Monday, November 9, 2009

Moanin' Low: The Sad Life of Libby Holman

(This piece was inspired by one my friend Sherry wrote at her blog about "The House of the Risin' Sun" awhile back. Another from the archives.)

Also known as "Risin’ Sun Blues", "The House of the Risin' Sun", with its tune that sounds rather like an English funeral dirge, was recorded as early as 1933 by Clarence (Tom) Ashley (1895-1967) and possibly earlier by others.

In 1999, the legendary North Carolina folk musician Doc Watson and his grandson Richard recorded "House of the Risin’ Sun" on their CD THIRD GENERATION BLUES, where copyright of that particular arrangement is assigned to Nicholas Ray and Libby Reynolds Holmes.

Thereby hangs a tale, for Libby Reynolds Holmes was, way back in the day, a great Broadway star and torch singer. Not only that, but in 1932, she was also at the center of one of the most scandalous murder mysteries of the time.

Born Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman in 1904, the daughter of a wealthy couple from Cincinnati, Libby knew trouble in her early life; her parents went broke when an uncle who handled their finances embezzled a fortune from them. To escape the family disgrace, her father changed their last name to Holman, and it was as Libby Holman that she moved to New York City in 1924, aiming for a career on the Broadway stage. She made a successful debut in 1925, and in 1929, in a revue called THE LITTLE SHOW, she introduced what would become her signature song, the minor-key blues "Moanin’ Low."

In April 1930 she met the man whose life and death changed the trajectory of her life and career forever. Zachary Smith Reynolds was no ordinary suitor; he was the nineteen-year-old heir to a vast chunk of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune, and he was already married and had a young daughter. He was also said to be of a morose and uneven temper. Libby, meanwhile, was not only a great Broadway star; she was promiscuous and already a notorious alcoholic, and she was seven years older than Smith, as the family called him. Still, he pursued her passionately, and she apparently responded. He obtained a divorce from his first wife, the decree becoming official on November 23, 1931. Six days later, he and Libby Holman were married in a Michigan courthouse.

It was a mesalliance from the start; Smith expected her to give up her career altogether and be a proper wife for a wealthy southern gentleman businessman. To that, Libby would not agree, but she did agree to take no new roles for a year and to live with him at the family estate, Reynolda, in North Carolina. It was, frankly, a deadly mistake for both of them. Smith’s family detested Libby and the friends she invited down from New York; Libby found her new inlaws boring and priggish, and as her unhappiness increased, so did her drinking.

On July 6, 1932, Libby threw a joint birthday party for Smith (he was twenty-one that day) and a friend of his. Sometime later that night, Libby told Smith that she was pregnant with his child. This precipitated a violent argument between the pair that was ended by a single gunshot. Libby ran out onto the balcony shouting, "Smith’s killed himself!"

An ambiguous statement at best. Smith Reynolds lay dead of a gunshot wound to the head. Libby hysterically proclaimed that she really couldn’t remember what happened when a coroner’s jury pronounced the death murder rather than suicide. She said she had been in the midst of an alcoholic blackout (a malady she had been known to suffer in the past) and really couldn’t recall who fired the gun.

The Reynolds family refused to press charges to avoid scandal. Libby was pensioned off with a one-time cash payment, a trust fund was created for the son she bore on January 10, 1933, and she returned to New York and attempted a stage comeback. In 1934, she turned down the lead role in a Cole Porter show called ANYTHING GOES. The role she refused was a hit for a hitherto-unknown actress and singer named Ethel Merman.

Libby Holman Reynolds would go through many lovers, marry twice more (her second husband, twelve years younger than her, died of a deliberate barbiturate overdose in 1945 at age 29; it was from him that she acquired the name she used for the rest of her life—Libby Reynolds Holmes), adopt two sons, and suffer the loss of her eighteen year old son by Smith Reynolds in a 1950 climbing accident on Mount Whitney. In 1971, at the age of sixty-seven, all but forgotten by the entertainment business, she was found in her garage, nearly dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. She never regained consciousness.


  1. What a life! What a terrible self destructive and very sad life of an obviously very talented woman.

  2. Don't you just LOVE the word "mesalliance"? ;)

  3. It was indeed, Barry. About as horrifying and pitiable a celebrity crash-and-burn as I've ever run across. Hope your day was good!:)

  4. I do, Moon. Something very--Austenian about it, no? ;) <3

  5. Thanks for this very interesting story!!!