One of the most tragic stories of all time is the story of Zachary Smith Reynolds, the youngest child of R.J. Reynolds and his wife, Mary Katherine Smith.
An orphan and millionaire at the age of 13, Reynolds was spoiled, willful, moody, and bored.
His father was the founder of the Winston-Salem based tobacco empire. On his 21st birthday, he was to receive $17 million! That would have been in 1932, when $17 million was still $17 million.
Smith, he was called by his middle name, dropped out of school to focus on aviation. Really, who needs an education when you’ve got $17 million and a mass of people to manage it?
He married Anne Cannon, just after midnight on his 18th birthday. Look at your towels, the money stayed together. Cannon was the daughter and heir of Joseph Franklin Cannon of Cannon Mills.
The marriage was in trouble from the start, and Smith’s affair with torch singer and part-time lesbian, Libby Holman didn’t help things at all.
Smith Reynolds began to follow Holman’s career, flying from city to city to see her perform and court her.
He divorced Anne in Reno, and married Libby Holman a quick six days later in Michigan.
Libby, seven years his senior and a celebrated Broadway actress, gave UP her career to preside over the Reynolds estate, Reynolda House*, in Winston-Salem. For the bucolic burg, it was party central.
And it drove his family nuts!
The stuffy tobacco magnates were appalled by the behavior of her theater friends: constant partying, drinking, sex on the lawn; the staunch Baptists were baffled.
Reynolds died mysteriously a few hours after his 21st birthday celebration. His body was found with a bullet through his head. He’d often talked of suicide. His friend, Charles Hill, heard a shot, and immediately following, a pregnant Libby ran to the balcony and said, “Smith’s shot himself!”
His death was ruled a suicide at first, but the coroner’s inquest later ruled it a homicide. Libby and Hill were both suspects, and were charged. Libby with murder and Hill as an accomplice. Most investigative journalists of the time decided that Libby’s ‘guilt’ and suspicion was a result of the anti-Semitism of the day. It was 1932, it was the South, and Libby was not only a full time thespian and a part time lesbian, she was a Jew. The district attorney later said she was innocent.
Libby’s $25,000 bail was paid by a friend, Louisa Carpenter. Carpenter appeared ‘mannishly dressed’, and the newspapers reported that an “unknown man” paid her bail.
The family wanted the charges dropped, and no trial was ever held. Both were released for ‘lack of evidence’. Most folks in North Carolina consider the death a suicide even today.
Smith Reynolds was bored. There was nothing to do, and no reason to live.
Libby gave birth to their son, Christopher Smith “Topper” Reynolds six months after his father’s death.
Libby moved on, became a financer of civil rights causes, and after the mountain climbing death of her own dare-devil son and a friend on California’s Mt. Whitney, founded the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, funding a trip to India for The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta, and the defense of Dr. Benjamin Spock when he was arrested for anti war demonstrations.
Plagued by depression all her life, her mental state deteriorated after the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King, the death of her son, and the death of her dear friend, Montgomery Clift. Libby was found in the front seat of her Rolls Royce by her staff and rushed to the hospital, where she died from carbon monoxide poisoning
No one was surprised when her death was ruled a suicide.
Her most famous hit was Moanin’ Low.
*Reynolda House is now Reynolda House Museum of American Art, the only art museum in the world dedicated wholly to American Art and Artists. If you’re in the Winston-Salem area, it’s worth the time. The 17.000 square foot mansion was built by the tobacco magnate shortly before his death.