In honor of LGBT History Month, and let’s be honest probably well past LGBT History Month, we’re bringing you Vintage Vapid Fluff, written in the style of present-day vapid fluff, but with true stories from history! This one comes to you from 1932, via 2017.
The residents of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, were shocked last month to hear that 20-year old Zachary Smith Reynolds, an heir to the Reynolds tobacco fortune best known for talking near-constantly about his plan to fly an airplane around the world but never actually doing so, had been shot and killed at his family’s resplendent Reynolda estate. Although we’re inclined to agree with initial reports that the death was a suicide, the ravenous beasts of this starving earth, apparently still rattled from their discovery that Reynolds had married a “Yankee Jewess” (#solidarity), just couldn’t believe that in these depressive times, a person with that many airplanes would end their own life. Also, the police investigation was a shitshow.
Thus, on August 4th, 1932, a Grand Jury indicted his ex-wife, famous actress and Sapphic Scene Queen Libby Holman; and his weird friend, Ab Walker; for “unlawfully, willingly, feloniously and premeditatedly of malicious aforethought, kill and murder one Z. Smith Reynolds.”
See, Smith and Libby hosted a fancy party on July 5th, and Ab and Libby were maybe or definitely present when Smith shot himself later that night. Along with Libby’s unmarried-by-which-I-mean-you-know-what-I-mean friend Blanche (ahem), Ab and Libby drunk-drove Smith’s dying, bloody body to the hospital, and then Libby proceeded to cry and scream and “pummel the nurses with her fists,” wailing about her baby while waving a series of lit cigarettes in the air. She eventually fell asleep for like two days. The gun wound to Smith’s head proved fatal. Libby and Smith had been married since November of 1931, after Smith pulled off a quickie divorce in Reno from his first wife.
Suffering from a severe case of exhaustion and dogged by aggro paparazzi, Libby Holman had returned to her Dad’s house in Ohio shortly after the July 6th killing. But, following the indictment, when the police rolled up to the Holman house to steal this sapphic star from the safety of her heartland home and place her in the women’s barracks, she was gone. Her father asserted that his fragile pregnant daughter was “in bed under the care of a doctor and a nurse” while “in seclusion in the country.” Winston-Salem Sheriff Scott noted to the press, “She could be in an igloo in Africa for all I know.”
A valued anonymous friend of Libby whose name may or may not rhyme with “Ballulah Tankshed” had reported exclusively to Autostraddle, however, that much to our selfish delight, murder had thrown Libby back into the arms of her on-and-off girlfriend, Louisa d’Andelot Carpenter, aka Louisa Jenney — a Du Pont heiress, fox hunter, “fox hunter,” and, like Smith, a passionate aviator.
Ah, Libby and Louisa! It seems like only yesterday that the two ladies were stepping out on the town, doing lines and smoking opium all over the nightclubs of Harlem, twinning in identical men’s dark suits and bowler hats, accompanied by their #SapphicSquad: Tallulah Bankhead, Jeanne Eagels, Bea Lillie, token straight girl Marilyn Miller and honorary lesbian Clifton Webb. They saw Bessie Smith belt the blues at the Lafayette, caught Chick Webb’s Chicks at the Savoy ballroom, chugged prohibition poison at P&J’s, sang around the piano at Connie’s Place with Billie Holiday, and likely engaged in all sorts of sexual shenanegans at The Daisy Chain. Or they’d be in Manhattan, at Tony’s on West 52nd with Dorothy Parker and the literati.
But before we can get too deep into Libby and Louisa, we must again step backwards into the darkness, where Libby’s life so often leads us. We must remember Jeanne Eagels, Libby’s first love, a true Tila/Casey situation in which both women shared a passion not only for tennis, singing, dancing, theater, dyke drama and cunnilingus but also for alcohol and generously prescribed pharmaceuticals.
Libby’s star was on the rise. Jeanne’s was on the wane, following an unprecedented suspension from Actor’s Equity due to her tendency to get drunk and skip work, but Libby made Jeanne feel hopeful and young, and Jeanne — once a highly acclaimed theatrical actress — made Libby feel like a serious thespian. ;-) Alas, only days after Libby and Jeanne celebrated Jeanne’s release from St. Luke’s for eyeball surgery by downing a magnum of Pol Roget and doing [whatever one does prior to being found naked on the floor by one’s maid the next morning], Jeanne died of a chloral hydrate overdose in the waiting room of her psychopharmacologist’s office directly following her appointment. It was October of 1929. Libby was, of course, devastated.
