Libby Holman, the first torch singer

Clifton Webb and Libby Holman. The electrifying number "Moanin'Low" - as sun by Miss Holman and danced by Mr. Webb - is the climax of the brilliant new revue The First Little Show. 1929.

I’d heard the name, but I’d never had occasion to look for Libby Holman on-line or anywhere else. But the next essay after Ned Rorem’s essay on Josephine Baker was about Libby Holman. The same Libby Holman I found in a picture with Clifton Webb in an old Vanity Fair compilation of articles and pictures from the ’20s and ’30s. Coming from a much later generation, I  knew Clifton Webb as Mr. Belvedere, the distinguished gentleman nanny in several ’40s  and ’50s movies. I knew only vaguely that he’d had a long distinguished career, starring in dozens of  Broadway shows and nearly as many movies. Anyway, this image of Clifton Webb was not one I expected, any more than the one of Libby Holman who’s usually pictured upright.

I also didn’t expect her voice. Rorem’s description of “the first torch singer” describes her

boisterous bass whine, lewd intelligence, and weird knack for elongating consonants and for wringing sense out of even articles and prepositions. She was the first among female pop singers-canaries, as they were called in the Jazz era-to exploit the husky purple depths of her vocal register rather than (like Helen Morgan or Ruth Etting) the squeakily poignant top.

When a young journalist asked Holman if she searched for meaning in her songs, she replied, “Yes, I do, and when I find it Gerald (her accompanist) plays it and then I vomit around it.”

Go to YouTube and listen, especially to her signature “Moanin’ Low.” ( Try more than one version!)

Libby Holman, 1932. Photo from New York World Telegram.

Libby Holman’s life was colored by scandal and tragedy. Her life obscured her talent, but it also made her more famous than she would otherwise have been. Today’s media would have adored her. By the age of 25, she had become a star of Broadway and of cafe society although she was already considered outrageous because of her lifestyle, which included a lesbian relationship with her friend, Louisa Carpenter, that was to last much of her life.

Nevertheless, she married Smith Reynolds, heir to the Reynolds tobacco fortune. At a party six months into the wedding, Reynolds was shot to death. Holman was suspected of the murder, and only the intervention of the Reynolds family, who wanted to mute the scandal, got her acquitted and also left her with a considerable inheritance. The suspicion of murder stayed with her and for years she was greeted by boos and catcalls when she performed.

Ned Rorem says that Libby (a close friend of his) once told him that she’d been so drunk that night she wasn’t sure whether or not she’d killed her husband.

Not long after, she gave birth to a Reynolds heir nicknamed Topper, and raised him with her lesbian friend, Louisa Carpenter. She married again and again the union was a miserable one. This time her husband died of a drug overdose.

It was in the ’40s that she met actor Montgomery Clift who was quite a few years her junior. Rorem writes about Clift that he “was like Libby herself, troubled and driven and sexually ambiguous and shy and exhibitionistic and madly gifted and deeply drunk, but less of a survivor. He “became her lover, and finally perished in what some would call ‘the longest suicide in history’ leaving her to declare him ‘the one great passion in her life.’”

Montgomery Clift in the movie, I Confess.

In 1950, her son, still only 17, died in a mountain-climbing accident. Holman blamed herself for giving permission for the climb.

That she had a reputation as a black widow, someone whose presence threatened the lives of lovers and family is no wonder. But her reputation was also hurt by her choice of accompanists: Josh White, a guitarist, and later, Gerald Cook, a pianist — both of them black men. In a racist world, it was just one more thing.

Photo by bunky's pickle. Under Creative Commons license.

After Clift’s death in the early sixties, Libby Holman turned more and more to alcohol and her physical health deteriorated. Despite all, she married again, and again the marriage was an unhealthy one. In 1971 she was found dead in the front seat of her car. The death was ruled carbon monoxide poisoning.

Writes Rorem:
If one definition of a practicing artist is he who knows how to go too far and still come back, Libby Holman fills the bill. As a woman, though, she went too far and fell over the other side….

3 thoughts on “Libby Holman, the first torch singer

  1. I read that some of Libby’s friends didn’t think it was a suicide. Who, then, did they believe killed her?

  2. Pingback: Torch Singer (1933) | Old Old Films

  3. For many years, Holman reportedly suffered from depression from the combined effects of the deaths of President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the recent presidential election loss by Eugene McCarthy, the deaths of young men in the Viet Nam war, her anguish over the untimely death of her own son and the illness and rapid deterioration of her friend Jane Bowles. She also was considered never the same after the death of Montgomery Clift in 1966. Friends said that she lost some of her vitality.

    On June 18, 1971, Holman was found nearly dead in the front seat of her Rolls Royce by her household staff. She was taken to the hospital where she died hours later Holman’s death was officially ruled a suicide due to acute carbon monoxide poisoning In view of her frequent bouts with depression and reported past suicide attempts, none of Holman’s friends or relatives were surprised by her passing.

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