Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith aka "Bricktop"
Bricktop was born in Alderson, West Virginia, in 1894 to a mother who had herself been born into slavery two years before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father ran a whites-only barbershop, dying when Bricktop was four.
None of this stood between "Brick" (or "Bricky") and teaching a 300-pound Aga Khan to do the Charleston, or hiring an unknown Welsh soprano named Mabel Mercer, or getting Hoyningen-Huene to design the lighting for one of her Montmartre clubs, the one with black and white banquettes, red carpeting and patent-leather curtains. Duke Ellington was a protege. Jean-Claude Baker, Josephine Baker's son, says Bricktop confessed to him that she and his mother had been lovers (though, if true, she waited until Josephine was dead to break the news.) As war neared in 1939, the Duchess and Elsie de Wolfe pressed a reluctant Bricktop to leave France, booking her passage to New York on a Cunard steamship. Waiting for her on the other end was Doris Duke, who bought the ticket that took the singer to Mexico and who paid her hotel bill there while she jump-started the next Bricktop's.
More than thirty years and several cultural revolutions later, Bricktop's show-business and cafe-society bonafides still meant enough to someone in Hollywood for her to be cast alongside the dreamy Bahamian-American blacksploitation idol Calvin Lockhart in a train wreck entitled Honey Baby Honey Baby. Bricktop plays herself in the film, the owner of a fictional Bricktop's in Beirut. The movie goes unmentioned in her breezy (too breezy) autobiography, Bricktop, published in 1983, the year before she died at age 89, though she does disavow any sexual interest in women. Baker is identified only as someone for whom she WAS happy to fill the role of godmother.
Bricktop even continues to add to her cadre from beyond the grave. The six-foot-six intersex outsider artist Vaginal Davis has opened for Margaret Cho, and her oeuvre has been taught as part of the performance studies program at New York University. To channel Bricktop, Davis created a persona, the singer's great niece, also named Bricktop. While the original wore her hair scraped back in an immaculate pleat, her namesake favors a coppery Louis Brooks bob lanced by a peacock feather. For the curious, Davis' first major solo "visual art" exhibition is at Participant Inc Gallery in Manhattan from November 4th to December 16th.
You can search for the one song Bricktop is said to have recorded, "So Long, Baby" with Cy Coleman in the early seventies, believing it is out there somewhere. Or you can go straight to YouTube, where hiding in plain sight is a terrific performance of "St. Louis Blues" and an interview that was taped for Italian television in 1970.
Bricktop performing St. Louis Blues
As the clip shows, Bricktop—like her contemporary Alberta Hunter and the Basie vocalist Helen Humes—had the blues in her bones; she was a born declaimer. But unlike her colleagues, she had a thin, rather plain voice, "a casual vehicle," John S. Wilson wrote in The Times in 1974, "depending on phrasing more than range and power." On the subject of her talent, Bricktop was even more unsparing and to the point.
"You know, darling, Cole Porter wrote 'Miss Otis Regrets' for me, but I'm no singer," she regularly allowed. "I'm a personality. Nobody ever came to hear me. They came to see me."
The distinct codes that defined saloon singers could be as casual as Bricktop's voice: no microphone, no spotlight, a dance floor but no stage. In Paris, dressed by Schiaparelli one night, Molyneux the next, she glided from table to table, decanting a phrase or two of "Hello, Central, Give Me No-Man's Land" before moving on, snapping the air with the feather boa she was never without.
"I knew my way around a floor and could hold a table's attention," she wrote in "Bricktop." "That was the trick of saloon singing—you weren't trying to get the whole audience, just one table."
The novelist and poet Kay Boyle, in "Being Geniuses Together," does a better job than most of parsing the charm and unraveling the allure of the famously flame-faired, freckled and dimpled, "large and firm-fleshed" Bricktop. Boyle admired her "clear-eyed poise in the dancing, drinking, worldly turmoil" of club life. "Her ability to be at the heart of, and yet remain detached from, the activity around her, gave [everyone else] the look of ants in panic, and she, doe-eyed, was the warm, sweet mammal, with daisies in her ears and a cud as sweet as honey in her mouth." Boyle knew Bricktop's mother, remarking that despite having been a policewoman in Chicago, she was "naive and simple, as little hardened by the world as any kindly grandmother." The daughter, Boyle noted, "had much the same quality."
"I was a saloon-keeper, a hostess," said Bricktop, who was often at pains to explain how she spent her evenings. "My job was to make my clients feel at home. I'm not really social. I like people, but I like them at Bricktop's."
