A mere quarter of a century after the close of the Civil War, a little girl named Lena Douglas was born to an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister and his wife in Kansas City, Kansas. The little girl was destined for dynamism. Over the course of her life she became a composer, pianist, singer, musicologist, sex symbol, club act, radio woman, and even a highly respected New York critic.
Lena Douglas (she’d later adopt the name Nora) was born in 1885 or 1890 to Rev. Calvin Douglas and his wife Gracie Brown Douglas. Like many others in the A.M.E. Church, Rev. and Mrs. Douglas were passionate about education, and African-American education in particular. Both were closely involved with the Western University of Quindaro, which had been founded in 1865 as the first all-black school west of the Mississippi.
Consequently Nora received a first-rate education. She started taking piano lessons at the age of four and later played organ in the family church. Even as a young woman, she showed an interest in composing, writing the music to the Western University school song in 1907. (Her father provided the lyrics.)
She continued her collegiate music studies at Western, which, lucky for her, boasted one of the best music schools in America. Nora distinguished herself while studying criticism and composition, graduating at the top of her class.
But Nora was more than a brilliant student. She was also gorgeous, vivacious, and prone to dramatic romance. As a high school student, she was married no less than three times. First she wed a musician (Sky James), then a politician (Philip Scroggins), then a barber (Bruce Jones). None of these marriages lasted. When she left Western University to continue her studies at the Chicago Musical College (now part of Roosevelt University), she was single. But she didn’t stay that way for long: in 1916 or 1917, she married yet again, this time to a fabulously wealthy hotel owner named George Holt, who was thirty years her senior. Before this fourth marriage, she had been making ends meet by playing piano and singing jazz at the lavish parties of Chicago’s elite.
One of Nora’s standards during this time was the fearlessly explicit “My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll).” Sadly, no recordings by Nora exist, so here’s a performance by Trixie Smith dating from 1922: “My man rocks me with one steady roll / There’s no slippin’ when he once takes hold.”
In 1918, Nora earned a master’s degree in music, becoming the first African-American woman ever to do so. Intriguingly, her thesis was a work for orchestra called Rhapsody on Negro Themes (tragically now lost).
She also became a professional music critic, writing for the Chicago Defender, arguably the most important African-American newspaper in the country, from 1917 to 1921. Despite her bucking of societal norms, she was no musical revolutionary, preferring lyric, traditional forms instead. Her writing on music was sometimes affected by her identity. “Tschaikovsky achieved an ethnical success as well as a musical one,” she once mused, after a white woman sitting next to her at a Chicago Symphony concert talked to her about the music. (x) At one point, she wrote about the need for an organization to advance the interests of African-American musicians. So in 1919, she co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians with Henry Grant, Duke Ellington’s piano teacher. The organization is still active a century later.
Two years after their marriage, George Holt died, leaving Nora an independently wealthy widow. She moved her home base to New York City, eager to be at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance.
She married again on 29 July 1923. Her fifth husband was named Joseph Ray, and he worked as an assistant to Charles Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel. The Chicago Defender called the wedding “one of the most brilliant…in many a season.” (x) Her father officiated. Violinist and composer Clarence Cameron White, widely considered to be the era’s greatest African-American violinist, performed. Nora wore diamond earrings (six carets in each ear) and a veil of tulle, which, rumor has it, obscured the black eye her lover Gordon Jackson had given her before the ceremony.
If Joseph Ray thought his wife would settle down to tranquil domestic bliss in the company town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, he was sadly mistaken. The marriage only lasted for nineteen months, and the divorce was spectacular. Ray said that Nora had only spent thirty-two days with him in Pennsylvania, preferring to live in New York City instead. He used testimony by a Harlem maid claiming that she’d served Nora and a lover breakfast in bed for eight consecutive mornings. Nora fired back that Ray was jealous of her fame and hated being called “Mr. Holt.” “The whole thing is a flimsy suit,” she wrote to Carl Van Vechten, “no weight and I can eat it hands down, but did not want the annoyance. However, the publicity should be of value.” (x) When all was said and done, she won her case, retaining the tens of thousands of dollars that Ray had promised her before the wedding.
After this fifth and final divorce, Nora wanted to see the world. She decided to tour Europe and Asia as a pianist and jazz singer. Before she sailed, she took the two hundred works she had written in a classical style (including everything from pieces for solo piano to full symphony orchestra) and put the scores in storage. When she returned to get them, she found they’d all been stolen. Today, Nora Holt’s only surviving compositions are ones that were published in her short-lived musical journal, Music and Poetry, in 1921. The ultimate fate of the stolen rest remains unknown.
She flitted from club to club in Paris – the Club Bali, the Congo Inn, the Club Comique. “I went to tea at Gertrude Stein’s and adored her,” she reported to Van Vechten in 1926. (x) Later she brought her wildly successful act to London. In 1929, the future Edward VIII came to the stage to congratulate her on her brilliant performance. (His recognition of her talent as a black woman was noteworthy; in 1920, he’d privately called the “coloured population” of Barbados “revolting.”) From Paris and London she found her way to Shanghai.
Once the Depression began, she settled in Los Angeles, teaching music in the public school system, getting involved with the school board, and even, in 1939, starting her own beauty salon…which, of course, was a great success. (Nora took fashion and style very seriously. She was famous for her hair, frequently dyed red or platinum blonde.)
She returned to New York in the 1940s, ultimately writing about music for the Amsterdam News and the New York Courier. No less an authority than Virgil Thomson sponsored Nora to join the New York Music Critics Circle, making her the first African-American member. In the 1950s and 1960s she took to the airwaves, hosting a radio concert series called Nora Holt’s Concert Showcase, which was broadcast on WLIB and featured black composers and performers.
Nora Douglas Holt – Jazz Age wild child, musical wunderkind, and fierce and feisty pathbreaker – died in Los Angeles on 25 January 1974. Her life had been passionately well-lived.
Her friend Carl Van Vechten modeled his character Lasca Sartoris after her. He describes Lasca thus:
That girl’s got a positive genius for going after things… She always raises hell here, without intending to, I guess. She just can’t help it… She had beauty and wit and money. She was rich and successful and happy. She had won. Problems didn’t bother her. She had found what she had wanted by wanting what she could get, and then always demanding more, more, until now the world poured its gifts into her bewitching lap.
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