The glory that was Reynolda dimmed in the mid-twenties with the passing of its creator, Katharine Smith Reynolds. In the weeks after her death in May 1924, the question looming for Will Reynolds, R.J.’s brother who was named caretaker, was what to do with Katharine’s four children: Dick (18), Mary (16), Nancy (14) and Smith (13).
Their father, R.J., had left the kind of wealth that made it unnecessary to work to earn a living. And although Uncle Will kept tight control on the purse strings, the sisters had traveled in Europe twice, cruised the Mediterranean and sailed the Nile. Their uncle’s attitude, not uncommon for the time, was that the girls would marry, as they soon did, and didn’t need an education, contrary to the example set by their mother, Katharine, an early advocate for women’s education.
Higher education also carried little appeal for their brothers, Dick and Smith. Uncle Will was far from delighted when both chose to pursue the fledgling field of aviation, buying their own planes and becoming proficient pilots. Dick received one of the first licenses issued to an American by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale bearing the signature of Orville Wright, FAI secretary. He also founded Reynolds Aviation, a small business that operated from several airports.
Smith, however, surpassed his older brother in aerial pursuits. In 1930, he set a record time of 28 hours and three minutes flying from New York to Los Angeles. The following year, he set a second record flying from London to Hong Kong, alone in a tiny Savoia Manchetti amphibian plane. His 128-page log, printed by his sister Nancy, recorded the mechanical challenges and adventures in some of the exotic places he landed along the way.
Smith was a restless, impulsive soul. He had eloped to York, SC, with Ann Cannon, a Concord textile heiress, when he was 19. After being divorced, he met Libby Holman a voluptuous torch singer from New York. Performing in the style of a Harlem songstress, she easily mesmerized the young boy. They were married on November 29, 1931 but did not publicly announce their marriage until after Smith’s solo trip to Hong Kong.
Arriving at Reynolda June 5, 1932, the young couple announced their intention of staying for at least a year. Soon settled in Reynolda’s master suite, they began to enjoy all that Reynolda had to offer – swimming, tennis, riding and lounging by the outdoor swimming pool.
For Smith, returning to Reynolda brought back memories of the peaceful existence he had known there as a child. He was six when Katharine and R.J. moved into Reynolda, and he had loved playing hide-and-seek in the house’s 64 rooms. A sensitive child, he had grown into a man whose daredevil exploits in the air contrasted with his quiet manner on the ground.
For Holman, Reynolda was an entry into a world she had never known. After her lean and hungry years on stage, she was reaping the rewards of her hard work. With her young husband’s encouragement, she planned house parties and weekend retreats with swimming, canoeing, barbecues and free-flowing whiskey.
With the young couple in residence, an invitation to a swimming, boating or cocktail party at Reynolda soon became the most coveted invitation in town. Prohibition was still in full swing, but that was not a problem for people with money or connections. And if the more genteel townsfolk had misgivings about permitting their children to join in the goings on at Reynolda, they only whispered their displeasure and went about their business.
For the weekend of July 4, Libby had planned a series of parties, bringing together people from their separate worlds. Her agent, Walter Batchelor, and her former acting coach, Blanche Yurka, were to be special guests. Smith invited his boyhood friend, Ab Walker, recently hired as his assistant, and a math tutor Randall Kramer, employed to help him prepare for New York University’s aeronautical program exam.
The evening had begun with a barbecue supper on the patio of the Oriental Boathouse. It was a gala evening for old friends and new, although by 11 p.m. most of the guests had departed and the servants had gone to bed.
It was with shock and awe that townspeople learned the next day that Zachary Smith Reynolds, aviation sportsman, who would have reached his majority in November, passed away at 5:25 o’clock Wednesday morning as the result of a bullet wound declared to have been self-inflicted. Ab Walker, close friend of Reynolds and a guest in the home for the night, had rushed the unconscious lad to Baptist Hospital, where death occurred at dawn.
Dr. W.N. Dalton, county coroner, reported at 9 o’clock Wednesday morning that a verdict as to whether the death was a suicide or the result of an accidental shot might not be made for two or three days. Powder burns were found around the wound.
According to the Winston-Salem newspaper, there had been a small informal dinner party at the Reynolds home Tuesday evening, honoring C.G. Hill on his twenty-first birthday. Most of the guests had left by midnight – only to rush back after daylight when news of the tragedy spread.
Walker told Dr. Dalton and Sheriff Transou Scott that he went to the lower part of the house to close it up about 1 a.m. He and Reynolds had planned to drive uptown and Reynolds had already handed his purse to Walker, the latter stated.
While on the lower level, Walker heard what he thought was a muffled report of a shot. He then heard Libby Holman Reynolds cry out. Rushing back up stairs, Walker found Reynolds lying on the sleeping porch floor, a wound in his head. The bullet, as an autopsy later revealed, entered the right temple and emerged just back of the ear. It was from a Mauser .32-calibre automatic. The shell was found on the floor, near the body, and the gun was on the floor.
Unconscious when his wife and other members of the household reached him, Smith did not regain consciousness. His tutor, Richard Kramer, who was sleeping on the south side of the house, was among the first to reach him. According to the newspaper account, Mrs. Reynolds was prostrated and under the care of physicians.
The coroner said that there were preliminary indications Reynolds committed suicide, but he refused to give a verdict. There were reports that Reynolds had been cleaning his gun, but these were never verified.
Friends who were at the dinner party Tuesday evening said Smith appeared to be in excellent spirit and they could recall no word or gesture that might indicate he was contemplating ending his life.
However, other close friends recalled that during recent days Smith had been “restless” and hinted that he wasn’t exactly satisfied with life. Sunday night, it was learned, he was experiencing one of his “restless” spells, and Walker had accompanied him to a downtown hotel where they spent the night.
In stating that an inquest probably would not be held for “two or three days,” Dr. Dalton gave permission for funeral plans to proceed, pointing out that it would not be necessary to hold the body for further investigation.
Will Reynolds, uncle of Smith Reynolds, who was seen by an Associated Press representative at Cleveland, Ohio, earlier in the day, had said that he “couldn’t understand Smith’s act, but I am convinced that it was his act and that no one else had a hand in it.”
“I saw the boy a week ago at his home in North Carolina. He seemed the sensible, level-headed boy that I have always known and was extremely interested in flying.”
Smith’s two sisters, Mary (Mrs. Charles Babcock) and Nancy (Mrs. Henry Walker Bagley) arrived the following day from New York. The other member of the family, Richard J. Reynolds, Smith’s older brother, was contacted on the high seas in his combination yacht-freighter, en route to Africa.
Smith Reynolds was probably Winston-Salem’s most colorful citizen. It might be surprising that his death did not lead to the sale of Reynolda or at least to its closing. Instead, in 1935, when family members met, Mary and her husband, Charles Babcock, bought out the interest of the other heirs and Reynolda survived for another era.