Monday, August 29, 2011

#BookReview: Bricktop - Bricktop with James Haskins


Before Josephine Baker conquered Paris, there was Bricktop.  Born Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith in 1894, the red-headed child of a black father and biracial mother would go on to be called Bricktop first by her fellow entertainers and eventually the world.  While I had read articles with brief mentions of Bricktop before, I was compelled to read her memoir after listening to Bette Midler's version of Miss Otis Regrets and learning that it was written by Cole Porter for Bricktop to perform.



Ethyl Waters version




Bette Midler version

So who was this Bricktop that she could compel one of the most prolific song writers to compose a song especially for her to perform? She's the same woman about whom F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot wrote. As a teenager she began performing in Chicago clubs. Traveling around the country in entertainment troupes, she eventually landed in New York where she was encouraged to go to Paris.


Opening her own club in Paris, specifically Monmartre, Bricktop's became the place to see and be seen in 1920s & 1930s Europe.  Her tales of teaching the Prince of Wales how to do the Charleston or waiting tables with Langston Hughes would almost seem unbelievable if there weren't pictures to back up her story.  At a time when America had little use for its black citizens, Bricktop created a world of her own in a Europe that appreciated her.

Black entertainers living abroad, European royalty, American writers, composers, etc. all found their way to Bricktop's at some point.  With the exception of Josephine Baker, it seemed that everyone that stumbled into her establishment was welcomed.  Per Bricktop's account of their encounters, Josephine was brought to her shortly upon her arrival to France.  Brick was asked to help her adjust to life in Europe by teaching her about the fashions, where to go, with whom to hang, etc.  Brick believed in planning ahead and saving, while Josephine believed in living in the moment and overindulging.  Heads butted and eventually the ladies stopped speaking.


Forced to leave Europe in 1939 due to the war, Bricktop returned to New York to find that the integrated life she had taken for granted in Europe still did not exist in America.  While she had been able to open clubs in France and amass enough money to own her own villa, in New York she was relegated to segregated clubs and working for much less to which she was accustomed.




Turning her sights in a new direction, Bricktop headed for Mexico, where she proceeded to open yet another successful club.  Two years into her stay she was forced to leave the country to apply for a formal work visa.  Her plan was to return to Mexico, but instead found herself back in Europe.  Her first stop was Paris, but upon finding it changed by the war and the racist attitudes the Europeans had learned from American soldiers, Brick set her sites on Rome and enjoyed a successful career there until her retirement.



Returning to America to care for her ailing sister, Brick found herself with a small inheritance when her sister passed.  She used this money to travel freely and found an accepting audience in Los Angeles and this time, New York. Bricktop passed in 1984 in her apartment in New York at the age of 90, having lived a life full enough to satisfy anyone.



"Anywhere I entertain becomes Bricktop's. Running a saloon is the only thing I know and I know it backwards and forwards. As for me, it's nice to be mingling around again. Not working nights began to wear on me." - Bricktop

300 pp
Published August 1999






Originally published April 9, 2010
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