Libby Holman was a household name in the early 20th century

The life of Libby Holman had so many twists and turns it ended up being made into two different Hollywood films. For the woman herself, it was a series of highs and lows that ended in tragedy.

Holman first came on the scene in the 1920s, rising to fame in NYC thanks to a husky singing voice and magnetic stage presence.

Her Philadelphia connection? Romantic affairs with people from Philly-area families — a DuPont heiress, for one — and it’s where her only son was born, at Pennsylvania Hospital.

Below, trace the rollercoaster of Holman’s life, which included being an early supporter of Martin Luther King Jr.

This week’s Headlines of Yore is about a multi-generational tragedy that involved some of the richest and most famous people in America (and kinda the Phillies).

From today’s Camden Evening Courier in 1933:

“Libby Will Sue to Get Millions for Baby and Self”

The name Libby Holman may not ring many bells these days. But in the early 20th century, Libby was a first-name-only *star.*

Born in Cincinnati to a secular Jewish family, Holman arrived in New York in 1924 with dreams of stardom.

She quickly realized them.

With an usually low and husky singing voice, Holman distinguished herself on Broadway and was a stage standout by the end of the 1920s.

But her Broadway stardom soon became something a footnote — eclipsed by her personal life and political activism.

Holman was bisexual…and stories of her longtime relationship with DuPont heiress Louisa Carpenter became tabloid fodder.

(Carpenter was part of the family that owned the Philadelphia Phillies. Her dad, Ruly, bought the team in 1943)

Holman also had high-profile relationships with several men.

In 1931, she married Zachary Smith Reynolds, heir to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune.

That marriage would lead to the biggest scandal of Libby’s life.

Less than a year later — in the summer of 1932 — Reynolds was found dead at his North Carolina estate from a gunshot wound.

There had been a drunken party the night prior and conflicting theories emerged. Was it suicide? Or murder?

Authorities eventually charged Holman with Reynolds’ murder — a decision that may have been tainted by antisemitism.

The charges were eventually dropped while Holman went into hiding. She ended up at Louisa Carpenter’s house in Delaware.

At the time, Libby was pregnant with Reynolds’ child.

In January of 1933 Holman gave birth to a boy at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia:

Christopher “Topper” Reynolds.

Topper’s birth spawned a new controversy…should the boy receive some portion of his father’s estate?

That battle lasted until 1935, when a settlement awarded $750,000 to Libby and $6.25 million to Topper.

A Broadway star. A tobacco fortune. A mysterious death. And a fight for money.

As you might imagine, this case was a national sensation…prompting breathless coverage for YEARS.

There are *two* movies about the case…including the 1956 hit “Written on the Wind.”

But the story only gets sadder.

In the 30s, Libby dated a man named Phillips Holmes who later died in a military accident.

She then married his older brother…who later died by suicide.

Then, in 1950, the ultimate blow. Her son, Topper, died in a hiking accident. He was 17.

Despite the seemingly endless barrage of death and tragedy, Holman soldiered on.

There’s another thread to be done on her promotion and performance of Blues music…at a time when white singers barely acknowledged the genre.

Holman also became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement.

She was a key, early ally of Martin Luther King Jr…and helped fund his trip to India to meet associates of Mahatma Gandhi.

But the tragedies kept piling up. Holman had a long relationship with the actor Montgomery Clift, who died suddenly in 1966.

King, as we all know, was assassinated in 1968.

Meanwhile, Holman’s mental health worsened.

A Vanity Fair story described Holman’s later years in grim terms:

“Libby was distraught, convinced that she was responsible for the tragedies around her. She thought of herself as a kind of medium, a conduit through which death radiated to others.”

In 1971, Holman died by suicide at her estate in Connecticut.

She was 67 years old.

End thread.

Please take note…

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 9-8-8.

Also…if you’re interested in learning more about Libby Holman, here are some resources.

All of them helped inform the thread above.

Originally tweeted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on January 12, 2023.

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...