- Jim Haskins
Bricktop (14 August 1894–31 January 1984), entertainer and nightclub operator, was born in Alderson, West Virginia, the daughter of Thomas Smith, a barber, and Hattie E. (maiden name unknown), a domestic worker. Christened Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia, because her parents did not wish to disappoint the various neighbors and friends who offered suggestions for naming her, Bricktop received her nickname because of her red hair when she was in her late twenties from Barron Wilkins, owner of a nightclub called Barron’s Exclusive Club in Prohibition Harlem.
Bricktop’s father died when she was four, and her mother moved with the children to Chicago to be near relatives. Hattie Smith worked as a domestic in Chicago, and her children attended school. Bricktop showed early musical talent and interest in performing. She made her stage debut as a preschooler, playing the part of Eliza’s son Harry in a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Haymarket Theatre. As an adolescent, she had the opportunity to perform onstage again when she was hired as part of the chorus for a show at the Pekin Theatre. She quit school at age sixteen to pursue a career as an entertainer, first touring with (Flournoy) Miller and (Aubrey) Lyles, a well-known black comedy team.
After the Miller and Lyles show folded, Bricktop toured with a variety of black vaudeville acts across the northern half of the United States. In the early 1920s she returned to Chicago and worked as a saloon performer at Roy Jones’s and the Cafe Champ, owned by heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. In 1922 she went to Harlem, where she worked in Connie’s Inn, among other nightclubs, and received her nickname. In 1924 she was invited to work in Paris at Le Grand Duc, a tiny club in Montmartre managed by Eugene Bullard, an African American who had distinguished himself during World War I in the French Foreign Legion and the Lafayette Escadrille.
Never a great song stylist, Bricktop attracted the attention of white Americans in Paris because of her charming personality and her ability to make them feel at home. T. S. Eliot wrote a poem for her. F. Scott Fitzgerald liked to say, “My greatest claim to fame is that I discovered Bricktop before Cole Porter.” But it was her discovery by Porter, who later wrote the song “Miss Otis Regrets” for her, that put the imprimatur of acceptance upon her. Under Porter’s aegis, Bricktop became a darling of the American celebrity set in Paris. By the fall of 1926, Bricktop had opened the first Bricktop’s nightclub in Paris, catering to such American luminaries as Fitzgerald, Elsa Maxwell, Tallulah Bankhead, Ernest Hemingway, and Barbara Hutton, and to international celebrities like the Aga Khan. “Everybody belonged, or else they didn’t bother coming to Bricktop’s more than once,” she wrote in her autobiography.
A succession of Bricktop’s nightclubs followed, both in Paris and, in the summertime, at Biarritz, where Bricktop claimed to have cradled the romance of the duke of Windsor and the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. Among the careers she nurtured was that of the British-born black singer Mabel Mercer.
The stock market crash in the United States in October 1929 had no effect, at first, on the “gay” life in Paris. In December 1929 Bricktop married Peter Ducongé, an African-American saxophonist from New Orleans, and the two purchased a country home in Bougival, outside Paris. Childless, each led an independent life, as well as sharing a life together. Some years after their marriage, however, Peter had an affair with a young African-American singer whom Bricktop had taken under her wing in Paris. On learning of her husband’s infidelity, Bricktop refused to sleep with him again, although she never divorced him. He died in 1967.
In 1939, as war in Europe and the invasion of France seemed imminent, the duchess of Windsor (the former Wallis Simpson) and Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe) helped Bricktop escape from Paris to New York, where her friend Mabel Mercer had already relocated. Mercer managed to find a niche as a singer in New York cabarets, but Bricktop’s special talents as a self-described “saloonkeeper par excellence” went unappreciated. Bankrolled by the tobacco heiress Doris Duke, she relocated to Mexico City, where she successfully ran clubs until the war in Europe was over. In 1943 she converted to Catholicism and remained a devout Catholic for the rest of her life.
Returning to Paris in 1950, she found her old stomping grounds much changed, as was the clientele. After trying and failing to revive the prewar atmosphere, Bricktop removed to Rome, where on the Via Veneto from 1951 to 1965 she recreated the feeling of the old Bricktop’s for a new celebrity crowd, primarily American film stars. The romance of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor first made the gossip columns when they were seen together at the Rome Bricktop’s during the filming of Cleopatra. To Bricktop her career in Rome was secondary to the golden years in Paris, and she never fully accepted the Hollywood film stars as the nouveau royalty.
When Bricktop’s older sister Blonzetta became ill in 1965, Bricktop returned to Chicago to nurse her and, after her death, went back to straighten out her affairs. Blonzetta left Bricktop a substantial inheritance. In her early seventies, Bricktop moved to Los Angeles, returned briefly to Europe, and then in 1970 settled in New York City. She made a recording of “So Long, Baby” with Cy Coleman, briefly ran a club owned by Huntington Hartford and then one called Soerabaja, and appeared from time to time at clubs in Chicago, at the Playboy Club in London, and at “21” in New York. Ill health caused her to cease working in 1979.
In August 1983 Bricktop published her autobiography, written with Jim Haskins. Five months later she died in New York City. To the end she was a lady of the dawn who drank only champagne and expected a rose from every male visitor.
Bricktop’s papers are in the collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden foundations. Besides her autobiography, Bricktop (1983), only two other books contain considerable information about her life, Kay Boyle and Robert Altman, Being Geniuses Together, 1920–1930 (1968), and Jim Haskins, Mabel Mercer: A Life (1968). A substantial obituary appears in Rolling Stone, 29 Mar. 1984.
- Johnson, Jack (1878-1946), the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion
- Bullard, Eugène Jacques (1895-1961), combat pilot
- Eliot, T. S. (26 September 1888–04 January 1965), poet, critic, and editor
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott (1896-1940), writer
- Porter, Cole (09 June 1891–15 October 1964), songwriter
- Maxwell, Elsa (1883-1963), international hostess, songwriter, and newspaper columnist
- Bankhead, Tallulah (1902-1968), actress
- Hemingway, Ernest (1899-1961), writer
- Hutton, Barbara Woolworth (1912-1979), socialite
- Simpson, Wallis Warfield (1896-1986), duchess of Windsor
- Mercer, Mabel (1900-1984), cabaret/concert singer and song stylist
- de Wolfe, Elsie (1865-1950), actress and interior decorator
- Duke, Doris (1912-1993), heiress and philanthropist
- Burton, Richard (1925-1984), actor