mary Katharine Smith in 1905 and died of pancreatic cancer in 1918. His widow, 30 years his junior, remarried, but died in 1923. (She seems to have been better known by her middle name, which I've sometimes seen spelled as Katherine.)

Surviving their mother were R. J. "Dick" Reynolds Jr., who was 17 in 1923; sisters Mary, 15, and Nancy, 13, and Zachary Smith Reynolds, 12. All four children went to live with their uncle, William Neal Reynolds. Or perhaps their uncle and his wife moved into Reynolda, which would have made more sense.

Smith Reynolds' sisters married a few years later and his big brother became a globe-trotter. Richard J. "Dick" Reynolds would live long enough to chalk up a few accomplishments — he briefly was chairman of his father's company and also helped launch Delta Airlines — but he began his adult years as a playboy and ended it as a disgruntled parent who disinherited his six sons.

In 1929, while driving an automobile in England, Dick Reynolds struck and killed a pedestrian and served a five-months jail term. An Associated Press story about his return home in 1929 said his "escapades in the past have several times had him in the limelight." Once, while living in New York City when he was 21, he disappeared, touching off a nationwide search. He was found a few days later in St. Louis where, he said, he had gone to have dinner. As a teenager he ran away from home to work on a tramp steamer.

Younger brother Smith Reynolds was considered headstrong but pleasant. His love of flying in an era when plane crashes were daily occurrences, made it unlikely he'd enjoy a long life. However, what doomed him were emotional problems that surfaced during his affair with Libby Holman, and, more tragically, after their marriage. Admittedly, the only two people who went into detail about these problems later were Libby Holman and Ab Walker, who claimed Smith Reynolds had often threatened suicide. Reynolds' friends and relatives said that was news to them, but, then, they didn't know Smith Reynolds the way Libby Holman did.

That gets us back to a the puzzling question — if she really knew Smith Reynolds as well as she said she did, how could she ever have agreed to marry him?

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.

Continued
 
HOME CONTACT