WHO WAS ADA BEATRICE QUEEN VICTORIA LOUISE SMITH… aka Bricktop… aka The Doyenne of Cafe Society?
Bricktop was a West Virginia-born, half-Black and half-Irish dancer, singer, vaudevillian, and - as she called herself - saloon-keeper, who took Chicago then New York then Paris by storm, during WWI and WWII.
Bricktop gave Duke Ellington one of his first big breaks in the nightclubs of NYC by getting him booked at clubs there early in his career, then moved to Paris in 1924, where she started out teaching the latest dances, such as the Charleston and the Black Bottom, to guests at Cole Porter’s parties.
Bricktop soon ran popular Paris jazz clubs the The Music Box and Le Grand Duc before opening Chez Bricktop, at 66 rue Pigalle. She worked with Langston Hughes when he was just a busboy, hired Mabel Mercer to headline at Chez Bricktop, and put on other soon-to-be-famous performers such as Josephine Baker, Fats Waller, Django Rheihardt, Stephane Grappelli, and many others.
Bricktop had clubs in Paris AND Mexico City AND Rome!
Cole Porter wrote “Miss Otis Regrets” expressly for Bricktop. Rheinhardt and Grappelli wrote the song “Bricktop” for her. F. Scott Fitzgerald mentions Chez Bricktop in his short story, Babylon Revisited. She taught the Duke & Duchess of Windsor how to do the Charleston in the middle of her club one knight. She threw John Steinbeck out of her club for “ungentlemanly behavior” and only allowed him back after he sent her a taxi full of roses!
Bricktop had a popular radio program in Paris, which she stopped at the beginning of WWI, when she relocated to Mexico City and opened a club there. After that war she moved back to Europe, opening Bricktop’s, in Monaco, until the second world war began. She eventually moved back to the United States.
Bricktop appeared in Jack Jordan’s 1974 film, Honeybaby, Honeybaby, playing herself. She also made a cameo appearance - once again, as herself - in Woody Allen’s 1983 film, Zelig. She died well into old age, in her Manhattan apartment, and is buried in the Bronx, at Woodlawn cemetary.
Some of Bricktop’s papers and personal effects can be found in the Manuscripts Archives And Rare Books Library (MARBL) at Emory University, in Atlanta, GA.
So now you know - you ain’t really fly until you’re Bricktop Fly!
Happy Black History YEAR!