Libby Holman was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, just after 1900, the daughter of
a middle-class Jewish couple. She aspired to become an actress and singer, heading
for New York in the 1920's. There she paid her dues, working small job and remaining
undiscovered for several years. She visited Harlem frequently, a center for
booze, drugs, promiscuous sex, and the Black singing style represented by such
singers as Bessie Smith. In a 1923 Broadway show, Libby played a prostitute
and adopted the Black singing style for her sultry song "Moanin' Low."
Her performances coalesced with her dark-haired good looks to produce an overnight
sensation. She was the toast of Broadway. She became such an icon that the the
New York columnist Walter Winchell referred to her in print as the "Statue
Libby continued to pursue a libertine lifestyle on both sides of the Atlantic for the next several years, starring successfully in more musicals, and having sexual affairs with a variety of men and women. A groupie of the New York "fast" show crowd during much of this time was Smith Reynolds, a less-then-average attractive playboy, the heir to the Reynolds tobacco fortune. Smith was completely smitten with Libby, who at first paid him but little attention. Gradually his extravagant schemes for winning her affection worked, and they were secretly married in 1931. Several months later, Libby was taken to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to be introduced as his wife to family and friends. They took up residence at Reynolda House there.
Libby was alternately bored and outrageous for the next few months. Elite Southern society was scandalized by rumors of an affair between Libby and Ab Walker, Smith's boyhood friend and personal secretary. Libby frequently entertained friends from New York, often for several days of round-the-clock partying. Smith went along with Libby's lifestyle, although public bickering with Libby became more frequent. A moody, spoiled young man, Smith was of a rather passive nature, often drank heavily, played with guns, and had a history of attempted suicide.
The week-end of July 4, 1932, after a night of revelry and with a house full of guests, Smith was shot in the couple's bedroom shortly after midnight. Presumably only Smith and Libby were in the room. Others in the house heard the shot and thus established its time.. Forty-five minutes elapsed before Ab Walker called for official assistance. Libby collapsed and was taken to the hospital. Smith died a few hours later.
In the weeks that followed, the press went wild. Reporters by the droves were sent to the scene. Meanwhile, the case against Libby began to build. Although Libby claimed to remember nothing, she was being cornered by physical evidence that showed that the angle at which the bullet penetrated Smith's head was such that it could not have been self-inflicted. Libby's parents flew in and tried to shield her from media scrutiny. At some point the news emerged that while Libby was in the hospital just after the shooting, she underwent a physical examination that revealed that she was pregnant.
A few days later Will Reynolds, a lawyer and senior member of the clan, wrote to the prosecutor. The carefully worded letter suggested that the case against Libby might not be strong enough and that if official deliberation resulted in dropping the case, the Reynolds family would have no objections. Libby was never brought to trial. Privately she continued to proclaim her innocence. She had her baby, Christopher Reynolds, and the Reynolds family was generous in setting up means with which to raise the child. Libby too was provided for amply. She knew how to handle money, for her wealth grew over the years. Libby adored her son, and one of the great tragedies of her life was his premature death as a young man in a skiing accident.
In time Libby attempted a return to the stage, first as a dramatic actress, and field in which she had ambition, and later in musicals and cabaret appearances. The Smith Reynolds alleged murder case was so well-known and its resolution so controversial that Libby's professional efforts were thwarted. At best she was regarded as a curiosity, and at worst epithets of "murderess" were shouted from the audience during performances.
Libby married twice more, both times to weak or bi-sexual men who failed to make her happy. She formed a close relationship with the young homosexual actor Montgomery Cliff. When he, too, died prematurely, it further depressed Libby. She continued to perform in small ways: a few recordings in the 1950's, a foray to Hollywood, a run with a one-woman cabaret show in New York and Paris. She was a Civil Rights activist in the 1950's.
In 1973 she was found asphyxiated in the garage of her estate, Treetops. The official report called her death a suicide and it was reported as such in the New York Times. There are those who have doubted this assessment, inasmuch as Libby had demonstrated that she was a survivor through the decades, and she was busy planning a new cabaret show at the time of her death.
Stewart Gordon's one-woman cabaret show opens with Libby being introduced as
the star attraction of Manhattan's (Libby actually did perform in this club
in 1936 as part of her attempt to regain her earlier stardom.) As she sings
her first song, she breaks down.
Then she addresses the audience in song telling them that her heart is full and that she must confide in them. Then in monologue and song she recalls her earlier successes as a Broadway star, the love and courtship of Smith, the difficulties of adapting to Southern life. In a dramatic pivotal number she reenacts the events of the night Smith is killed. There follows projected newspaper accounts of the incident, dovetailed with portions of the prosecutor's questioning of Libby. We hear a reading of the letter that led to her release, her decision to return to Broadway and rebuild her career, the difficulties she encountered, a finally a catharsis and triumph in which she believes.
The show lasts just one hour. Libby is the only singer. Supplemental sound and visual effects appear at various points. The scoring is for two synthesizers and piano.
List of Songs
"Love Me a Little Bit" (partial song)
"Friends, in This Cabaret"
"Steppin' Out In Style"
"Take a Man"
"What Strange Mood Is This "
Three sung responses to the prosecutor
"After the Storm"
"The New York Scene"
"They Lunch With Me"
"Love Me a Little Bit" (full song)
"Time Sifts Through Fingers"
"Friends in This Cabaret"
Libby was prouduced with Kelly Ellenwood in the title role; Stewart Gordon, piano, Dennis Thurmond and Eun Chung Lee, synthesizers; costumes by Jonathan Christopher Reynolds III; visuals by Timothy Parseca; Vocal coaching by Peter Bugel. The show played at the Savannah Music Festival; Hollywood's Cinegrill; and the Prince William Music Festival in Kauai.
For information about Libby and/or production materials, contact firstname.lastname@example.org