Nora Holt

The pioneering African-American composer and critic left little trace of her work, making it – as Matthew Guerrieri writes – all the more important to celebrate her story

In 1943, Nora Holt, newly returned to New York from the West Coast, threw herself a birthday party. The invitation was characteristically breezy and assertive:

I am throwing a party for my umpteenth birthday (November 8) on Sunday, November 7, from 9—. Command attendance.

Nora Holt

The guest list was full of people that, if forgotten today, needed no introduction to readers of the African-American press of the 1940s. Vertner Tandy, the famous architect. Geraldyn Dismond, the gossip columnist. Carl Van Vechten, the novelist. Julius J. Adams, editor of the Amsterdam News. Dan Burley, editor, pianist, author of The Harlem Handbook of Jive, and his wife, soprano Gustava McCurdy. Langston Hughes, the poet. Richard Barthé, the sculptor; cartoonist Ollie Harrington. Godfrey Nurse, founder of his eponymous medical laboratory. Musicians, of course: blues singer Ethel Waters; Clarence Tisdale, veteran of the Fisk Jubilee Singers; Ford Dabney, composer and bandleader.

Nora Holt was turning 53. Or was it 58? What did it matter? Never mind that the Jazz Age was over, done, swallowed up by Depression and war. What did it matter? Nora Holt opened up her apartment – and the three apartments on the floor above. Once more, the cream of New York’s African-American society came to call, to see, to be seen, to revel. Mrs. Holt mixed and matched. She told stories. She held court. She played the piano and sang. “As a hostess,” the Amsterdam News marveled, she “left nothing to be desired.”

“The party was reminiscent of the old days of Harlem,” one press report said. It was one of the few times in her life that Nora Holt might have been accused of looking back.

Her own self was her greatest creation, an ongoing improvisation of considerable flair.

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Nora Holt. She tripped many of the moralistic alarm bells that have drowned out so much American history. She was defiant. She was scandalous. She was a woman. She was black. She was self-confident and self-sufficient. She did what she pleased, when she pleased, in the way she pleased. No wonder the engine of national memory pushed her to the margins.

But, then again: she was a composer who left virtually no music. She was a performer who never recorded. Nora Holt was not someone with an eye on posterity. In the end, her most consistent work was as a music critic, a journalist, absorbed in the day-to-day act of consideration, promotion, judgment, celebration. She lived in the now, for the now. Her own self was her greatest creation, an ongoing improvisation of considerable flair.

She was born Lena Douglas in Kansas City. Her father was the Rev. Calvin D. Douglas, an elder and minister at the African Methodist church. Before long, the precocious Lena was taking piano lessons and playing the organ at church. She went to a private primary school, and, later, Western University in Quindaro, Kansas, a black college with one of the best music programs in the country. Lena graduated in 1915, at the top of the class.

By that time, Lena Douglas had been married three times: to a musician named Sky James; to Philip Scroggins, a local politician; to Bruce Jones, a barber. And while she was mastering the classics in school, she acquired no small skill at singing and playing the blues. She was already displaying her penchant for living life by accumulation rather than selection.

She moved north to attend the Chicago Musical College, making money for tuition by playing and singing at swanky parties for the city’s meatpacking millionaires. In 1917, she married her fourth husband. George W. Holt was 30 years her senior. He had started as a trainer at horse racing tracks, later organizing betting pools for a number of leading thoroughbred owners. He moved to Chicago, opening a State Street saloon that became the foundation of his fortune. By the time he met Lena Douglas, Holt had diversified into hotels, theaters and insurance.

A widower since 1912, Holt must have been entranced by the accomplished, vivacious music student. It’s easy to think that Lena, for her part, merely saw an opportunity – but it’s just as easy to think that she recognized a fellow virtuoso at self-invention. It was around this time, after all, that she started going by Nora. The couple eloped to St. Joseph, Michigan. (“We wanted to try some of the tricks played by the young folk,” they explained, once the press caught up with them.) Of all her husbands, Holt’s was the one whose name she kept.

Nora Douglas Holt kept moving. She began writing criticism for the Chicago Defender. She earned a Bachelor’s degree from Chicago Musical College, and then a Master’s – quite possibly the first African-American in the country to attain that degree. Her thesis was a Rhapsody on Negro Themes for orchestra, part of a compositional catalogue that eventually tallied some 200 works. Her songs were taken up by Roland Hayes, a brilliant tenor who blazed a trail for African-American classical musicians. She founded a journal, Music and Poetry. She co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians. She mastered high society, throwing a Christmas party at which the guest of honor was Bert Williams, black star of the Ziegfeld Follies.

And then, in 1921, George Holt died. (“Pal of the People Passes Away,” read one headline.) Nora inherited his fortune. She was young, talented, rich and free.

“Why marry,” she responded, “if you wanted to buy only socks?”

