NB: okay, so Bricktop’s club was up in Montmartre, taking us on a bit of a detour from our Left Bank travels. But seeing as her clientele were so strongly Left Bank associated, I’m sure you’ll forgive me.
For those readers who have watched Woody Allen’s mixed bag of a film, Midnight in Paris, Bricktop might be a familiar name. On one of Gil’s time travelling adventures to 1920s Paris, Scott and Zelda invite him to ‘come along to Bricktop’s’, an invite that surely rattled across the late night city on many occasions.
Born Ada Smith in Alderson, West Virginia, Bricktop was one of the outstanding black women entertainers who made their home in the more liberal Parisian atmosphere – including Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, Florence Mills and Mabel Mercer. Nicknamed Bricktop for the red hair she inherited from her Irish father, Smith ran the club Chez Brick-Top in Paris’ Montmartre from 1924.
Smith’s career began in Chicago, where her family moved to the city after the death of her father. Growing up, her imagination was captured by the sweat and sawdust of the saloon bar scene. She’d hang around the stage doors waiting for the singers she loved to emerge from the ragtime filled atmosphere inside. Her persistent presence led to her getting a job carrying drinks, and from there she fulfilled her dream of appearing on the stage with her heroines.
It wasn’t long before her talents took her to Harlem. But – as with so many extraordinary women of the period – it was when she accepted an invitation to perform in Paris that her career really took off.
Having become used to appearing on the big stages of Harlem and Chicago, the shadowy, intimate venues of Paris were a bit of a shock to Bricktop. But once she discovered that most Montmartre bars were of this smaller, boîte set-up, she set to work, singing and dancing and generally establishing herself as the kind of woman anyone who was anyone in Paris should know. It wasn’t long before she struck up a friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who she called ‘a little boy in a man’s body’. Fitzgerald, almost always in a drunken state by the end of any boozy evening, would ask her to drive him home from the club every night.
As her reputation grew, more and more people flocked to see Bricktop. After Cole Porter commented that her dancing talent meant she had ‘talking feet and talking legs,’ she gained a reputation as a dance teacher par excellence, and it became the fashion for Parisian celebrities to arrive at her club during the day to learn from her how to do the latest American dances. In the evening, her dance floor welcomed performances from Fred and Adele Astaire, Mabel Mercer, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Before totting up the night’s takings, Bricktop would take to the stage herself, singing one of her standards while wearing a couture gown and draped in a feather boa. Often she’d perform Miss Otis Regrets, which Cole Porter wrote especially for her.
Paris in the 1920s offered a type of freedom and liberation to women that wasn’t available to her back home in the USA. This was perhaps even more potent for black women living in segregated America, where lynchings were an almost daily occurrence and racial prejudice was written into law. Things were not perfect – far from it – and no one would claim that 1920s Paris was free from racism. However, lack of official segregation did allow black women more opportunities to live and work, and this was especially true for entertainers like Bricktop and her contemporary (and rumoured one-time lover) Josephine Baker who also escaped a life of poverty through her passion and talent for performance.
Bricktop occupied a special place in Paris society that she knew her background would not enable her to enjoy back home in the States. This was borne out when the outbreak of World War Two forced her to return to New York where she re-encountered racial prejudice and struggled to establish the kind of Parisian boîte that had made her such a success story in Montmartre.
Undaunted by the difficulties of New York, Bricktop travelled to Mexico City, back to Paris, and then on to Rome where her club attracted names as starry as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. When Martin Luther King travelled to Europe, he requested to meet the woman who had done so much to connect the cultural movements of inter-war Europe with African-American music, dance, art and literature.
Unlike Cole Porter or Scott Fitzgerald, Bricktop isn’t a household name. But she really was a lynchpin of the Paris scene in the 1920s. Her club was intimate and welcoming – a home for the expats and the writers and the artists, a place where Man Ray would prop up the bar and Robert McAlmon would drink the night away while Django Reinhardt provided the soundtrack. Along with Josephine Baker and Mabel Mercer and many more pioneering women, Bricktop shone a path for African-American women living in Europe – providing a model for a new kind of woman, a new kind of life, and became a standard-bearer for her fellow expats making their home in Paris.
I’ll leave the last word to her indomitable self: Greatness comes from a person knowing he is, being satisfied with nothing but the best, and still behaving like a warm and gracious human being.