Do you know this Jew? An actress known for her scandalous personal life and revolutionary activism


Jeanne Scheper, Special For The Jewish Light

(JWA) — Libby Holman was known as much for her scandalous personal life and revolutionary activism as for her lush voice. Holman moved to New York to become an actress and singer. She performed her first major role in 1925 in The Sapphire Ring and continued to perform in shows and revues throughout the twenties.

Holman was openly bisexual and was accused of murdering her husband, Zachary Smith Reynolds, in 1932, a case that became the basis for Hollywood films. Holman first sang her trademark song “Moanin’ Low” in 1929, part of her lifelong focus on African American music and culture. She protested segregation by performing with African American musician Josh White. In later life, she was a friend and supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I always have to break a song over my back. … I just can’t sing a song; it has to be part of my marrow and bones and everything,” Libby Holman explained in a 1966 interview. Daring, dark, and impetuous, Holman led a rich public life that touched a dizzying array of people, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Montgomery Clift, from Alice B. Toklas to Jane Bowles. A musical and sexual revolutionary from the 1920s to the 1960s, Holman succeeded at two different musical careers. Known as the “Statue of Libby,” she carried one of the smokiest torches of American music hall society in the 1920s and 1930s, and was the inventor of the strapless evening dress. From a deep sense of personal commitment, she later made significant contributions to the civil rights movement as both an artist and a wealthy benefactor. However, murder, millionaires, death, and suicide were morbid recurring themes in Libby Holman’s life, reaching tabloid proportions.

Early Life and Family

She was born Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman at home in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 23, 1904, to middle-class parents of German Jewish descent. Libby, younger brother Alfred, and older sister Marion were not raised in the Jewish faith. Alfred Holzman, a lawyer/stockbroker and Rachel (Workum) Holzman, a schoolteacher, had converted to the Christian Science church.

In 1923, after completing a major in French in three years, Libby Holman was the youngest woman to graduate from the University of Cincinnati. At nineteen, still too young to attend law school as she planned, she moved to New York with dreams of Broadway.

Acting Career in New York