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Not Quite White

Sam Boardman Jacobs on the turbulent career of the torch singer - and political activist – Libby Holman

Sam Boardman  |  Winter 2006/2007  -  Number 204


We now rightly honour the American Jewish Women who fought and struggled side by side with black people for Civil Rights during the 1960s. But there was an earlier generation of American Jewish women, mostly now forgotten, or remembered for other achievements, who pitched into this battle at an earlier time. In the mid-1940s, young New York lawyer Bella Abzug opposed the death sentence against Willie McGee, wrongly accused of raping a white woman with whom he was having a consensual relationship. Pregnant, refused accommodation in Jackson and fearing for her safety, Abzug slept on the bus station benches the night before the trial. Eventually McGee was convicted and hung in front of a cheering mob. Abzug had a miscarriage but went on to become a founding figure in the women’s movement and the first Jewish woman to be elected to the US House of Representatives.

It is not recorded how Bella Abzug defined herself in ethnic terms, but many of the Jewish women who followed her into the Civil Rights struggle, when questioned about their ‘whiteness’, chose to describe themselves as ‘not quite white’. But if they were acting partly out of guilt for their sense of privilege, were they not ignoring their own precarious ‘borderline’ status and postponing attempts to establish their own self-worth? A friend who took part in those campaigns once told me about a black militant who said to the son she was baby-sitting: ‘See that woman, one day you will grow up to rape her.’ She still wonders whether this was an ill-judged joke or a genuine expression of his view of Jewish women. I was amazed at the lack of significance she seemed to give this story - but perhaps being brought up in a culture where men wake daily to thank God for not being born a woman had prepared her for it. Guilt and low self-esteem can make a perfect basis for campaigning for the rights of the other.

Such issues of self-hatred, self-sacrifice and the links between them haunt the career of the notorious Jewish American torch singer Libby Holman. Born Elizabeth Holzman, she had such a reputation for battling racism in America throughout the 1940s and 1950s that, when she went behind the scenes after a rally to tell Dr Martin Luther King how his non-violent Civil Rights campaign had inspired her, he responded: ‘You got that the wrong way round, Libby, it was you who inspired me with your campaigning against racism.’

Libby and the Kings became firm friends and she asked him what his dream was. He said he wanted to travel to India to meet followers of Mahatma Gandhi so they could pool their knowledge of non-violent political campaigning. Libby arranged for the funds to be made available to facilitate their historic meeting.

They were taken from a trust she had set up in memory of her beloved son Christopher Reynolds, himself very aware of Civil Rights, who had died in a mountaineering accident at the age of 18. But the money ultimately came from Libby’s multi-millionaire husband, Zach Reynolds, Christopher’s deceased father. There were accusations that she had shot and killed him after a drunken weekend. The inquest almost exonerated her, after much muddying of the waters and melodrama by the bereaved young widow in a semi-transparent negligée who knew just when to silhouette herself against the light. The verdict was murder by person or persons unknown.

Zach’s family had always disapproved of Libby, and her Jewish ancestry was publicly known to play a large part in that disapproval. They decided she was responsible for their son’s death and must be punished. It seems that, by using their vast power in their home state, they had Libby indicted to appear before a grand jury. The announcement that Libby was pregnant with Christopher led to the trial being abandoned for lack of sufficient evidence. Research indicates that her in-laws had again applied pressure, this time to drop the prosecution for fear of adverse publicity.

So how did this notorious Jewish American woman, flapper and torch singer, toast of late-1920s Broadway, whose sexual partners included Montgomery Clift and several members of her household staff, both male and female, become a role model for Civil Rights activism?

Libby was one of that first generation of American Jewish ‘jazz’ entertainers who were not compelled to ‘black up’. She smashed out a star place for herself on Broadway at the end of the 1920s, singing ‘Moanin’ Low’, dressed as a hooker, choreographically beaten and symbolically raped by her pimp. Gin bottle at hand, she crawls across the floor of a cheap rented room and begs him to stay with her. She was not ‘blacked up’, although photographs reveal her to be wearing rather a lot of dark foundation.

The song and Libby were a sensation. The press mentioned her ‘exoticness’, referred to her as ‘Dusky’ and even suggested she might be ‘Moorish’, but Libby was clearly a new breed on Broadway. Here was a gorgeous Jewish woman who was so in control of her own sexuality that she could afford to indulge in dangerous role play and not be castigated or punished for it.

Libby was never shy of declaring her ethnicity and peppering her conversation with (mainly mispronounced) Yiddish words and phrases. She referred to her diary as ‘The Great Book of Tsoris’.

There were also light-hearted references to Jewishness within the Holman household. When Christopher named his kitten ‘Shirley Temple’, Libby declared that nothing in her house was going to be named after her. Christopher then, with Libby’s approval, took to calling her ‘Shirley Rosenbaum’. Yet in letters to her closest friend, the writer Jane Bowles, self-hatred creeps in. When Bowles became ill, Libby wrote: ‘Please don’t die and leave me alone in the hell of my Jewishness.’

