Libby Holman

Libby Holman in a gown designed by Kiviette (1930). Courtesy of The New York Public Library

Libby Holman (1904 - 1971) was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 23, 1904, to middle-class parents of German Jewish descent but she and her siblings were not raised in the Jewish faith. In 1923 she became the youngest woman to graduate from the University of Cincinnati. She planned to attend law school but was still too young at age 19. She went to New York to pursue work on Broadway and quickly became very successful. She became famous as a torch singer and for her unconventional lifestyle. She would eventually become good friends with Montgomery Clift.

Holman was bisexual and became the lover of Louisa Carpenter, a millionaire member of the du Pont family. Their relationship became the talk of Broadway. In 1931 she married Zachary Smith Reynolds, heir to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune at the time worth about $28 million. On July 5, 1932, Reynolds held a party at his estate near Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Although there are different accounts of exactly what happened some accounts state that Libby told her husband she was pregnant and there was a loud confrontation. Reynolds was shot in the head while in his bedroom and he died the next morning in the hospital. The death was initially declared a suicide. But this was changed to murder and Libby and Ab Walker, Reynolds's best friend, and rumored to be Libby's lover, were charged with the crime.

On August 17, 1932 the actor Richard Bennett wrote a letter to his friend Clarence Darrow in which he referred to Libby Holman: "would you refuse a job defending Libby Holman, who is accused of shooting her husband? The question was put to me a week ago, just before your letter arrived. The movie shorts can come later. You remember Libby Holman. She is the girl who came to me after your speech at my party in Sherman Bungalow, and said, 'Dick, that man is my idea of God.'"

Libby went into hiding with Louisa Carpenter, and eventually the case was dropped through the influence of the Reynolds family. Libby gave birth on January 9, 1933, to Christopher "Topper" Reynolds, who became a new heir to the R. J. Reynolds tobacco fortune and the birth was a huge news story.

In 1945 her second husband, Actor Ralph Holmes, died from an overdose of sleeping pills. As she grew older Libby became devoted to civil rights, peace, and disarmament activities. Her 18 years old son Christopher "Topper" died on August 7, 1950 along with a friend while trying to climb Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. After a bitter estate fight Libby was reportedly awarded $6,600,000 from her son's share of the Reynolds estate. In Topper's memory, Holman founded the Christopher Reynolds Foundation in 1952. The foundation financed her friend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s visit to India to meet Mahatma Gandhi in 1959. The foundation is still in existence.