From left: Jazz musicians "Common Sense" Ross, Albertine Pickens, Jelly Roll Morton, Ada "Bricktop" Smith, Eddie Rucker and Mable Watts outside the Cadillac Cafe, Los Angeles, California.
Though she described her mother as "7/8ths white," "the whitest Negro that ever lived," Bricktop considered herself "100 percent American Negro." "Don't say 'black,'" she once headed off an interviewer. "I hate 'black.'" Soon after her father died the Smith family moved to Chicago, where a 15-year-old Bricktop made her debut in the chorus of a production at the Pekin Theatre. By 1924 she was a headlining soubrette at Connie's Inn in Harlem when a club in Paris, Le Grand Duc, offered her a job, which she readily accepted. In 1929 she married Peter Duconge, a saxophonist and "sporting man" from New Orleans. The couple stopped living together during the Depression but never divorced. Though Bricktop shuttered her last place, in Rome, in 1964, she was still appearing in the U.S. into her mid-eighties.
Saloons were her natural habitat. She was what she did. Before Doris Duke understood it was money and a new venue Bricktop needed, she offered her a stay at Shangri La, Duke's compound in Hawaii.
"I'd go out of my mind living in Honolulu, being waited on by servants," Bricktop told the heiress. "I need to work."
Photos: Portrait: Jack Robinson/ © The Jack Robinson Gallery and Archive; group: Getty Images
"Raising Baby X: The First Year" at Microscope Gallery
A year ago, on a Tuesday morning, a little boy named Ajax (aka Baby X) was born to the artist Marni Kotak in Brooklyn. Present were a midwife, a doula, and Kotak's husband—plus whomever happened to be at Bushwick's Microscope Gallery that day. "The Birth of Baby X" was, to much vitriol from the art community and beyond, not only a miracle of nature but a conceptual art performance. On Saturday, celebrate the first birthday of little Ajax at the gallery, which is currently showing "Raising Baby X: The First Year," Kotak's continued public documentation of her son's early years.
Who: Eve Hewson
Where: A Tumi-sponsored Cinema Society screening of her film "This Must Be the Place."
When: October 25th
What: A Stella McCartney dress and Brian Atwood shoes.
Why: As lovely as the ubiquitous black and white only looks are, a kick of color—like this royal purple pump—is a nice way to have a little business on the top, party on the bottom.
Photo: Getty Images
The privileged stretch of East 79th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues has seen many a boldfacer, considering one of its inhabitants is Mayor Bloomberg. A 19th century house-turned-Ukrainian embassy lit up in neon pink? Not so much. Such was the main attraction Thursday evening when Jimmy Choo took over the Fletcher Sinclair Mansion to fete its collaboration with artist Rob Pruitt, whose fruits—19 exuberantly printed shoes, bags and accessories—were displayed on the second floor after guests ascended a neon-lit grand staircase. The room, with its black and white striped floors and sweeping views of Central Park, proved the perfect playground for a cavalry of models, socials and a smattering of actresses to sip bubbly and admire an animated video “Angel Panda, Devil Panda” playing on a screen behind DJ Nick Cohen. Caught in the fray was Pruitt, sporting a velvet Lanvin boutonniere, who offered his thoughts on his fashion endeavor.
I have to ask, are your shoes Jimmy Choo?
I don’t want to tell you.
They’re some kind of vegan shoes.
Are any of the shoes in your collection vegan, too?
I think the sandals are, the jelly sandals. I didn’t really press it. It’s what I believe for myself but everyone makes their own choices.
What was the most challenging part of this design process for you?
I think it was a challenge that I failed. I wanted to make something that was sophisticated and classy. And instead I made something very garish, but hopefully in a good way.
In a charming way.
Yes, in a charming way. But you know, I was tricked by this whole notion of cruise. Tricked is maybe the wrong word, but I like to think that cruise is a two week period where you can step out of your own life and do a little role-playing, maybe go some place you’ve never been, sleep with somebody you don’t know. They’re shoes for that. It’s like free parking, it’s not your real life. You can be somebody else.
Click here to see more photos from the party.
