Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman was born May 23, 1904, in Cincinnati, Ohio to a Jewish lawyer and stockbroker, Alfred Holzman (August 20, 1867 - June 14, 1947) and his wife, Rachel Florence Workum Holzman (October 17, 1873 - April 22, 1966). Their other children were daughter Marion H. Holzman (January 25, 1901 - December 13, 1963) and son Alfred Paul Holzman (March 9, 1909 - April 19, 1992). In 1904, the wealthy family grew destitute after Holman's uncle Ross Holzman embezzled nearly $1 million of their stock brokerage business. At some point, Alfred changed the family name from Holzman to Holman. She graduated from Hughes High School on June 11, 1920, at the age of 16. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati on June 16, 1923, with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Libby Holman later subtracted two years from her age, insisting she was born in 1906. She gave the Social Security Administration 1906 as the year of her birth.
In the summer of 1924, Holman left for New York City, where she first lived at the Studio Club. Her first theater job in New York was in the road company of The Fool. Channing Pollock, the writer of The Fool, recognized Holman's talents immediately and advised her to pursue a theatrical career. She followed Pollock's advice and soon became a star. An early stage colleague who became a longtime close friend was future film star Clifton Webb, then a dancer. He gave her the nickname, "The Statue of Libby." Her Broadway theatre debut was in the play The Sapphire Ring in 1925 at the Selwyn Theatre, which closed after thirteen performances. She was billed as Elizabeth Holman. Her big break came while she was appearing with Clifton Webb and Fred Allen in the 1929 Broadway revue The Little Show, in which she first sang the blues number, "Moanin' Low" by Ralph Rainger, which earned her a dozen curtain calls on opening night, drew raves from the critics and became her signature song. Also in that show she sang the Kay Swift and Paul James song, "Can't We Be Friends?" The following year, Holman introduced the Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz standard "Something to Remember You By" in the show Three's a Crowd, which also starred Allen and Webb. Other Broadway appearances included The Garrick Gaieties (1925), Merry-Go-Round (1927), Rainbow (1928), Ned Wayburn's Gambols (1929), Revenge with Music (1934), You Never Know (1938, score by Cole Porter), during which production she had a strong rivalry with the tempestuous Mexican actress Lupe Vélez; and her self-produced one-woman revue Blues, Ballads and Sin-Songs (1954).
One of Holman's signature looks was the strapless dress, which she has been credited with having invented, or at least being one of its first high profile wearers.
Holman had a variety of intimate relationships with both men and women throughout her lifetime. Her famous lesbian lovers included the DuPont heiress Louisa d'Andelot Carpenter, actressJeanne Eagels and modernist writer Jane Bowles. Carpenter was to play a significant part throughout Holman's lifetime. They raised their children and lived together and were openly accepted by their theater companions. She scandalized some by dating much younger men, such as fellow American actor Montgomery Clift, whom she mentored.
Holman took an interest in one fan, Zachary Smith Reynolds, the heir to the R. J. Reynolds tobacco company. He was smitten with her from the start, despite their seven-year age difference. They met in Baltimore, Maryland in April 1930 after Reynolds saw Holman's performance in a road company staging of the play The Little Show. Reynolds begged friend Dwight Deere Wiman, who was the show's producer, for an introduction to Holman. Reynolds pursued her all around the world in his plane. With the persuasion of her former lover, Louisa d'Andelot Carpenter, Holman and Reynolds, who went by his middle name, married on Sunday, November 29, 1931 in the parlor of a house in Monroe, Michigan. Reynolds wanted Holman to abandon her acting career, she consented by taking a one-year leave of absence. During this time, however, his conservative family was unable to bear Holman and her group of theater friends, who at her invitation often visited Reynolda, the family estate near Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Accusations and arguments among them were common.
In 1932, during a 21st birthday party Reynolds gave at Reynolda for his friend and flying buddy Charles Gideon Hill, Jr., a first cousin to Reynolds's first wife Anne Ludlow Cannon Reynolds, Holman revealed to her husband that she was pregnant. A tense argument ensued. Moments later, a shot was heard. Friends soon discovered Reynolds bleeding and unconscious with a gunshot wound to the head. Authorities initially ruled the shooting a suicide, but a coroner's inquiry ruled it a murder. Holman and Albert Bailey "Ab" Walker, a friend of Reynolds and a supposed lover of Holman, were indicted for murder.
