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Half-Life

March 21, 2013 | by

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“Sorry, wasn’t there a cabaret here?” a British woman asked the waiter. He was laying a napkin on the table and put a glass of white wine on top of it. For a second, I thought the woman was talking to me.

“Oh yes,” the waiter said, “this part of the bar used to be the Oak Room. They only put that wall up a couple of months ago.” He tapped a panel between her table and mine, then put an identical glass of wine in front of me.

The Algonquin Hotel’s Blue Bar lived up to its name: neon tubes snaked clear around the narrow room, reflecting their blue glare on its oak panels and plastic banquettes. Hirschfeld prints covered the walls and Sinatra crooned from a speaker in the ceiling. I wanted to answer the woman, but found myself far away from her. 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a baritone voice announced, “The Oak Room is proud to present … Steve Ross!”

The crowd applauded. Candles flickered inside their glass holders. A curtain at one end of the room parted, and Steve appeared in Noël Coward’s emerald smoking jacket. He wove through the tables, making his way to the grand piano. The crowd hushed, and he began to play Porter, Gershwin, and the saloon songs he knew I liked.

“If it isn’t the jeunesse dorée!” he beamed at me after the show, shaking hands with people as they filed out of the Oak Room.

“Did you know,” he told me when most of them were gone, “that the first Algonquin Round Table was right over over there?” He pointed to a corner of the Oak Room, just on the other side of the door from where we were standing. Waiters were clearing the tables; the baritone in the light booth was pulling on his coat. Alexander Woolcott might as well have been lingering over lunch. Read More »

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Alberta Sings the Blues

March 1, 2012 | by

I never really got the Blues, though I have certainly gotten the blues. Maybe that’s why, until recently, I had never heard of Alberta Hunter and why her recordings and I are now inseparable. If Bessie Smith’s blues are a wail to the world, Alberta’s are a conversational tête à tête. She wrote and sang throughout her life but refused to be classified as a singer of any particular genre. “Just call me a singer of songs,” she insisted.

Last summer, a pianist friend handed me Amtrak Blues, an album Alberta recorded in 1978, at age eight-three. “You’ll get this,” he assured me. When I put it on, a frank, earthy voice radiated from the stereo speakers, and I started wondering who this lady could be. I found photos of a moon-eyed Chicago saloon singer with gold hoop earrings, a Parisian flapper in a filmy evening dress, a nurse in whites, a USO entertainer in khakis, and a sibylline old lady.

There was, as it turned out, a variegated life behind such variety. “I’ve been more places by accident than most people have been on purpose,” Alberta once quipped. A singer, actress, composer, and journalist, she was a kind of musical Marco Polo whose talents were as diverse as the many places her career carried her. Read More »

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To Bricktop, on Her Belated Birthday

August 15, 2011 | by

Photograph by Jack Robinson. Courtesy The Jack Robinson Archive.

Whenever she was asked about her start in the world, the legendary saloonkeeper Bricktop—born Ada Smith—replied:

On the fourteenth day of August 1894, in the little town of Alderson, West-by-God-Virginia, the doctor said, “Another little split-tail,” and on that day Bricktop was born.

T. S. Eliot later added, “…and on that day Bricktop was born. And to her thorn, she gave a rose.”

Bricktop is a not a familiar name to most people today, though the crumbs of her extraordinary life are indispensable to the telling of a certain moment in the history of Americans in Paris and café society everywhere. Woody Allen’s latest movie, Midnight in Paris, could hardly recall the days of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, or the Fitzgeralds without Zelda crying, “Let’s go to Bricktop’s!”

Ada Smith, like many African Americans of her day, was born poor. Her mother, who ran a boarding house, had a passion for cleanliness and a self-confessed trigger-fast Irish temper. Around 1900, the family moved from Virginia to the South Side of Chicago, where Ada got her first taste of the theater. She hung around the stage doors of Chicago’s great vaudeville houses, waiting for the likes of Sophie Tucker, a belting singer known as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” to emerge. But it was the back rooms of saloons, with their sawdust-covered floors, that captured her imagination. Read More »

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