Nora Holt

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Unidentified Photographer, [Nora Douglas Holt], ca. 1930 (1544.1990)

During the roaring 1920s, Nora Holt was a scandalous socialite and party girl, as exemplified by her five marriages and countless lovers. She once walked down the aisle with a black eye not from her fiancée but believed to be given by one of her lovers. These details and many others filled the front pages of newspapers like the Defender and the tabloidlike Inter-State Tattler and Heebie Jeebies. Immensely talented, Holt was a musician and singer who composed over 200 pieces. In 1918 she was the first African American woman to earn her master’s degree from Chicago Musical College. A major player during the Harlem Renaissance, she was the rich “it” girl of Harlem society. Holt was also the inspiration for characters in books by author Countee Cullen and cultural critic and writer Carl Van Vechten.

She jet-seted through Europe, performing at swank parties and clubs in London and Paris and hobnobbing with expatriate American intellectuals such as Gertrude Stein. In the 1930s she lived and performed in Shanghai until World War II. During the 1950s and 60s she hosted a popular radio concert series called “Nora Holt’s Concert Showcase.” She was a music critic for New York’s Amsterdam News and also wrote for the New York Courier. Holt taught music in the Los Angeles school system and worked closely with the first generation of African American opera stars Leontyne Price, William Warfield, and Martina Arroyo among others.

Nona Simmons, ICP-Bard 2013

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