History of Treetops
Treetops is the local name for a parcel of the Mianus River State Park, owned by the CT Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and located immediately south of the Mianus River Park.
We include Treetops in our stewardship.
Harry Day, Vice President of the Stamford Land Conservation Trust (SLCT), one of the four holders of an Environmental Easement on TreeTops, wrote this article in 2009. It was updated November 2021 by Linda Chapman, a FoMRP board member.
Libby Holman, the SLCT, and the Treetops Legacy
Few could have predicted that the flamboyant, scandal-ridden, and often tragic life—and death—of internationally famed torch singer Libby Holman would become forever intertwined with the mission of the Stamford Land Conservation Trust. After all, when Libby Holman died at her beautiful Treetops estate in 1971, the SLCT did not even exist. But many decades later, Treetops owes its legacy to both Holman and the SLCT.
Libby Holman's rise to stardom and the Reynolds scandal
Libby Holman was born Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 23, 1904, to middle-class parents of German Jewish descent. Neither Libby or her two siblings were raised in the Jewish faith. Growing up. Libby and her older sister participated in many school plays and local productions. Despite pushing the boundaries of acceptable dress and behavior, Libby had a stellar academic career and graduated at 19 from the University of Cincinnati in 1923 with a Bachelor of Arts Degree. She moved to New York City the following year to study journalism at Columbia University.
To earn money, Libby looked for work in the theatre. She appeared in several small parts and eventually received notice for her exotic looks, sultry voice, and voluptuous figure. She achieved stardom, appearing with Clifton Webb in "The Little Show" in 1929, in which she sang "Moanin' Low" and "Three's a Crowd" in 1930, in which she introduced "Body and Soul." "Moanin' Low" became a blues classic and her signature song, with Carly Simon performing it regularly decades later. Holman has been credited with inventing the strapless dress, which helped accentuate her smoky and sexually charged torch songs.
Holman was game for anything, making her personal life constantly exotic, if not chaotic. Her friends were often gay men, generally much younger than herself, foremost among them Montgomery Clift. She had relationships with both men and women during her lifetime, including Jeanne Eagels, Tallulah Bankhead, Josephine Baker, and, later in her life, writer Jane Bowles. Her most prominent relationship was with DuPont heiress Louisa d'Andelot Carpenter which lasted until Holman died in 1971.
In 1931 at age 28, Libby Holman married tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds who was just 20. Reynolds had been star-struck and had pursued her relentlessly. Even before marriage, the couple fought often and had a very rocky relationship. At several points, Reynolds threatened suicide to Libby. Less than a year after the wedding, the couple hosted a lavish party for a close friend at the Reynolds family estate in North Carolina. After guests left, only Holman, her friend Blanche Yurka, Reynolds and his close friend Ab Walker remained.
It was at this point that Zachary Reynolds was shot and killed. Given that most witnesses from the evening had been drunk, statements about the evening were muddled. Libby stated that she was unable to recall most of the evening and even the next day. Walker's statements contradicted each other. Authorities determined the shooting to be a suicide, but a coroner's inquiry ruled it murder. Libby, who was pregnant at the time, and Ab Walker, a close friend of Reynolds, were indicted. Ultimately, the case was dropped due to lack of evidence and at the request of the Reynolds family. The death was ruled a suicide. The inheritance left Holman and her son Christopher (whom she called "Topper") fabulously wealthy.
The events surrounding Reynolds' death received enormous publicity and became the basis of David O. Selznick's 1935 movie "Reckless," starring Jean Harlow. Following the Reynolds scandal, Holman and Christopher lived with Louisa Carpenter for the remainder of the 1930s. Libby returned to Broadway in 1934, performing in "Revenge with Music" (singing "You and the Night and Music") and became a fixture in New York nightclubs. She turned down the lead in Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," leaving the role to an unknown secretary named Ethel Merman. Holman could not escape the cloud of the Reynolds scandal and was often welcomed with hisses and boos, though many felt that the scandal enhanced her career.
Hear Libby Holman's songs on YouTube >
Treetops and Holman's later years
It was during the 1930s that Holman purchased 55 acres straddling the Stamford-Greenwich border on the Mianus River. She created an estate known as "Treetops," including a neo-Georgian mansion completed in 1938. In love with the area's natural beauty, Holman purchased adjacent parcels as they became available, eventually expanding the Estate to 110 acres. Over the years, she planted daffodils by the tens of thousands, creating new varieties that became a spectacle of color each April. Holman entertained lavishly at Treetops in the 1940s and 1950s. Guests included her long-time friend Montgomery Clift, Truman Capote, Tallulah Bankhead, Imogene Coca, Martha Raye, Roddy McDowell, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Taylor, and Michael Todd (who proposed marriage to Taylor in the mansion's elegant private library).
In March 1939, Holman married her second husband, actor Ralph Holmes. After returning in 1945 from World War II, the marriage soured, and he killed himself. His suicide earned Holman the label "Death Angel" among some who found morbid interest in Holman's two significantly younger husbands dying at very young ages. During this period, Libby adopted two sons, Timmy and Tony.
