29 Jun Bricktop’s Magic – Showing Up With the Stars
Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Smith, better known as Bricktop, was a staple of the Paris social scene.
This profile is included in a three-part series of Paris Pathfinders, authored by historian Julia Browne. More on Julia’s Walking the Spirit tours can be found here.
Paris Pathfinders Collection
Ada “Bricktop” Smith
(August 14, 1894 – February 1, 1984)
Rewind to the “roaring 20s” in the dazzling city of lights. Black Montmartre — absent Jim Crow barriers — sat atop the lower slopes of a Paris neighborhood, beckoning rich Europeans, African princes and American movie stars. They celebrated with magnums of champagne and danced the Charleston. Freed from the dictates of segregation, white Americans and Black Americans hung out, side by side, in Black-run clubs.
By day, it resembled any other neighborhood in the city. Busy French mothers pulling along laughing children, fragrant bakeries wafting the air with daily bread, taxi stands, cafes and bustling waiters all managing the business of the day. By night, African American culture and entrepreneurship transformed the place into Harlem-on-the-Seine.
One woman, popularly known as Bricktop parlayed her warmth and sky-high ambition into a bridge traversing class, nationalism, and cultures. Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith was born in 1894 in West Virginia. She trained on the vaudeville stages on Chicago’s South Side before headlining swanky clubs in New York. Nicknamed ‘Bricktop’ for her reddish hair, at 28 she was successful, and bored.
She dreamed of owning and managing her own nightclub, impossible in Jim Crow America. So in 1924 when the call to work in Paris came, she pounced, expecting her Paris debut to start off just as glamorous.
Le Grand Duc turned out to be tiny, with an even smaller clientele. Swallowing her disappointment, she got on with it. The manager, Eugene Bullard, had distinguished himself as the first African American aviator trained within the Foreign Legion in WWI. As 1920s Paris went crazy for ‘Negro’ art, music and entertainers, this now savvy entrepreneur realized that the survival of his club demanded a bona fide African American performer. This red-haired singer with a pleasing freckled face lived up to the promise.
The patrons ballooned. Bricktop’s gracious, hospitable style turned celebrities into loyal clientele. Little did she guess that while her performance talents were limited, even by her accounts, she had a knack for sparking creativity and winning repeat audiences.
While she sang out front, in the back of the club a budding poet fresh from Harlem, Langston Hughes, was pairing her rhythms with words as he washed the dishes and soon created the literary form of jazz poetry.
By 1926, Bricktop flung the doors open to a roomier venue that now carried her name. Chez Bricktop was billed as the venue for the wealthy and the aristocratic. Surrounding her in a protective cocoon were financially supportive patrons of the arts who fought over her. In her presence some of their finest work blossomed. Cole Porter wrote the song ‘Miss Otis Regrets’ for her. T.S. Eliot composed poems in her honor.
Even as the stock market crashed in the U.S. her second bigger club did even better.
An innate nurturer, Bricktop fostered camaraderie and a community-within-a-community for modern Black women. Balancing loneliness with the desire to succeed, they journeyed to Paris to reshape their lives, developing their talents and scholarship. While Bricktop kept an eye on the business of her club, she made space for her compatriots to shine. They included singers Alberta Hunter and British Mabel Mercer, trumpeter Valaida Snow, writer Gwendolyn Bennett, artists Augusta Savage and Lois Mailou Jones. The legend goes that Josephine Baker, who arrived a year after Bricktop, was shown the ropes by the dancer turned saloon owner.
Unlike most African American women abroad at the time, Bricktop gave domestic bliss a try. She married New Orleans saxophonist Peter Conge in 1929 and they lived happy, if not somewhat independent lives in their country home in Bougival. That charming town facing the Seine River was made fashionable by Impressionist painters Turner, Monet, Renoir and many others.
Along with connecting people across race, class and nationality, Bricktop inspired a far-reaching bicultural exchange. In the club’s atmosphere of openness and international synergy two young French musicians – the future virtuosos guitarist Django Reinhardt and jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli – soaked up the latest recordings and live performances nightly. Then in 1937 they went on to create with other eager jazz enthusiasts the Jazz Hot movement. Out of that movement launched Europe’s first jazz magazine, and the first recognition of jazz as an art form through jazz criticism. This also solidified French jazz.
Just before the outbreak of WWII, Bricktop reluctantly returned to the U.S, having left her indelible mark on the intertwined and ongoing French-American relationship. The show woman never stopped entertaining, touring and performing well into her 80s.