Tag Archive | Ned Rorem

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….

Josephine Baker again

WordPress statistics tell me that the number of viewers on this blog has increased substantially, and that most of them are coming to read about Josephine Baker. My question: why this blog? Why that post? I’ve looked online and there’s lots of stuff about Baker, much of it more comprehensive than I ever dreamed of being. Please, readers, one of you, any of you, tell me why. I’m awfully curious.

In the meantime, I happened to run across a wonderful essay about Josephine Baker by composer (and very good writer), Ned Rorem. He writes:
“As a kid I not only loved Josephine Baker, I wanted to be her when I grew up. Her records permeating our Midwest parlor with that humorous whine, or her movies at the local art cinema displaying that mocha-hued glamour, lured me with the thought of expatriation in a Latin land. I never quite became her, maybe I never quite grew up. Or was it, when I settled in France during the late 1940s, the mystique of Josephine Baker had been replaced by the more sophisticated Edith Piaf (naive now, she too, with the passage of time), if not by more sophisticated notions of negritude?”

Doing the Charleston. Photo by Walery, French. 1927.

He quotes Janet Flanner about Baker’s Paris debut: “She made her entry entirely nude, carried upside down and doing the split on the shoulder of a black giant… whatever happened next was unimportant. She [had instantaneously become]a new model that to the French proved for the first time that black was beautiful.”

Josephine Baker Burlesque, 1927. Photo by Walery, French.

Rorem cites some fascinating particulars about Baker from the biography Jazz Cleopatra by Phyllis Rose. For instance: that she learned to dance by watching kangaroos at the zoo; that at thirteen she was a professional street musician touring the Southern black vaudeville route and by fifteen had been married twice (to deadbeats). I was also surprised to learn that she had a brief fling with her secretary, the young Georges Simenon, later the very famous writer of the Maigret mysteries.

One more wonderful quote: “Like all dynamic entertainers she gave the impression that you alone were her audience. Indeed, she adored you as she adored all creatures, surrounding herself not only with fans and lovers but with pets, including at one point a leopard. In 1940, when she went to North Africa in her guise of nomadic spy-dancer [for the French resistance], she couldn’t leave without her three monkeys, two white mice, and a Great Dane. (Ms. Rose: she knew that if positions were reversed, they wouldn’t leave without her).”

Everything began to go wrong in 1941 when a stillborn child was followed by medical complications. The rumor took fire that she was dying. Langston Hughes’ first job for the The Defender was to write her obituary. Nineteen months later, scarred, but as lively as ever, she went back to work.

After the war, she adopted twelve children of different nationalities and raised them on an estate which she also turned into a fairground open to the public, with donations going to charity. Over the next decades she gained and lost fortunes and fame, and at the same time supported her company of children, a flock of servants, and a number of family members, including two husbands (both of whom also acted as her impresarios). She also donated generously to civil rights causes.

Josephine Baker, Havana, Cuba. 1950. Photo by Rudolf Suroch.

She had many comebacks over the years, the last one in 1975, which received rave notices when it opened in Paris. To elaborate on my last post about Baker, the day after the opening, she took a nap while waiting for a journalist. She was discovered in bed surrounded by newspapers. “If officially she died of cerebral hemorrhage, some said she died of joy.”

Twenty thousand mourners crowded the streets outside the church.

Rorem tries to make sense of the high regard of the French for this black American. It’s clear that her success was due in some measure to a European fascination with Black Americans. She wasn’t nearly as talented a singer or dancer as others who never attained her fame. In fact, she was less of an artist than a phenomenon, he opines. Quoting Rose, she was a celebrity “whose every move and phrase was timed for maximum effect.”

In other words, she happened along when the world was ready for her and — unlike countless other artists — did she ever know how to market herself!