A recent serendipitous find in the Oxfam shop in Belfast and costing all of £1.75, Professor Sharpley-Whiting’s account (she’s a US academic specialising in African-American and Diaspora studies) of the African-American women who travelled to Paris during the roaring 1920s to showcase their creativity away from the restrictive Jim Crow laws of their native land is an illuminating read.
Last month (October) being Black History Month, it struck me as I read that the titular Bricktop was arguably the most famous African-American of Irish heritage that you’ve never heard of. Renowned for her red hair and face full of freckles, she was eulogised in print by F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, had a famous song written for her by Cole Porter, appeared and was mentioned in Woody Allen films and was spoken about by TS Eliot, who said of her humble roots and later success “to her thorn she gave a rose”.
Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith was born in Alderson, West Virginia in 1895. “I was the talk of the town, the first red-haired and freckled Negro baby born in that area,” she later said. It was her shock of red hair that gave her the lifelong nickname of Bricktop. Her grandfather or father (accounts differ) was a white Irish man ‑ family genealogy suggests he was a plantation owner. Bricktop could never forget her Irish roots – or be allowed to forget, as most people who met her would ask her about the red hair and freckles.
As a teenager, Bricktop joined a touring vaudeville group of African-American performers who ended up with a prestigious residency in a Harlem nightclub. But she was affronted by the colour bar and the racism of her native country and after being asked to move to Paris in 1924 to perform in the cabaret at the city’s famed Le Grand Duc venue, she found her calling and the legend of Bricktop began.
Such was her success as a singer, dancer, hostess and businesswoman (“I may not be able to speak French, but I sure know how to count in it,” she once said) she soon opened up her own venue, Chez Bricktop’s ,at 66 Rue Pigalle near Montmartre.
In the mid-1920s Paris was home of the “Lost Generation” ‑ the coterie of expatriate writers and artists as famous now for their heroic bouts of drunkenness as their creative achievements. The drill in those days was simple: by day you met in Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop on the left bank; by night you danced and drank in Bricktop’s on the right bank.
Bricktop’s was an artistic hub, a bank, a post office and a late-night saviour for many a famed literary name. Bricktop would tend the bar, sing on the stage, dance and teach patrons how to do the au courant African-American dance moves. Although a fun and free-wheeling type of venue, Bricktop took no nonsense: the patronne once hurled John Steinbeck out of the club and onto the street for committing the cardinal sin of behaving “ungentlemanly”. A mortified Steinbeck apologised by sending her a taxi full of roses the next day.
Such was her stature of la dame noire aux cheveux roux in Parisian society that when F Scott Fitzgerald was arrested for being drunk and disorderly on the Champs-Élysées he told the police “You can’t arrest me, I’m a friend of Bricktop.” As she told the story to Studs Terkel years later, the police didn’t believe that someone so drunk and disorderly could be friends with the famous Bricktop so they brought Fitzgerald to her home (everyone in Paris knew where Bricktop lived) and when Bricktop vouched for him, he was released without charge.
Fitzgerald said of her later: “My greatest claim to fame is I discovered Bricktop before Cole Porter”, but it is through Porter (who was besotted by her while he lived in Paris) that Bricktop’s legacy still lives on. He wrote for her “Miss Otis Regrets” and used her stories of lynchings in the American south to inform the song’s lyrics.
In addition to being a hostess, singer, dancer, manager, bouncer and accountant, Bricktop was renowned for her bons mots: “Every time I dance, a skinny woman loses her man”. She was known to so many that she called everybody, regardless of rank or stature “Darling”. Introducing people to each other at her club, she would simply say “Darling, have you met Darling?”
With World War II looming, Bricktop sailed back to the US (her ticket was paid for by Wallis Simpson as thanks for teaching her how to dance the Charleston). Making New York her home, she continued performing well into her eighties. Shortly before her death, aged eighty-nine, she received birthday greetings from then President Ronald Reagan but perhaps then New York mayor, Ed Koch, summed up Bricktop best when he presented her with a special award ‑ a “Certificate of Appreciation for Just Being Herself”.
Bricktop’s Paris: African American Women in Paris between the Two World Wars, by Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting, is published by State University of New York Press.