“Greatness comes from a person knowing who [s]he is, being satisfied with nothing but the best, and still behaving like a warm and gracious human being.”
Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith was born in 1894 in rural West Virginia. Ada’s family went north to Chicago when she was four. By the time she was 14, she was hanging around vaudeville theaters and the saloons that accommodated Black performers (plus the accompanying underworld).
Dubbed “Bricktop” for her red hair, her singing and dancing were eventually noticed, and she began to appear on vaudeville stages, contracted through the aegis of the hated-but-no-alternative “Theater Owners Booking Association” — TOBA, nicknamed “Tough on Black Asses.”
She tired of the unpredictability of the TOBA and went to Harlem after the World War I, where she wowed ‘em enough that she headlined at Connie’s Inn, a huge place with a 12-man orchestra. Sammy Richardson, the doyen of Black performers in Europe, offered her a gig at Le Grand Duc in Paris. Paris? Sure!
After a terrible voyage over in 1924, wracked with seasickness and doubts, Bricktop arrived at Le Grand Duc. It was a tiny, grimy spot. Broke and hungry, she burst into tears.
A kind waiter tried to cheer her with food, drink and general warmth. He was the 22-year-old Langston Hughes, who became a close friend. Determined to make it, Bricktop set to work and began creating a name for herself, treating people like old friends, hiring the best musicians, serving the strongest drinks …
But her now friend Cole Porter decided she needed her own club and put his money up with hers to open Club Bricktop in the Montmartre. People came for the atmosphere and equal treatment for all. Among the 300 or so jazz clubs in Paris in the late ‘20s, Bricktop’s was special. In fact, it was where musicians and staff from other clubs gathered when they finished working.
Busboys, expats, Parisians, the rich and the broke, all carried on among artists and writers, well known and not. You could see Bricktop teaching people like the Prince of Wales how to do the Black Bottom (the dance). She wore clothes made for her by her confidante Elsa Schiaparelli. Naturally, her lover Josephine Baker was often there (a husband was in the mix too for a short time).
Harlem came to Paris with “L’Art et les Noirs.” The fact that you could be Black and eat where you wanted, live where you wanted, and love who you wanted contrasted so deeply with America. She hosted singers, musicians, and dancers, like Mable Mercer, King Oliver, and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller.
Cole Porter could be seen pounding the piano and asking “How’m I doin’ Brickie? How’m I doin’?” (he was trying to woo young men).
One very late night, Bricktop’s good friend, the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, was arrested for cavorting in a very important Parisian fountain. He kept shouting that he was a friend of Bricktop’s, so they couldn’t arrest him!
The gendarmes dragged Fitzgerald to Bricktop’s apartment building — everyone knew where both her club and apartment were. The doorman got Bricktop to get dressed and go down to the lobby. Yes, she did know him, but he couldn’t come in, as he would drip water all over the rug.
World War II meant fleeing Paris in 1940 — Nazis did not like Americans, and they really loathed Black people. Returning to New York, she tried to set up a new club, but couldn’t deal with U.S. racism. She eventually returned to postwar Paris, but by then Americans were strongly disliked, as were Black people.
She went to Rome and established a club that catered to film royalty like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. But she tired of the long hours and returned home in 1965. After that, she occasionally performed.
Bricktop published her autobiography in 1984 and months later died in her New York City bed with an amazing legacy. Many of her papers are housed at Emory University.