Nora Holt and Carl Van Vechten met in a Harlem speakeasy in the early 1920s and remained close friends until the end of Van Vechten’s life. During the ‘20s and ‘30s Holt often performed in New York and was a regular guest at Van Vechten’s (and others’) parties, where she sang bawdy songs and danced all night. She was known as well for her platinum blond hair as she was for her scandalous love life, which included a high profile divorce and a great many lovers.
Nora Holt’s reputation is misleading; she was much more than just a rich party girl whose escapades were a staple of gossip columns. She was an accomplished singer and a serious scholar of music. By the time she met Van Vechten in Harlem, Holt had already become the first African American in the United States to earn a master of music degree (from Chicago Music College) and she had been the music critic for the Chicago Defender for several years. By the 1920s, she had also helped to found the National Association of Negro Musicians, and she had published a magazine entitled Music and Poetry.
In spite of these successes, around Harlem in the 1920s Holt was known as a wild socialite who lived high on her inherited fortune. Her many marriages—Holt was named in Ebony magazine’s 1949 article “Most Married Negros”—were often the subject of gossip, even among her friends. “Her trail is strewn with bones,” Carl Van Vechten wrote of Holt in a letter to H.L. Mencken in 1925.1 When she married Joseph L. Ray in 1923, the society papers described in detail Holt’s diamond earrings (six carets in each ear) and her pearl-beaded dress. Even more interesting to the society papers, however, was the fact that Holt appeared at the wedding with a black eye, rumored to be the result of a fight with her lover, Gordon Jackson.
Holt and Ray remained married for only nineteen months; their separation and divorce generated even more gossip than their wedding. Charges of fraud, accusations of adultery, and a number of suits and counter suits kept the press busy for some time. Holt was savvy about the fact that her prominence in the press might enhance her opportunities. Of one of Ray’s legal assaults, Holt wrote to Van Vechten “The whole thing is a flimsy suit, no weight and I can beat it hands down, but did not want the annoyance. However, the publicity should be of value.”2
In the early years of their friendship, Carl Van Vechten was so taken with Holt that he used her as the model for Lasca Sartoris, a character in Nigger Heaven, his controversial 1926 novel. Like Holt, Lasca Sartoris was a beautiful and wild young woman, a constant subject of conversation: “It could hardly be said that Harlem, generally speaking, had received the tidings of Lasca’s wayward adventures with approval, even equanimity, but those who knew her apparently liked her, and the rest . . . would be won over by her money, her beauty, her wit, and her charm.”3
After years in Harlem, Holt moved to California, where she taught music in public high schools and owned a beauty parlor: “Nora Holt is opening a swanky beauty shop in Los Angeles,” Van Vechten wrote to Langston Hughes in 1939. “Therein, no doubt, she’ll turn colored brunettes by scores into blondes.”4 Holt returned to New York in the 1940s, where she became the music critic first for the Amsterdam News, and later for the New York Courier. Throughout the 1950s, and until her death in 1974, Holt was a highly influential music critic, producing and hosting radio programs highlighting the work of African-American artists.