An earlier generation of Jewish ‘jazz’ women had had a much harder row to hoe. The singer and Red Hot Momma Sophie Tucker claimed that in the early nineteen hundreds she was told by a theatre manager that he couldn’t book her because she was just too ‘darned ugly and Jewish-looking’ for his all-white audiences to stomach. He would only allow her to work as a jazz singer in his theatres if she wore black-face make-up and a frizzy black wig. He billed her as a ‘Coon Shouter’. When Tucker’s gramophone recordings began selling worldwide and she went on tour to Germany in the early 1920s, the crowds were reportedly astonished to see this peroxide blonde, white-skinned woman who was far from ‘black’. Jazz, which rapidly became synonymous with sex in the puritan mindscape, could, it seems, only be enjoyed as a spectacle by white audiences while it was seen to be performed by others.

No wonder, then, that male Jewish singers such as Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor also had to ‘black up’ to perform. Not only was there the ‘not quite white’ problem but these Jewish men expressed strong emotions and punched them home with high-energy, almost frenzied, movements. Racist literature of the time clearly sees jazz as a Jewish plot to overthrow Christian morality and subvert the youth through the sexual decadence pedaled in the songs. There was also a prevalent theory that the stereotypically perceived ‘African’ features of Jews - full lips, large noses, etc. - were sure proof of Jewish decadence and could only have come about through sexual intermingling between Jews and Blacks.

Fanny Brice (Funny Girl), who occupied an almost intermediate chronological place between Sophie Tucker and Libby Holman, wasn’t forced to ‘black up’, it’s true, but specialized in broad caricatures of Jewish immigrants types. This was a world where naturalistic portrayals of Jews outside Yiddish art theatres barely existed, and certainly not in Hollywood movies, where all one got was Jolson and Cantor ‘blacking up’. Some of the major stars of the period were indeed Jews and several came from Yiddish theatre, but they changed their names and portrayed almost exclusively non-Jewish characters (Paul Muni, for example, had been Muni Wiesenfeld). Yet we all now know how important it is to have positive role models available within mass culture.

Small wonder, then, that women such as Libby Holman had little to alleviate their Jewish self-hatred in a world where Jews were either absent, disguised as someone else or caricatured as figures of fun or malice. Libby’s close friend Dorothy Parker, born Rothschild (and technically half-Jewish), had a mighty self-loathing. Neighbours claim that, as she lay dying in her New York apartment, she cursed herself in the mirror and was heard shouting ‘Dirty Jew, Filthy Yid’. (Several of her friends confirm this was not untypical behaviour.) Parker had also spent a lot of her adult life campaigning for racial equality and left her entire estate to the Dr Martin Luther King foundation. Nowadays the notion of ‘Jewish self-hatred’ is bandied about very freely, but women Like Dorothy Parker and Libby Holman – as well as Jane Bowles, who named herself ‘Crippy the Kyke Dike’ - were desperately serious in their self-loathing or loathing of their Jewish selves. We can only speculate about how this massive self-hatred feed into a desire to support Black American Civil Rights.

Despite Libby’s declaration that the greatest influence on her singing was Bessie Smith, this is not apparent in her early work. There is definitely an attempt to sound ‘other’, but it is not a convincingly ‘black’ style. She was something of a lost soul after her few Broadway hits, and the murder accusations and subsequent publicity led her to seek seclusion. But when the Second World War broke out, she decided she wanted to do something important and battle the racism she perceived all around her.

This decision took an unexpected form. After watching America’s most famous black blues singer, Josh White, she arranged a meeting with him and begged him to teach her to sing the blues like a black woman. Josh told her it wasn’t possible, but she was determined. (She claims she didn’t seduce him, despite what was said by friends like Tallulah Bankhead, who referred to Josh as ‘Libby’s basic Black’.) Eventually Josh took her on and, from the evidence of the recordings, succeeded in teaching her what she wanted to learn.

Yet it’s not how she sang that interests us here, but where. In the midst of the 1940s, in a world of almost total segregation, Libby and Josh toured around performing together on stage. This was in the days when Billie Holiday was expected to ‘black up’ to sing alongside the darker-skinned male members of Count Basie’s band, just in case people in the South thought she was a white woman consorting with black men.

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?’ Josh and Libby insisted on touring the segregated black army barracks and billets all over the United States throughout the Second World War, which only reinforced their anger at the segregation and discrimination black soldiers fighting for democracy had to put up with.

In 1950, Libby’s son Christopher (Topper) Reynolds, aged 18, was killed by a fall in a mountain-climbing accident. She used most of the millions she inherited to start a foundation in his name for the advancement of human rights, with a specific focus on environmental issues, civil liberties, race relations, peace and disarmament. This was the foundation which provided the money to fund Dr Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta’s 1959 meeting with followers of the late Mahatma Gandhi. On his arrival in India, King said: ‘To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.’ He returned to America even more convinced that ‘non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom’.