In 1950, Holman's beloved son Christopher died from a mountain climbing accident at just 17 years old. She was devastated and never recovered from his death. To honor him, she started the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, dedicated to the cause of racial justice and equality. She appeared on Broadway for the last time in 1954 at the age of 50 in a one-woman show entitled "Blues, Ballads and Sin-Songs."
In 1959, she married world-known artist and sculptor Louis Schanker. They filled their days with travel between Treetops and their other homes, constant work on their respective careers, social activism, volunteer work, and weekend cocktail parties.
Holman was an activist, an early proponent of civil and gay rights. In the 1940's she broke color barriers by insisting on working with African-American musician Josh White. They, became the first mixed-race male and female artists to ever perform together, record together and tour together in previously segregated venues across the United States. During World War II, she tried to organize shows for servicemen with White, but they were refused because "we don't book mixed company when entertaining the troops". In 1947, she starred with White in the movie "Dreams that Money Can Buy."
Libby supported the young preacher Martin Luther King in several ways, including enabling him to travel to India in 1959 to learn the teachings of Gandhi. When she went behind the scenes after a rally to tell King how his non-violent Civil Rights campaign had inspired her, he responded: "You got that the wrong way round, Libby; it was you who inspired me with your campaigning against racism." Holman and her husband became personally close with the Kings and entertained them at Treetops.
Most of her later appearances were benefits for civil rights and United Nations causes. Holman was also active locally. She volunteered once a week at Stamford Hospital and was spotted occasionally being chauffered in her Rolls-Royce in the area. One week every year, she opened Treetops to the public for a Daffodil Festival, the proceeds of which benefited local charities, including the Visiting Nurses Association and the Stamford Girls Club. The Daffodil Festival became an annual tradition that continued until recent years.
The loss of her son, Jane Bowles' debilitating stroke, Martin Luther King's assassination, and her mother and Montgomery Clift's death all took a toll on Holman's mental health. On June 18, 1971, she was found unconscious in her garage at TreeTops. She was rushed to Stamford Hospital and died several hours later. "The examiner, Dr. Elliott Gross, said her body had been found in the front seat of her limousine in the garage of her home on a 112‐acre farm in Stamford. He attributed death to acute carbon monoxide poisoning". Her body was cremated and her ashes scattered at Treetops, in one of the large daffodil beds adorning the grounds. Coretta Scott King was among the illustrious group that gathered for Holman's memorial service.
The Fate of Treetops
As a committed conservationist and determined to save Treetops from development, Libby Holman had bequeathed it to Boston University for a fine arts center and parkland. However, the University determined that it could not operate and maintain the property and returned it to the Estate in 1976. In 1978, to fulfill Libby Holman's wishes, the mansion and the 40 acres in Stamford were offered as an outright gift to the City as a cultural center and parkland. Despite the support of then-Republican Mayor Louis Clapes and overwhelming public support for accepting the generous offer, the Stamford Board of Finance failed to approve a proposal that would have set aside $58,000 annually to maintain the property. The City voted to reject the gift. Republican Leonard Vignola, a purported conservationist, cast the deciding vote, asserting that the City did not have the resources to care for the property.
The City's lost opportunity became painfully evident when, within two years, Boston University sold the mansion and the 40 acres in Stamford to Champion International Corp. for $2 million. The company purchased the adjoining 70 acres in Greenwich for $2.5 million. Champion operated Treetops as a corporate guest and conference center and won high marks for corporate citizenship by caring for the property, allowing access via trails from the adjacent Mianus River Park, and continuing the annual Daffodil Festival.
The final battle to save Treetops
In 1997, Champion announced its intention to sell Treetops, kicking off a four-year battle to save the property from development. They did not state an asking price. Local conservationists formed a group to discuss raising money to buy and preserve Treetops, persuading Champion to donate a part of the land, or accepting a reduced price. Members included SLCT President Percy Lee Langstaff, Peter Moss of the Mianus River Greenway Alliance, several other open space advocates, and Cummings and Lockwood Attorney Ralph Nichols (who had represented the Libby Holman estate).
A bipartisan array of political leaders took notice, among them Democrats Mayor Dan Malloy and State House Majority Leader Moira Lyons of Stamford, and Republicans State Senator William Nickerson of Greenwich, Congressman Chris Shays, and Greenwich First Selectman Tom Ragland.
The effort received a setback when, in early 1998, Champion announced it had signed a contract to sell the property to New Canaan-based Toombs Development Co. for the construction of 55 million dollar luxury homes. In reaction, local conservationists launched a year-long effort to block approval of the development scheme by Stamford and Greenwich. The North Mianus Preservation Association, a nearby neighborhood group, formed by Louise Griswold and Blair Murphy, the Mianus River Greenway Alliance, led by Peter Moss, and the Stamford Land Conservation Trust, led by Percy Langstaff, participated in the effort.