Louisa Carpenter paid Holman's $25,000 bail in Wentworth, North Carolina, appearing in such mannish clothes that bystanders and reporters thought she was a man. The Reynolds family contacted the local authorities and had the charges dropped for fear of scandal. Holman gave birth to the couple's child, Christopher Smith "Topper" Reynolds, on January 10, 1933.
Journalist Milt Machlin investigated the death of Smith Reynolds and argued that Reynolds committed suicide. In his account Holman was a victim of the anti-Semitism of local authorities, and the district attorney involved with the case later told Machlin that she was innocent.[page needed]
Holman married her second husband, film and stage actor Ralph (pronounced "Rafe") Holmes, in March 1939. He was twelve years her junior. She had previously dated his older brother, Phillips Holmes. In 1940, both brothers, who were half-Canadian, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Phillips was killed in a collision of two military aircraft on August 12, 1942. When Ralph returned home in August 1945, the marriage quickly soured and they soon separated. On November 15, 1945, Ralph Holmes was found in his Manhattan apartment, dead of a barbiturate overdose at age 29.
Holman adopted two sons, Timmy (born October 18, 1945), and Tony (born May 19, 1947). Her natural son Christopher ("Topper") died on August 7, 1950 after falling while mountain climbing. Holman had given him permission to go mountain climbing with a friend on California's highest peak, Mount Whitney, not knowing that the boys were ill-prepared for the adventure. Both died. Those close to Holman claim she never forgave herself. In 1952 she created the Christopher Reynolds Foundation in his memory.
In the 1950s, Holman worked with her accompanist, Gerold Cook, on researching and rearranging what they called earth music. It was primarily blues and spirituals that were linked to the African American community. Holman had always been involved in what later became known as the Civil rights movement. During World War II, she tried to book shows for the servicemen with her friend,Josh White, but they were turned down on the grounds that "we don’t book mixed company."[page needed]
"Libby and Josh were beyond brave, although perhaps she did not quite realize what she was taking on in 1940s America. When they started rehearsals for their first show in a New York club, she arrived at the front door and was welcomed. Josh was directed to the staff entrance round the back. Libby waited till the day they were due to open, after the owners had spent a vast amount on publicity, and told them she was not going to sing in their club until they changed their racial door policy. She won.
In Philadelphia, Josh was refused a room at the hotel in whose bar they sang nightly. Libby ranted and told them: ‘Take down the American flag outside and fly the fucking swastika, why don’t you!’
When they were told by officials that the US Army did not tolerate mixed shows, Libby replied: ‘Mixed? You mean boys and girls?’"
In 1959, through the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, she underwrote a trip to India by Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, both of whom became close friends with Holman and her husband, Louis Schanker. Holman also contributed to the defense of Dr. Benjamin Spock, the pediatrician and writer arrested for taking part in antiwar demonstrations.
Her third and last husband was well known abstract artist/sculptor Louis Schanker. They married on December 27, 1960. Although Holman did not have to work after her marriage to Reynolds, she never completely gave up her career, continuing to perform and make records. One of her last performances was at the United Nations in New York in 1966. She performed her trademark song, "Moanin' Low."
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 byEugene McCarthy, the deaths of young men in the Vietnam 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 was surprised by her death.
The Treetops Mansion viewed from Treetops State Park.
Holman's papers are at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center of Boston University. In 2001, a successful effort was made by local citizens to save her Connecticut estate, Treetops, from development. It straddles the border of Stamford and Greenwich. As a result, the pristine grounds were preserved. Treetops is part of the Mianus River State Park, which is overseen by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. Treetops is located just south of the Mianus River Park. The mansion itself is now in private ownership. The grounds are magnificent and the house has undergone extensive restoration. In 2006, Louis Schanker's art studio, located on a hill overlooking the property, began a new life as the home of the Treetops Chamber Music Society.