“You know, I think Bricktop must have been a queen in a former life.”
“No, an empress.”
– Elsa Maxwell and Cole Porter
In the first week of women’s history month, we go to the second half of a two-part article about the incredible Ada Smith, or more simply known as, Bricktop. As we reviewed last time, she was an incredible woman who was successful and loved throughout the nightlife in 20’s Paris. We left off on that light note, but just like most of the world, Bricktop’s life changed when World War 2 began, and that is what we will be exploring next.
While Bricktop found great success during her time in Paris, the attitudes of the country shifted when the war began. The country that Bricktop had made her stage and her home was no longer safe for her, and she was forced to return to New York City, closing her club, Chez Bricktop.
Her return to America did not mean a return to the life she had led previously in America though, as she still had all the friends she had gained during her time in Paris. Her return home was secured by the Duchess of Windsor and Lady Mendl, and upon her return, she was greeted with a wardrobe designed by Molyneux.
But while her friends were still there to support her, the city itself was not. She tried performing at some of the more popular clubs during the time, but nothing stuck, and she decided that this was not the place for her. In 1943, she moved again, this time heading to Mexico City and opening a new Chez Bricktop with the help of Doris Duke. Here she found a modicum of the success she had in Paris, and for a while, she stayed there and ran her business the best she could. From all accounts, the city seemed to agree with her. She wrote of her time in Mexico City in her autobiography, Bricktop, by Bricktop saying, “The Spanish are like the English, 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.”
As she found success again, she also found religion, converting to Catholicism and making a vow of celibacy at fifty-one, saying “Lord, never let me be a foolish old woman.”
For a while, she lived in Mexico City happily, but she never forgot her time in Paris. So in 1949, as soon as the war was over, she took the chance to return to her once beloved city. But the war had changed Paris, and upon her return, when a friend told her “You won’t find Paris as it used to be,” They were not lying. Despite the warnings, Bricktop tried to recapture what she had all those years ago by opening Chez Bricktop’s again in 1950. Unfortunately, due to financial problems, it shut down within the year. It was then that she moved to Rome to try one more time to regain what she had back in the first Chez Bricktop.
It was in Rome that Bricktop’s found its feet again and got back to the star-studded glory it had been known for in its first run in Paris. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, and Ava Gardner found their way to her club, and business picked up for a short time. But again, her success was fleeting, and when Disco found its way into popularity, she fell behind. In 1961, her club was forced to close, and she returned once again to America.
It was upon this final return to her home country that she decided to come back as a retired woman, saying: “I'm tired, honey. Tired of staying up all night.”
From that point, she continued to live a good life, even if it was quieter than it had been before. She was still a celebrity, making brief cameos in films and one recording. Her last large public act was to write and release her autobiography alongside James Haskins. She died in 1984 at the age of 89.
Her story is one that is hard to tell, not because there isn’t enough information, but because there is so much. Bricktop was loved fiercely and loyally by patrons, lovers, and almost anyone who met her. That being the case, when one attempts to tell her story, there are so many people who want to share the way she touched their lives. From royalty such as the Duchess of Windsor to incredible activists such as Martin Luther King Jr, people from every walk of life knew her and loved her, which is a rather rare thing. When someone is so well-known, it often comes hand in hand with controversy or having hordes of people hating her, but with Bricktop that isn’t the case. From royalty to busboys, Bricktop made friends, and the value of that cannot be overstated.
It is important to realize how impactful the simple fact she was loved is. Bricktop was a queer woman of colour alive during World War 2, was happy, died of old age, and was loved. That simple fact is such a beautiful reality. It lets us know that, even in the worst of times, there can be pockets of happiness, and that no matter what happens, there is no time in history when queer people have been universally miserable. That time will never come. There have always been happy endings for queer people, and there always will be.
[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