Monday, August 29, 2005

The Du Pont, The Torch Singer, and The Tobacco Heir


Louisa d'Andelot Carpenter (pictured at the right) was a du Pont heiress and lesbian who carried on with some of the country's most colorful and glamorous society and theatre folk. She was also involved in one of this nation's greatest love triangle murder mysteries.

The eldest child of Margaretta du Pont and R.M.M. “Ruly” Carpenter, Louisa Carprenter has been described as tall, blonde, and beautiful and disdainful of cities, shoes, and hotels. She hunted fox and pheasant, and was the first woman master-of-hounds in America. She would become one of the first licensed women pilots.

Louisa’s family owned (and still does own) property and houses just south of Rehoboth Beach, between Silver Lake and the Atlantic Ocean beside “Poodle Beach.” Louisa herself owned a home at #37 Pine Reach in Henlopen Acres. She purchased it in 1966.

There are lots of stories about Louisa Carpenter in Rehoboth. She entertained actress and bon vivant Tallulah Bankhead and other theatre and Hollywood friends on the beach during the late 30’s and early 40’s. She cavorted around in mens’ suits and ties with Eugenia Bankhead, Tallulah’s older sister who was called “Sister.” An June 11, 1937, announcement in the Delaware Coast Press reported Libby Holman and Philip Holmes (an actor who cornered the market playing playing confused, sensitive young men) arriving at Rehoboth by plane on Wednesay evening and staying at the home of Mr. and Mrs. R.M.M. Carpenter at their summer home near Silver Lake.

Louisa traveled in circles where bisexuality and homosexuality were prevalent and even fashionable. She was friends with the likes of Noel Coward, Louise Brooks, and Greta Garbo. And, she enjoyed the company of the more eccentric wealthy, like Marion “Joe” Carstairs -- the lesbian, cross-dressing, speedboat-racing, tatooed, Standard Oil heiress who reigned over her own island in the Bahamas.

Louisa married in 1929 at her parents’ insistence. It didn’t last and she divorced in 1931. Around this time, she met Libby Holman, a beautiful theatre and nightclub star. Holman, with her low, sultry voice, was called by many “the first great white torch singer.” She had numerous male and female suitors.

Louisa met Libby at a horse show in Manhattan in 1929 and the attraction was immediate. Louisa invited Libby to sail aboard her father’s yacht “The Galaxy,” anchored off the north shore of Long Island. When Libby arrived the next day, Louisa appeared on deck in white ducks and tennis shoes, stripped to the waist. Their affair began that afternoon and became well-known and, for the most part, accepted within both society and theatre circles. One of Libby's actress friends fondly referred to Louisa a "he-she" because of Louisa's fondness for hunting and mens' clothing. Noel Coward presented them with a special obscene rendition of his song "She's Funny That Way."

But Louisa had competition. Smith Reynolds, the North Carolina heir to the Reynolds tobacco fortune, fell in love with Libby and pursued her all over the world. After ten wedding proposals, Libby finally married him in November 1931. Interestingly, Louisa didn’t disapprove – she preferred her lovers to be bisexual.

The Holman-Reynolds marriage was volatile. Libby quickly grew bored in Winston-Salem, and began inviting her friends down to “Reynolda,” the thousand acre estate she and Smith lived on. Louisa was a regular guest, dressed always in masculine attire. The flamboyant and theatrical types didn’t mix well with Reynold’s Carolina crowd. But, they did all enjoy the bootleg booze and champagne he brought in.

At a drunken party on July 4, 1932, Libby began kissing one of Smith’s friends. Then she disrobed before the guests. As the evening and the drinking wore on, Libby and Smith began arguing. When she told him she was pregnant, he went berserk, certain he couldn’t be the father because of impotence problems. Later that evening, a shot rang out from an upstairs bedroom. Smith Reynolds was dead from a bullet through the head and nobody was certain how it had happened.

A grand jury indicted Libby. But, during the legal proceedings, the Reynolds family did an about face and pressured the district attorney to drop all charges. Tired of the tabloid press and certain that a $20 million trust fund would go to the child and not to Libby, they closed the case. The scandal was one of the biggest stories in America in 1932, along with the Lindberg kidnapping and Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential victory. Film producer David O. Selznick even wrote an original story based on the case. It was entitled "A Woman Called Cheap" and reached the screen as "Reckless" in 1935.

Free after the trial, Libby and Louisa raised Libby’s sickly son Christopher Reynolds. Over the next few years, they moved between Delaware and Florida, and Louisa even adopted a daughter she named “Sunny.” Their “Boston marriage” was widely known and accepted. And the two women were often photographed with matching bobbed haircuts, tennis whites, and deep tans -- like adolescent country club boys, someone commented.

The relationship matured, faded, yet continued through the 50’s with Libby’s return to theatre life and fabulous parties with stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Montgomery Clift. Louisa retreated to the countryside of Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. On June 18, 1971, Libby Holman committed suicide in the front seat of her Rolls Royce in the garage of her Connecticut mansion. Louisa Carpenter eventually adopted two more children and split her time between her farm near Easton, Maryland, and another farm in Ocala, Florida, where she raised racehorses. She died in 1976 when her private plane crashed near Easton.

The girls are dead, but their story lives on. In Dreams That Money Can Buy, published in 1985, author John Bradshaw discusses Louisa and Libby’s relationship. In 1993, Play Murder premiered. It was written by Canadian playwrite and drag queen Sky Gilbert. As the play unfolds, ambiguities multiply. Is Libby plotting to kill Smith for his money? Does she despise him because he can't duplicate the slow hand of her lesbian lover Louisa? Is Reynolds impotent and in love with his childhood buddy? Does he commit suicide? The mystery still intrigues.

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