Bricktop is one of those names from Paris in the '20s--names like Sylvia Beach, Robert McAlmon, Gerald Murphy, Alice B. Toklas--that for most people today evoke a vague nostalgia and a certain bewilderment: Yes, it's all very nice, but what on earth was a Bricktop? Well, here are the answers, in the great lady's engaging autobiography.
She was born 89 years ago this week in West Virginia and christened Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith; she called herself Ada until a number of years later when a New York vaudevillian named Barron Wilkins checked out her "mop of red hair" and announced: "I think I'll call you Bricktop." Her father was black, her mother seven-eighths white; Bricktop herself is light-complexioned, and has moved with equal ease in black and white society, though she identifies strongly with black causes.
She got into show business in Chicago, where she moved as a young girl. She sang in saloons, then in vaudeville theaters, making her way to New York in 1922, when "Harlem was really jumpin'." She performed at Barron's Exclusive Club, making big money in tips and rubbing elbows with the celebrities of cafe' society and the demi-monde with whom she has kept company ever since. Within two years her reputation had grown to the point that she was offered, and accepted, a job in Paris.
It was there that she moved, over the years, from cafe' singer to minor legend. She established the first of several clubs, Bricktop's, and christened it with a party for the Prince of Wales. He was only the first of the notable and notorious to be entertained by her; as her collaborator James Haskins observes, "In Bricktop's story there is such an array of famous names and places that the mind short-circuits." They liked her not merely because they enjoyed her singing, but because she was stylish, trustworthy and discreet:
"Mostly, though, I just naturally knew how to act. I never got confused about who I was. I always knew my place. People today think that's a terrible thing to say. I get criticized for it. I don't mean I thought I was any less than anyone else, or that anyone was better than me. The rich and famous, royalty, they're just people--they go to the bathroom just like you and me. But that doesn't mean there aren't certain rules to go by in life. I was a saloonkeeper, a hostess. My job was to make my clients feel at home. That meant being their friend in Bricktop's, but I usually didn't see them outside the club--and didn't want to."
Knowing how to amuse the rich, the royal, the bored and other degenerates without debasing oneself in the process is a considerable skill, and Bricktop seems always to have possessed it. In fact, she is a much more interesting person than most of the household names who flit through the pages of her life story: a tough, resilient, resourceful, humorous, loyal woman who has displayed an impressive talent for landing on her own two feet.
She has often done so, to be sure, with more than a little help from her friends--in particular from Cole Porter, who supported her in various ways, and from a number of heiresses who took a shine to her. Wealthy pals have backed her nightclub ventures, provided food and lodging in difficult times, and helped her get the attention of the press; she has received their favors without the slightest display of obsequiousness, but rather as her just desserts.
Bricktop got out of Paris in the fall of 1939, just ahead of the Nazis. She returned to New York, where she had mixed successes in a number of engagements; Paris for her, it seems, was not an exportable feast. From New York she went to Mexico City, where things went better, and then, in 1950, she returned to Paris. Going home is never easy, but she made a good job of it:
"Bricktop's came back to Paris in May 1950. The opening was sensational--so jammed that people were sitting on the floor. Arturo Lopez bought some lovely gowns for me. Schiaparelli designed them and did her usual brilliant job. Remembering how I had worked with feather boas before, she created a series of them that I changed throughout the evening. That was the beginning of the revival of the feather boa."
Now Bricktop lives in comfort in New York. If the years have slowed her mind, there is no evidence of it in her autobiography. She does not have an especially winning way with an anecdote, and it's something of a pity that her sense of decorum does not permit her to talk out of school about her celebrated customers, but the point is that her own story is what really matters. This she tells with great zeal and affection, and with a quiet dignity that is as impressive as it is appealing.