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.
She was born Lena Douglas in Kansas City, Kansas in either 1885 or 1890 to Calvin Douglas, an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister and Gracie Brown Douglas. She graduated Western University at Quindaro, Kansas in 1917 with a bachelor’s degree in music. In 1918 she earned her master’s degree in music at Chicago Musical College, becoming the first African American woman to earn a master’s in the United States. In the late 1930s, Douglas also studied music education at the University of Southern California. At the Chicago Musical College, her thesis composition was an orchestral work called Rhapsody on Negro Themes.
She was married five times. In 1916 Douglas married her fourth husband, hotel owner George Holt, taking his name and changing her first name to “Nora”.
From 1917-1921 Holt contributed music criticism to the Chicago Defender, a black daily newspaper. In 1919 she co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians.
Holt then spent twelve years abroad in Europe and Asia, where she sang at night clubs and private parties. By 1926, when she left for Europe, she had composed over 200 works of orchestral music and chamber songs, which she placed in storage before departure. Upon returning, she discovered that all her works had been stolen. Only one piece survived, as it had already been published. It was called Negro Dance, a ragtime-like piano piece.
During the 1920s, Holt was known as a wild socialite. She was wealthy due to her inheritance from her late husband George Holt. In 1923 she married Joseph Ray, assistant to tycoon Charles Schwab, in her fifth marriage. They moved to Pennsylvania.
After the break-up of the marriage, Holt moved to Harlem in the early 1920s, where she became an important part of the Harlem Renaissance. She became good friends with novelist and critic Carl Van Vechten.
While studying music at the University of Southern California in the 1930s, she also taught music in Los Angeles for several years. In 1943 she took a position as an editor and music critic with a black-oriented publication Amsterdam News.
During the early 1950s to early 1960s, Holt began hosting a radio concert series called “Nora Holt’s Concert Showcase”. It ran to 1964. In 1966 she was a member of the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal.
Nora Holt died January 25, 1974 in Los Angeles.