Before long she was in New York, in Harlem, at the center of things. She married again, to one of the most distinguished and highest-placed African-American businessmen in America: Joseph Ray, confidential secretary to magnate Charles M. Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel. It was a strange match. Ray was sober and discreet; Nora was, well, Nora.

The story goes that, on the day of the wedding, Nora’s veil concealed a black eye, courtesy of a jilted lover. Or was it a too-bumpy ride in a car full of pre-nuptial revelers? The stories were legion. The new Mrs. Ray discovered that some of her jewelry was missing and blamed the maid, who sued her for $25,000 for false arrest. On the stand, the maid’s lawyer asked Mrs. Ray if her husband had, indeed, come home with two police officers. “You didn’t expect him to come home with a minister,” she retorted. She went on a $5,000 spending spree for furs, which, upon the bill coming due, prompted a lecture from Joseph. “Why marry,” she responded, “if you wanted to buy only socks?”

Her new husband built a house for her in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Nora found the house and the town dull and escaped to New York at every opportunity, to the whirl of Harlem nightlife. A 1925 entry in Carl Van Vechten’s diary, describing a soirée thrown by German-American designer Winold Reiss, gives, among another list of forgotten celebrities, a hint of the atmosphere. “[W]ent to a party at Winold Reiss’s... Dorothy & Jim Harris, Harold Jackman, Harrison Smith, Carl & Irita Van Doren, Eric Walrond, Miss Hurston, Nora (who danced nude), etc.” It was quintessential 1920s New York: names behaving badly. Nora Douglas Ray reveled in it.

Joseph Ray (and, according to Carl Van Vechten, Charles Schwab himself) was not amused. Ray sued for divorce, alleging adultery. The case made a splash. Nora garnered publicity for refusing to comment, then garnered more publicity for giving her side of the story. Her father, Rev. Douglas (who had officiated at her wedding to Ray) came to visit and offer support – that made it into the papers. Private detectives caught Nora in a rooming house with a paramour – that made it into the papers, too. And, after all that, she would end up winning her court battle with Joseph Ray anyway.

Still, there was such a thing as too much glare, even for her. Nora sailed for Europe in May of 1926. Before she left, she put many of her things – including all of her musical manuscripts – into storage. While she was gone, the storage facility was robbed. The Rhapsody on Negro Themes: gone. The songs for Roland Hayes: gone. The chamber works, the piano pieces: all gone. Out of her entire catalogue, only two pieces survived, by dint of having been published in Music and Poetry: a setting of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Sandman” and a “Negro Dance” for piano, both polished, both interesting (the way the “Negro Dance” repeatedly swamps its banjo-like syncopations with up-to-date impressionist harmonies and virtuoso cascades seems particularly in keeping with the composer’s personality), but both slight.

She never tried to recreate any of her music. One gets the sense she had already moved on.

No recordings of Nora Holt were ever made... Nora Holt was an experience. Once it was gone, it was gone.

She could have retired to her riches. Instead, the musical prodigy turned artistic entrepreneur turned scandalous socialite now took up a new career: nightclub hostess, a cross between a house singer and a professional social choreographer. Holt – she was back to her old name – was a natural. In Paris, she had landed an engagement at a nightclub called Les Nuits du Prado. That led to a longer stint in Monte Carlo. She returned to her grandest spotlight yet: the Apex Club, back in Chicago. Formerly the Nest, the club had been renovated and updated by owner Julian Black, a one-time numbers runner who had made a canny investment in an up-and-coming boxer named Joe Louis. The décor was deluxe. Clarinetist Jimmie Noone led the house orchestra. And Nora Holt held court.

In 1927, Erika and Klaus Mann, the eldest children of novelist Thomas Mann, took a trip around the world; among their itinerary was a trip to the Apex Club.

Nora carries herself with the decorum of a Duchess. When she is introduced to a cavalier, she lowers her eyelids with the almost piqued dignity characteristic of a true lady. Only later does she become more jovial.

The Manns had their uninformed suspicions: Holt’s trademark straightened, blonde-dyed hair diverged from their stereotype, causing them to think that Holt “was not a true Negro.” But then: “She starts, and her voice is deeper than expected. The sound is solemn as a gong, a little rough, but sometimes dazzling, with a tone that sounds like crude, wanton jubilation”:

Forgotten is the elegant lady from before; she only sings, exists only in the rhythm, and now she is a kind of priestess, so seriously does she do her duty. She accompanies without looking; her fingers find the right keys.... She, the singer, will be a negro deity, conducting her rhythmic worship.

For the next few years, Nora Holt sailed from club to club, from success to success. In 1929, she traveled to London, where her renditions of the blues at the Cafe de Paris on Coventry Street caused the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, to come up to the stage and congratulate her. After her divorce became final, in 1930, she went west, to Los Angeles. She headlined another string of clubs: the Congo Inn, the Club Comique, the Club Bali. At a star-studded birthday celebration for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Holt entered, according to the Chicago Defender, wearing “a gold sequin creation, much ermine, more jewels than Mae West, and a devastating manner”; her “interpretations of naughty French songs” garnered “great applause.” From California, she traveled for months at a time to the Far East, performing for the expatriate community in Shanghai.