During the next decade, Libby continued to tour her singing show – ‘Blues Ballads and Sin-songs’ - possibly to find some relief from her turbulent relationship with Montgomery Clift (whom she had once forbidden to take the male lead in Sunset Boulevard because she was neurotically convinced that Norma Desmond was meant as a parody of herself). Times had changed and Libby and her new black accompanist no longer had to battle racism of the kind that she and Josh White had been faced with in the 1940s. The show finally arrived in New York, but the mediocre reviews depressed Libby and it became her last Broadway performance. It was around this time that she was first heard to say that when the children she had adopted no longer needed her and her voice was gone she would kill herself.

After Malcolm X was shot in Harlem, at a time of violent anti-Vietnam War protests, ten thousand poor Blacks set fire to and looted Watts. Libby could see the connection between the songs she sang, the racism she had always campaigned against and the way the world was turning. Martin Luther King set off to hold large Civil Rights demonstrations in Alabama; the first person he invited to accompany him was his dear friend Libby. We can’t know whether this was his attempt to modulate the public rejection of Jews as ‘the enemy’ by groups like the Black Panthers, but he could not have been unaware of the symbolism of his actions - and neither could she. She had already arranged to give benefit concerts in Washington as long as the proceeds went to black students. Following these, she was invited to give two more concerts, as benefits for UNICEF, in the prestigious auditorium at the United Nations Building, only the second person to perform there (the first being Pablo Casals).

Despite this great honour, Libby was becoming depressed. Having spent nearly 25 years researching, restoring and performing her ‘American’ folk songs such as ‘House of the Rising Sun’, she felt people still perceived her as a torch singer and merely waited politely during her blues ballads until she finally sang ‘the old hits’.

The rest of her life proved a sad anti-climax. Little joy came to her through the continuing on-and-off relationship with Monty Clift, although she nursed him after his terrible disfiguring car crash. In 1957 her ‘Jewish soul sister’, writer Jane Bowles, already tortured by depression and anxieties, had a stroke which left her semi-paralyzed and half-blind. Libby generously paid all the medical bills as Jane and her platonic husband Paul Bowles had almost no spare money. But Jane’s condition left Libby without a confidante; she no longer had anyone she could ‘yenti to’, as she put it. What she called her ‘black black outlook’ descended upon her.

Jane Bowles was to spend the rest of her life in and out of institutions. Libby seemed to become angry at Jane’s inability to respond to her problems and, although she continued to pay the bills, did not visit her any more. Despite her mood swings, Libby attempted to keep up a public front for the sake of her adopted children.One Christmas, something erupted in her, maybe the combination of lack of grieving space for her son Christopher and the years of playing at Christmas for the sake of others. Sinking first into deep desperation, she rebelled against it all on Christmas Eve, kicking over the huge decorated Christmas tree and shouting ‘Fuck Christmas, fuck Christ, fuck everybody!’

Towards the close of the 1960s Libby began to feel alienated. She sensed an institutionalization of the earlier idealistic anti-Vietnam protests. The whole hippy movement with its plastic protest songs she found phony and irritating. Her two adopted sons were approaching draft age, and she let it be known that the three of them had agreed they would all go to jail rather than participate in an unjust war. One by one Libby’s closest friends began to die. She had always felt herself to be ‘jinxed’ in love and complained often that everyone she loved was doomed to die. Monty Clift died, after what someone named ‘the longest suicide attempt in history’. (His self-hatred, it seems, surpassed even hers. It may well have been the strongest bond in their strange relationship.) Dorothy Parker died ranting antisemitism in an apartment full of dog dirt, penniless yet surrounded by huge uncashed cheques. Tallulah Bankhead, with whom she had a love-hate relationship - ‘Tallulah looks dreadful, like she went down on the Titanic twice’ - also was dead.

In 1968 Libby listened to Martin Luther King’s ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop’ speech. Friends say it somehow became associated in her mind with her son’s fall to his death in the mountains. When King was murdered, it was as if he and Christopher had became one person to her. A few years later, Jane Bowles lost the power of speech and movement and was incarcerated in a Spanish asylum. Paul wrote to Libby that they had all given up hope of Jane ever talking or moving again. But Libby had already given up on Jane and seemed to be sinking into an equally dark depression. Although still vain about her looks and figure (and having injections to keep her breasts firm), there seemed no focus to her life.

It was her custom to open the grounds of her house for a massive annual party to show off the millions of daffodils she had planted. The year she became 67, the party was planned as usual. On the day, Libby vanished and was later found dead, asphyxiated in her parked car in the garage with the engine running. For some reason, she had removed her top and was bare-breasted.

It seems that Libby Holman, though never defeated by the huge battles for other people’s rights, gave up on the struggle of loving herself enough. Despite her great achievements as a performer and activist, she could find no comfortable way of living with her own ‘not quite whiteness’.

Sam Boardman-Jacobs has worked as writer, director and designer in theatre, TV and radio in Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Romania and Israel. He is reader in Theatre and Media at Atrium, the Cardiff School of Cultural and Creative Industries, where he runs the MA in Scriptwriting. He is currently working on a drama series for BBBC Radio 4 about theatre life during the siege of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War and a stage play about Libby Holman.

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