Smith & Libby: Two Rings, Seven Months, One Bullet

Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing Gallery

Like most family homes, Reynolda House witnessed its share of tragedies, none more shocking than the death by gunshot of Zachary Smith (“Smith”) Reynolds, youngest child of R.J. and Katharine Smith Reynolds. Soon after midnight on July 6, 1932, Smith was shot on a sleeping porch at the family’s country estate. It was a brood year for cicadas in the Southern Appalachians, so the bullet of a Mauser pistol was heard only as a muffled pop by the night watchman. It was heard by Smith’s wife, Broadway star Libby Holman, who was with her husband on the porch. And it was heard by Smith’s childhood friend and secretary Albert “Ab” Walker, although exactly where Walker was at the time of the shooting is shrouded in mystery.

Smith died later that morning. Subsequent investigations made national news in the summer and fall of 1932 and led to a charge of first-degree murder for Libby Holman, with Walker named as accomplice. Then, in a stunning reversal, the case was dropped before coming to a trial that might have led to the death penalty. To this day, it is not known whether Smith Reynolds, twenty-year-old heir and renowned aviator, died by suicide, accident, or murder.

This exhibition, curated by Betsy Main Babcock Deputy Director of Reynolda House Museum of American Art Phil Archer, presents archival objects, news articles, and other primary sources to lay bare the mystery in all its fascinating complexity. There is more than one way for a house to be haunted, and this story has hung over Reynolda for ninety years, at once the most tragic and infamous day in its history. Smith & Libby draws back the curtain on an event that shocked the nation and echoed down the generations, still inspiring speculation and curiosity in visitors of all ages today.

Images: Libby Holman and Zachary Smith Reynolds on Honeymoon in Hong Kong, circa April, 1932. Courtesy of the Liam Donnelly Archive.