Nora Holt “The Mama That Can’t Behave” In Harlem (warning)

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She was satirized under pseudonyms in Harlem Renaissance novels. Throughout that period she was referred to as a bronze venus, dusky diva and outrageous party girl. 

She held many titles but Nora Holt was Nora Holt!  She served drama from New York to Chicago.  She gave ’em glamour in Paris, London and Shanghai!  She was a definite handful as well as an eye full.  But there was so much more to “The Mama That Can’t Behave” than what met you at face value.

She knew how to handle her business!

…the first African American woman in the United States to earn a Master’s Degree.

Nora Holt was born Lena Douglas sometime around 1890 in Kansas City, KS.   She had five or six husbands but decided to keep the surname of her fourth husband, the elderly and very wealthy hotel owner, George Holt.  In the meantime,  she graduated from Western University in Quindaro, KS with a bachelor’s degree in music in 1917.  In 1918, she added another degree from the Chicago Musical College, thus becoming the first African American woman in the United States to earn a Master’s Degree.

When her fifth marriage to Joseph Ray, the African American assistant to millionaire tycoon Charles Schwab, ended in divorce, Nora moved to Harlem and carried on uptown while hanging out downtown with her very good friend, the infamous novelist and Negrophile Carl Van Vechten.

She co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians, and became an editor and music critic for the New York Age and the Amsterdam News.

She co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians, and became an editor and music critic for the New York Age and the Amsterdam News.  Nora Holt composed over 200 works of orchestral & chamber works, but all of her manuscripts were later stolen and she never returned to composition.  Undetered, she continued to study and teach music for decades.  In 1950, Jet Magazine announced that Nora Holt was in the process of writing her memoirs which promised to be even more spicy than the recently published autobiography of singer Ethel Waters.  The book never materialized, but every note, every decade just went higher and higher until she passed away in 1974.

More than just another Harlem socialite, international jet setter, or grist for the gossip section of early black newspapers, Nora Holt was an intelligent, shrewd and brilliant black business woman.  She knew how to whip the double whammy of beauty and brains back and forth.

Photograph by James Marquis Connely, 1930 (source).


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Harlem World Magazine is a lifestyle and brand for anyone who has a Harlem state of mind, dedicated to news, history, the renaissance and stories that celebrate our lifestyle.

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