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. She agreed to “rush the can” (carry drinks), just to get in the door. It was the age of Scott Joplin, and the teenage girl was carried away by the singers, saloonkeepers, pimps, and prostitutes of the ragtime world. At sixteen, with her mother’s stoic blessing, Ada toured on the African American Theater Owner’s Booking Association (TOBA) vaudeville circuit as part of several singing and dancing trios. It was a rough, uncertain existence, and the TOBA acronym was also said to stand for “Tough on Black Asses.” Eventually, Ada found herself performing at boxer Jack Johnson’s Café Champ side by side with “Blackbird” singer Florence Mills. It was Connie Immerman, eponymous owner of Connie’s Inn in Harlem, however, who gave her the name Bricktop, on account of her red hair.
The newly christened Bricktop came to New York and became a Harlem headliner, only to accept an offer to go to Paris and entertain in a Montmartre nightclub in 1924. These were the days before Josephine Baker’s Revue Negre, when African American entertainers were few and far between in Paris. Bricktop arrived at Le Grand Duc, the club where she was to entertain, and wept at the size of it; she had left the cavernous Connie Inn’s and a twelve-piece band, for a bar barely big enough to fit a dozen people. A kind waiter at Le Grand Duc consoled her, saying that most Montmartre clubs were just the same. His name was Langston Hughes.
Determined to make good, Bricktop went to work, entertaining to a mostly empty club for months, until another American arrived: F. Scott Fitzgerald—Bricktop described him in her memoirs as “a little boy in a man’s body”—who insisted that she drive him home from the club every night. Cole Porter also found his way in, followed by Elsa Maxwell. Porter told Bricktop that she had “talking feet and talking legs” and asked her to give Charleston lessons to his circle of expatriate friends. Before she knew it, the girl from Alderson found herself teaching the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Lady Mendl, and (almost) the three-hundred-pound Aga Khan to do the latest dances. “How does it feel to have royalty kiss this little freckled hand of yours?” the Aga Khan asked her. “I don’t feeling anything. Royalty? They’re only people,” Bricktop replied.
Cole Porter was perhaps the greatest influence on her career, “standing right there behind me,” she wrote, “until I became Bricktop, the one and only.” When it came time to open her own club, it was Porter who insisted that she name it Bricktop’s, knowing it was the lady herself people would come to see. He wrote “Miss Otis Regrets,” one of his most successful songs, in her honor. (The idea for the song emerged when she told Porter, of a lynching in the American South, “Well, that man won’t lunch tomorrow.”) With couture gowns by Edward Molyneux and her signature feather boa draped over one shoulder, Bricktop became a fixture of Paris in the twenties, and her nightclub enjoyed unrivaled success until the outbreak of World War II.
“Bricktop’s,” she explained, “was a combination mail-drop, bank, rehearsal hall, club house—even a neighborhood bar. But it was always chic.” Fred and Adele Astaire practiced the routines they would later bring to Broadway on the club’s floor, Jasha Heifitz would borrow a violin from the band and begin to play, and, later on, two newcomers, a temperamental Gypsy guitarist and a jazz violinist, also entertained nightly: Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Bricktop’s assistant at the club was none other than Mabel Mercer, the high priestess of cabaret singing. But at the center of it all was Bricktop, the lady who—when the moment was right—would sing “Mean To Me” in her broken French (“Voos ait may-chant avec m’wah”) while toting up accounts at the bar.
Paris, largely free at that time from the racism of the United States, made Bricktop into a kind of standard bearer for its community of American expatriates. Linda Porter, a Southerner herself, once asked Bricktop, “Would you rather be white than Negro?” Bricktop replied, “I don’t want to offend you, Mrs. Porter, but to be white and poor? Never!” Bricktop must have known that her special position in Paris, based to some extent on the color of her skin, would be a handicap back home.
She reencountered the extent of America’s prejudice when the war made life for Americans in Paris impossible. No less than Lady Mendl and the Duchess of Windsor assured Bricktop’s safe passage back to New York. Molyneux designed a “homecoming wardrobe” for her, and she returned—to a country she had left fifteen years before—with all the fanfare of a queen. But things were not easy for Bricktop at home. In New York, people did not know what to make of a place like Bricktop’s, or its proprietress. There were jazz joints and there were elegant clubs like 21 and the Stork Club. But society had no place for a hostess and entertainer in an intimate boîte. Bricktop performed sporadically and unsuccessfully in a few New York nightclubs but quickly saw that the city was no place for her to open one of her own.
In 1943, Bricktop packed up again, this time for Mexico City, whose resident bankers and movie stars seemed ripe for her style of entertaining. With a local backer, Bricktop ran a club called the Minuit, the likes of which Mexico City had never seen. “The Spanish are like the English,” Bricktop wrote, “once they like you, they like you, and they like you best if you don’t try to be something you’re not. I was the only singer who never tried to sing in Spanish, and that was the way the Mexicans liked it.” Bricktop brought with her the chic of Paris; her regulars included the actor Cantinflas, whom she described as a saint on earth. Bricktop also found religion in Mexico City. She became a devout Catholic, and at the age of fifty-one took a vow of celibacy. “Lord, never let me be a foolish old woman,” she said.
In 1949, the war over, Bricktop left Mexico City to return to Paris. “You won’t find Paris as it used to be,” a friend warned her when she arrived at the train station. Not only had the strain of war spoiled the lighthearted life that had flourished there, but prejudice toward Americans, and especially African Americans, had taken root. Still, Bricktop wrote, “I was a symbol of a time they remembered with joy and wanted to recapture.” She opened Bricktop’s again in May 1950, but by December, for lack of customers, it shuttered.
The lady herself, now fifty-six, was undaunted. She moved to Rome, and Bricktop’s resurfaced on the Via Veneto, where it catered to movie stars, the new aristocracy of “Hollywood on the Tiber.” Bricktop’s welcomed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra. Martin Luther King, in Europe to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, asked especially to meet her. As the disco craze set in, however, the club began at last to lose its appeal, and Bricktop returned to America in 1965.
“Greatness,” she said, “comes from a person knowing who he is, being satisfied with nothing but the best, and still behaving like a warm and gracious human being.” Bricktop was no singer to speak of, no actress, nor even a beauty, but something even more rare: an entertainer in the complete sense. She died in 1984, age eighty-nine, in New York City.
Those who experienced the atmosphere of her club are mostly gone, too. Other than a single recording and a glorious memoir (Bricktop), there is little to document the atmosphere she created. It is just as difficult to find its parallel today, when most nightclubs are populated by patrons seeking anonymity in dark corners and crowded dance floors. Real intimacy is missing, not only between the audience and a performer, but also in the identification of a place with its proprietor. Apostrophized names for nightclubs and restaurants are out of fashion. But, once, they lent a sense of personal belonging to a place, not only on the part of the owner, but also the clientele.
Elsa Maxwell once said, “You know, I think Bricktop must have been a queen in a former life.”
“No,” Cole Porter replied, “An empress.”
Patrick Monahan is a freelance writer and native New Yorker.