The awareness created by Percy Lee Langstaff and others soon proved beneficial. In March of 1999, after negotiating for a year with authorities in Greenwich and Stamford, the Greenwich Planning and Zoning Commission rejected Toombs's plan to build 30 homes on the 70 acre Greenwich property. The Commission cited environmental reasons relating to wetlands, glacial boulders, and possible impact on the Mianus River. The Toombs plan did not go forward.
Public consciousness and concern over the future of Treetops grew in the Fall of 2000 when it became known that International Paper (IP) which had acquired Champion International had signed a letter of intent to sell the property to New York developer Brickman Associates for $15 million. Behind the scenes, the communities of Stamford and Greenwich, the State of Connecticut, and the Trust for Public Land, (TPL) a national facilitator for saving open space, had made clear that they would present a reasonable offer for the property if provided the opportunity. On October 17, IP and the TPL announced an agreement that would allow the protection of 105 acres of the Treetops property, excluding the mansion and its immediate grounds, for a total purchase price of $11.5 million.
To buy 100 days, TPL stepped forward with a deposit of $500,000 which would be refunded if the deal could be closed but forfeited if not. The State of Connecticut DEP agreed to contribute $3.5 million. The sale was contingent on raising the additional $8 million by January 31, 2000. Otherwise, IP would consummate its letter of intent with Brickman. The proposed transaction called for the City of Stamford to purchase a conservation easement for $1.5 million on the 35 acres in Stamford. The Town of Greenwich needed to contribute $3.5 million for a similar easement on the 70 acres in Greenwich. The remaining $3 million would have to be raised entirely from private sources—within 100 days. The agreement was made possible by the collaboration of Governor John Rowland and the Connecticut DEP, the Trust for Public Land, International Paper, Mayor Malloy, key members of the Stamford Board of Representatives, Greenwich First Selectman Lolly Prince, Congressman Shays, Majority Leader Lyons, State Senator Nickerson, Senate Majority Leader George Jepsen from Stamford and State Rep. Dolly Powers of Greenwich.
The Town of Greenwich determined that it would contribute $1.5 million of municipal funds rather than $3.5 million needed and rely upon the Greenwich Land Trust to make up the difference. Saving Treetops thus rested on the ability of the Stamford Land Conservation Trust and the Greenwich Land Trust to raise $5 million in 100 days.
The Treetops legacy is saved
An article in the New York Times entitled "Fund-Raisers Rush to Save Treetops—Seventy Five Days and Counting," printed on Sunday, January 7, 2001, captured the heroic and frenzied efforts of Percy Lee Langstaff and the SLCT: "I'm receiving checks for $25 to $2,000 daily from ordinary citizens who care," said Percy Lee Langstaff, President of the Stamford Land Conservation Trust. "And that's terribly exciting that people care. We're working like crazy. "…. Greenwich Land Trust Vice President David Ogilvy led an extraordinary campaign to raise funds in Greenwich and was quoted as being "blown away" by the willingness of his members and the community to support the effort.
Thousands of citizens responded in an unprecedented show of public support for open space conservation, and the two organizations together raised the required $5 million before the deadline. The Trust for Public Land purchased 94 acres from International Paper and then transferred it to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. Conservation easements were granted to the municipalities of Stamford and Greenwich, the Stamford Land Conservation Trust and the Greenwich Land Trust, and the Connecticut-American Water Company. IP retained ownership of the Treetops mansion and approximately 17 acres of adjoining land, with 11 acres covered by conservation easements.
IP later sold the mansion to SLCT friends Don and Lisa Brownstein, who have carefully restored many of the rooms to their original elegance. Through the generosity of the Brownstein's, Louis Schanker's studio became the home in 2006 of the Treetops Chamber Music Society's annual concert series. http://treetopscms.org/. Fittingly, the studio was the site in 2006 of a tribute to Percy Lee Langstaff, honoring her for her thirty years' service as President of the SLCT.
More than eight decades have passed since Libby Holman first set foot on the grounds of her treasured Treetops and 50 years since she died. Thankfully, the SLCT, community organizations, leaders, and donors fulfilled her passionate desire to preserve her property. The land remains pristine, and the trails are a joy to hike. Treetops, its rich legacy intact, survives for future generations.
Sources: "Treetops: An Aura of Glamour, a Trail of Tragedies," Jack Cavanaugh, NYT, 5/18/97; "Out of Treetops and a Sea of Daffodils, 55 Luxury Homes", Jack Cavanaugh, NYT, 4/26/98; "Fund-Raisers Rush to Save Treetops," Marilyn Shapiro, NYT, 1/7/01; "Dreams that Money Can Buy: The Tragic Life of Libby Holman," Jon Bradshaw, 1985; "Biography for Libby Holman," Jack Backstreet, IMDb.com; "Libby Holman: A Brief Biography," Paul Bowles, planetbowles.com; paulbowles.org; "Montgomery Clift," Patricia Bosworth, 1990; Death in North Carolina's Piedmont, Frances H Casstevens.