"She was a lady of the dawn who drank only champagne and expected a rose from every male visitor."
– Jim Haskins
To wrap up Black History Month, we are going to do another two-part article looking at a woman who was the center of the night scene in Paris during the 20’s. We will look at a woman who was not only talented in her own right, but also fostered the talent of the people around her, and made connections with some of the most incredible rising stars of her day. We will discuss the impact of a woman who was loved by almost everyone she interacted with.
This woman was named Ada Smith but went by the name Bricktop. Although she was a force of nature who created one of the most well-known meeting places for artists and socialites at the time, she gets left out of discussions about the lost generation. So today, we hope to rectify this mistake by looking at the life of the wonderful woman called Bricktop.
Bricktop was born in West Virginia. From childhood, she was an entertainer; she took to the theatre in a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin when she was five, and only went up from there. Though she had a talent for both singing and dancing, her love was about being an entertainer rather than following any one skill. By the age of sixteen, she had joined TOBA (African American Theater Owner’s Booking Association) and was working on the vaudeville circuit. After that, she was picked up to work at a cafe, singing alongside Florence Mills.
From here on, her story is very much a star studded one. From her first steps into show business, Bricktop found herself surrounded with some of the most incredible people alive during that time. She moved from New York to Paris, where she worked at a tiny club, and she wept at the size, only to be comforted by another person who we have written about, Langston Hughes. At this point, he was not the incredible and well-known poet he would become, but he was kind. He brought her soup and sat with her until she felt better, and the two became friends. Later, Langston said “You liked [Brickstop] right away, she liked everybody and made everybody like her. . . . Bricktop was simply a good old girl of the kind folks call ‘regular… Bricktop was the toast of Montmartre, with dukes and princes at her tables”.
To have the poetic giant Langston Hughes speak that well of you is an accomplishment on its own, but that is not where Bricktop stopped. She continued working in that club, and continued charming the people she met, including Scott F. Fitzgerald, who would always be proud that he was among the first to discover her before she was famous, saying, “my only claim to fame is that I discovered Bricktop before Cole Porter.” Cole Porter, whose claim to fame was his songwriting, came soon after, and the friendship the two struck lasted their lifetimes. Their places in each other's lives were important enough to be remembered even today.
Bricktop spoke of her friendship with the man fondly, believing the man to be a part of the reason she became who she was, writing that he was “standing right there behind me until I became Bricktop, the one and only.”
The list of famous people she charmed grew, soon including royalty such as Aga Khan, who said “How does it feel to have royalty kiss this little freckled hand of yours?” to which she replied, “I don’t feeling anything. Royalty? They’re only people.”
It was this familiarity that played a large part in why people adored Bricktop so much. While she was an incredible person, even she admitted “I'm no singer, I'm a personality. Nobody ever came to hear me; they came to see me.” And that seemed to be true. While many came to the club to learn the newest dance moves from her, they stayed because of her charisma. At a certain point, she had enough people who adored her that, with the help of Cole Porter, she opened her own club. Cole Porter insisted she called it “Bricktop’s” because he knew it was her that would draw people into the club.
And draw them she did. From the beginning of her club, she saw only success; famous people from around the world came. Fred and Adele Astaire practiced their routines at the club before they would bring them to Broadway. Jasha Heifitz would come and borrow a violin from the band to play for the club. Later on, the Romani performers Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli became regulars at the club. And again, we find another one of the people we have discussed in a previous article in Bricktop’s life: Josephine Baker.
After Baker had died, Bricktop told Josephine Baker’s son, Jean-Claude Baker, that the two had had a brief affair. The two worked together throughout their lives, Bricktop helping Baker grow her reputation in Paris. She also helped push forward the career of the incredible singer Mabel Mercer, who was her assistant at Bricktop’s.
Not only did she encourage incredible artists, but she inspired incredible art, including a song which Cole Porter wrote for her called “Miss Otis Regrets.” All the famous artists at the time were regulars at her establishment and devoted to her. Once, after kicking John Steinbeck out for “ungentlemanly” behaviour, he bought her a cab full of roses to get back into her good graces.
During her time in Paris, she would write about how Paris was a much better place for women of colour to live than America. These articles would bring a wave of people of colour to Paris hoping to find better lives, and while she praised the country for the opportunities it gave people of colour, she was one of the largest parts of that. She worked to give preforming opportunities to other people of colour, such as the ones we mentioned before, but also the brilliant Duke Ellington.
Her time in Paris was a fabulous one, and in that time, she placed herself into some of the most loved members of the lost generation, not through writing or painting, but through sheer likability. It was not to last though. The war came, and she was forced back to New York. We will explore her life there in the second part of this article.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Patrick M. (August 15, 2011) To Bricktop, on Her Belated Birthday. Retrieved March 5, 2017
Albin K. (February 1, 1984) BRICKTOP, CABARET QUEEN IN PARIS AND ROME, DEAD, Retrieved March 5, 2017
Steven N. (October, 1, 2015) Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith: Once the Grande Dame of Paris’ Nightclub Scene. Retrieved March 5, 2017
MARIARYCHKOVAA (March 26, 2014) Ada “Bricktop” Smith & Chez Bricktop’s night club. Retrieved March 5, 2017
Christopher P. (October 24, 2012) Fabulous Dead People: Bricktop Retrieved March 5, 2017