Libby’s squad worked overtime to coax their friend out of despair and into the light — there’s nothing quite like being depressed during a depression, am I right my friends who live in cardboard boxes — Louisa most of all. Louisa pulled out all the traditional stops for cheering a woman up up: she bought Libby a sixteen-cylinder Rolls Royce convertible, picked her up outside The Little Show in her limousine, and took Libby sailing on her father’s 137-foot yacht. Friends at home write this down: when Libby showed up in Port Washington for their first solo day at sea together, she found Louisa on the deck completely topless, wearing only white ducks and tennis shoes. Louisa, a kind and generous lover, preferred to date bisexual women, who were quickly awed by her basic decency which starkly contrasted that of their boyfriends and husbands. Libby was known to tell friends that “all men are beasts,” which is mostly a true fact.
When The Little Show left Broadway and went on the road in 1930, Louisa was in Boston for opening night, and Libby credited her performance to her lady-love: “It was a little jewel,” she crowed. “And I owe it all to you. You bring out the best in me. And you always will!” Ah, women.
18-year-old Zachary Smith Reynolds caught The Little Show when it came to Baltimore, and fell in love on the spot. He postponed his around-the-world flight once again to devote himself full-time to dating / obsessively stalking 26-year-old Libby Holman.
Libby and Louisa headed to Florida for Easter weekend. Smith followed. After The Little Show‘s tour ended, Libby and Louisa sailed for Europe, eventually meeting up with friends including Tallulah and Mercedes de Acosta. A week later, Smith followed. When Libby, Lousia, Cliff and Mabelle rented a farmhouse in Saint-Jean-de-Luz for a weekend, Smith tracked them down and showed up uninvited for brunch, interrupting a sacred queer ritual that likely angered the goddesses and eventually lead to his premature death. When Libby’s group motored over to Juan-les-Pins, Smith trailed them in his yellow Rolls-Royce.
But Smith was charming although shy, good at flying, and hadn’t yet aged out of that sweet period of youthful boyhood when men can still look like lesbians. The two quickly took up drinking, fighting and being in love, despite the heavy side-eyes from Louisa and her other gal pals.
Despite the Depression, Libby’s career and bank account were flourishing. In June 1931, she got a summer place on Long Island, as did Bea Lillie and, of course, Smitty the Traveling Bear. Tallulah, on breaks from a film shoot in Astoria, as well as Louisa, were often invited ’round. The gal pals scandalized their neighbors with devious behaviors like “running around half-naked” and skinny-dipping in the moonlight. Residents noted that skinny-dipping “had not previously been a popular nocturnal pastime in that area.” Furthermore, “Libby had a parrot which was well versed in the art of saying things tersely.”
But Smitty’s jealous streak was intense, especially regarding Louisa. On one visit he was horrified to walk in and witness Louisa and Libby cuddling on the couch, and reacted by walking out the door, slamming it behind him, and promptly driving his Rolls Royce roadster straight into the ocean, plowing over that four-foot retaining wall like a man on a mission who needs to be a man in the mirror. When his car got stuck underwater, he swam half a mile to his yacht and sulked for two days while Libby continued beating Louisa at bananagrams. Later, he was incensed to learn that Bea Lillie was throwing a party and he wasn’t invited, even though it was a “hen party,” which means no boys allowed, deal with it.
When Libby told Smitty she was taking a six-week cruise of the Great Lakes with Louisa, Smitty was incensed: “I’ve got my own yacht, anchored right offshore. If you like cruising so much, we can go in that,” he told her. “Nope,” she told him, sailing away with her lesbian lover. But, as Pacey and Joey can attest, there’s nothing that dampens passions and heightens pet peeves like six weeks on a boat with another human being. Upon Libby’s return, Louisa headed to Cuba against Libby’s wishes, and Libby went back to Smitty.
Much like Veruca Salt, when Smitty wanted something, he wanted it now, daddy, and would eventually get it. Libby and Smith got hitched in November 1931 in the romantic villa of Monroe, Michigan. They went abroad for their honeymoon, including a jaunt to Europe where Libby reunited with her former gal pal and idol, Josephine Baker.