And none of it was preserved. No recordings of Nora Holt were ever made. Not the naughty French songs, not the light classics, not the blues, not her old, salacious signature number, “My Daddy Rocks Me (with a Long, Steady Roll).” That voice, the solemn gong, described as having a range from bass to soprano – the description is all we have. She spent a decade in Los Angeles, was the toast of Hollywood royalty, but never herself made it onto film. Nora Holt was an experience. Once it was gone, it was gone.

The hell-raiser-turned-hostess effortlessly transformed into an elder stateswoman of music.

With every triumph, Holt seemed reflexively to begin to plan her next move. As she was fêted as the toast of California cabaret society, she was taking music classes at USC. She began teaching music in the Los Angeles public school system. In 1939, she opened a beauty salon on the city’s Westside; like everything she tried, it flourished. But something was lacking. She returned to New York. Her birthday party was, in part, her self-proclaimed homecoming.

She went back to music criticism, this time for good: first at the Amsterdam News, later at the New York Courier. After all her years in nightclubs, her classical training once again came to the fore. A calculated move or inspired intuition? The hell-raiser-turned-hostess effortlessly transformed into an elder stateswoman of music.

Her subjects, and judgments, were in the tradition of racial uplift: concerts with African-American performers, composers or themes. She was generous with her spotlight, and strict with her standards. (Some of her most subtly cutting assessments were reserved for singers who tried to get by on talent alone, without the bedrock and versatility of classical technical training.) She was good at her job. The trenchant dean of the city’s classical music critics, Virgil Thomson, sponsored Holt’s entry into the New York Music Critics Circle. She was the group’s first African-American member.

From 1953 to 1964, she produced and hosted her own show on New York’s WLIB radio, Nora Holt’s Concert Showcase, featuring black composers and performers. In 1966, she was selected as the head of the communications committee for the American delegation to the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. She picked up awards and testimonials. Her gradual retreat – from arbiter to figurehead to occasional honoree – was as impeccably stage-managed as anything else she ever did. As Les Matthews, writer of the Amsterdam News’ weekly “Mr. 1-2-5” column, saw fit to note in 1971: “Nora Holt, retired newswoman, is always punctual.”

She died in 1974, at the age of 89. (Or was it 84?) The long, respectable coda she engineered for her career had pushed her scandals to the background; her obituaries all but ignored her history of marriages and divorces. The New York Times notice ended with this unintentionally poignant elision: “Her husband, George W. Holt, died many years ago.”

In his widely-read, widely-controversial 1926 novel of Harlem, Nigger Heaven, Carl Van Vechten fictionalized Nora Holt as Lasca Sartoris, a wealthy, musically-inclined whirl of sexually potent glamour. “Lasca knows what she wants and goes after it, more than most of us do,” another character observes. “That girl’s got a positive genius for going after things.” In the novel’s second half, the novel’s main character, writer Byron Kasson, falls under Lasca’s spell. “Through her cloak, under the leopard-skin robe, he was conscious of her nearness. The physical vitality of the woman was electric.” The portrayal is practically a cartoon of a femme fatale. Holt seems to have liked it. The white novelist remained one of her closest friends until his 1964 death. Maybe Lasca’s monologues weren’t entirely caricature:

Sometimes, I think I’d like to die, I get so bored. It’s so tiresome to be uniformly successful. I get so fed up with life that I could scream, but something – well, something always happens to bring me back, a new thrill, a new dress, a new dog – something. I’ve never been nored and I never will be.... She tapped on wood with her gloved hand.... I won’t permit myself to be bored, she announced, almost sternly.

Nora Holt’s disinclination to be bored – if that’s what drove her – both enabled and sabotaged her legacy. Hers is a wonderful story, of a wonderful woman (as the tongue-tied Byron repeatedly calls Lasca). It is also a frustrating story, with so many of the most fascinating parts – her music, her performance, her presence – just out of reach, discernible only through second-hand sources.

Why tell the story? Because Nora Holt is worth remembering. She ought to be remembered. She pushed open doors. She decided she belonged when others might have demurred. She moved through a sometimes ugly world with self-generated aplomb. She was talented. She was stylish. She was smart.

But she is also a stand-in, a representative, for all the other musicians who will never be remembered. For all the music that never even made it into the historical record. For all the performances that happened and then were forever gone. Today, when everything is recorded, when everything is accessible, Nora Holt offers a reminder of just how fragile, how ephemeral music can be. She was a star. And we’ll never hear what she sounded like.

By Matthew Guerrieri on June 26, 2017

On a different note