Their marriage was tumultuous from the start. Smitty was in love with his gun and often stayed up all night gripping it, waiting to be kidnapped. He often threatened suicide and/or taking long trips on his plane, and often truly did do the latter. He begged Libby to quit the theater and let him support her, and the pair settled into the Reynolda estate near Winston-Salem for the summer of 1932.
Winston-Salem didn’t fall for Libby quite like Smith had: they were horrified by behaviors including playing tennis sans stockings, smoking in the street, treating Black people the same as white people, and being Jewish. Libby got bored fast, eventually haranguing 44-year-old actress/director Blanche Yurka into coming down to work on a play with her.
By the time the July 4th weekend came around, Bea and Cliff had rejected invites to the July 5th party, after showing up the week prior to find a drunken Smith shooting crystal ornaments off the chandelier with one of this beloved guns, cheered on by his douchey friends. Libby begged Louisa to stay the weekend but she refused, ’cause hanging out with your girlfriend’s really terrible boyfriend is #9 on the Top 100 Lesbian Nightmares List.
Which brings us to August 1932 and Smitty is dead and Lily is not at her Dad’s house.
As a Du Pont — the richest industrial family in America — Louisa had twenty majestic properties and copious swaths of land to choose from when plotting where to hide Libby after picking her up in Ohio. She settled on a 346-acre farm in Delaware for the daytime, and a friend’s estate in Maryland for night, shuttling the cagey crooner back and forth by speedboat. When Libby’s lawyer came to visit, Louisa shot and killed some birds and then served them for lunch, a classic butch move.
For three weeks, authorities in five states followed fruitless tips, eventually picking up that Libby was with “reportedly close friend” Louisa Jenney, possibly hiding out on a yacht. Louisa’s friends and employees played their parts correctly, assuring authorities that sure, Louisa had “entertained” Libby before (mhm) but “they did not believe Mrs. Reynolds was there now.” Libby’s Broadway pals gave glowing reviews of Libby, praising her sobriety, her love for Smith and her talent, insisting Libby would return soon to the stage and also would never do murder.
After Libby’s lawyer father secured bond for his innocent darling, Louisa launched into full Hardy Boys mode, employing multiple maps and serious brainpower to plot out how she’d get Libby to a bail-posting location without getting her arrested on the way. Libby ended up taking a complicated chain of transportation methods to the ghosted former tobacco boom town of Wentworth they’d selected in hopes of evading potential crowds.
Libby Holman was dressed like a woman who can’t decide if she’s dead, alive, or just a stone cold fox: black gloves, black pumps, a black crepe gown and long black mourning veil topped off with a black felt turban. In one pocket she carried twenty-five thousand dollars in cold hard Du Pont cash for her bail, which she duly paid. Then she walked away from Wentworth like that gif of Angela Bassett setting a car on fire in Waiting to Exhale. She checked into her hotel with her father, looking very sad and very chic.
But today, those who would deny a woman her one life to live were feeding the press intel regarding Lily’s after-hours antics. They recalled a “blond young man” in a “dark felt hat” leaving the hotel with Libby in tow. Libby was “skipping across the lobby” “like a carefree school girl.”
Libby, who has yet to return to the hotel, had discarded her sombre black gown in favor of a “snappy sports outfit” including a “comparatively short skirt” and “gold-rimmed spectacles such as she never wore on Broadway.”
By the afterenoon, newspapers were speculating that the mysterious blonde youth was an “heir to one of Ohio’s great fortunes” who’d set his heart on the widowed torch singer before she hooked up with Smith and now had returned to seal the deal with his #1 gal, potentially turning this whole situation — the killing, the estate, Libby being pregnant — into a battle between Northern and Southern millionaires.
I mean, they weren’t too far off.
Libby’s murder trial begins in two short weeks, and we can’t wait, as it directly appeals to all my major interest areas: Murder, Midwestern Jews, Musical Theater, Lesbians, Fancy Houses, Butches, Babies, and the possibility of Libby and her #1 Butch raising a baby. Perhaps a Part Two will come your way some day. Things can only get better from here for Libby, right?
- Dreams That Money Can Buy: The Tragic Life of Libby Holman, by Jon Bradshaw (William Morrow & Company, Inc.)
- Libby, by Milt Machlin (Tower Books)
- Libby Holman: Body and Soul, by Hamilton Darby Perry (Little, Brown & Company)