Photo: Sherly Rabbani & Josephine Solimene
Bloom’s credits: Corrales Brindle Cowhide Rug, $228 Herman Miller Eames DAR Molded Arm Chair, $449 Cerno Silva Floor Lamp, $965
Saldana’s credits: Fu Dogs, $37 Modloft dining table, $1,319 Gus Modern sofa, $2,999. www.ebkids.org www.jossandmain.com
Juan Carlos Obando's "Correteando Chuletas"
As in previous years, Project Paz enlisted the likes of Tory Burch, Proenza Schouler, Carolina Herrera, Derek Lam, Rag & Bone, and many more. However this time, rather than creating a clothing item, each participating designer went behind the lens to produce a one-of-a-kind photograph inspired by the essence of Mexico and of Project Paz. “We wanted to get the designers involved on a more personal level and to use their creativity in an innovative way,” explains Project Paz co-founder, Eugenia Gonzalez Ruiz-Olloqui. “They could show anything – a scent, a memory, a color, an item, etc. I have three personal favorites – Kean Etro’s triptych ‘Opened Doors’, Rafe Totenco’s ‘Abe Drinking from a Coconut’ and Juan Carlos Obando’s ‘Correteando Chuletas’. Each show a different part of Mexico with a different feeling, color and texture. I am sure I will bid on them all!”
Rafe Totenco's "Abe Drinking from a Coconut"
Anne Huntington of AMH Industries was enlisted to curate the wide selection of artwork generously donated by more than fifty contemporary artists, including Lola Monte Schnabel, Alex Hank, Andrea Neen, and many other award-winning and internationally exhibited figures. “Of the participating artists over thirty-five are Mexican,” explains Huntington. “The rooted Mexican heart and soul shows through [their work] in subtle and overt ways.” Taking it a step further, the auction will go virtual this year; as of yesterday, each of the works of art, ranging from sculpture, watercolor, and painting, to photography and art objects, is featured in a pre-sale on Paddle8.com.
One third of Kean Etro's triptych "Opened Doors"
All sales from Project Art will go towards Ampliando el Desarrollo de los Niños, a targeted program that creates after-school activities for underprivileged children in Ciudad Juarez, providing them with a safe environment in which to expand their academic skills. “The protection and education of children growing up in volatile environments is one of the most important causes,” says Prabal Gurung, whose photograph, “Passion“ will be up for grabs on the big night. “We need to do all we can for the next generation.”
Stina Rapp (above) is a gorgeous 17-year-old from Sweden who I just had the pleasure of meeting this week. She made a grand debut for the Spring/Summer 13 collections walking in the shows of Prada, Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, Valentino and Chloe.
Click here to see W's coverage from Fashion Week Spring 2013.
Donatella Versace unveiled Versace’s newest store yesterday—a 1,785-square foot SoHo outpost on Mercer Street designed by architect JamieFobert that’s part old-world Versace roots (seen in a 9th-century-inspired mosaic floor that references Gianni) and full-on Nouveau Versace opulence with curving plexiglass walls and bronze accents. The store offers a selection of the ready-to-wear pieces along with a more downtown (and affordable) rotating roster of collaborations. First up is Versus designer Christopher Kane offering a line of tees with iconic Versace archive images, golden earphones with the Medusa logo, and—perfect for the holidays—a board game that’s a Versace-ized riff on snakes and ladders (Medusa heads and all).
From left: Christopher Kane collaboration headphones and t-shirts
And while the charming Versace (who joked with the group that she stays young by “sleeping in the freezer”) wouldn’t give any details on future in-store collaborations, she did share that she has a new project in mind: “I want to sing,” she said with a smile. “I want to start a band. Or to rap. I’m not joking. I’m not crazy.”
Click here to see photos from the after party.
“Jesus walks into a motel,” began Stephanie Seymour from the stage of Smalls Jazz Club Tuesday night, as the magician David Blaine stood behind her slowly being suffocated by shrink-wrap, "throws a bag of nails on the counter and says to the manager, ‘Can you put me up for the night?’”
She was just getting warmed up.
“Two nuns were riding their bikes around the Vatican…” she continued, the punch-line too naughty to reprint here.
From top: Natasha Lyonne; drawings from "A Real Bronx Cheer"
Indeed it was a strange, amusing, and entirely irreverent scene—one of many, in fact—to celebrate the launch of Dan Colen’s “A Real Bronx Cheer,” an artist book comprised of God jokes, drawn by Colen and Matt Kenny and written by legendary concert promoter Ron Delsener. The evening, which was produced by Richard Prince, whose Fulton Ryder publishing house put out the book, featured performances from a motley crew including Jack Walls, Natasha Lyonne, Mykki Blanco, Kalup Linzy, and writer/comedian Uncle Dirty (née Bob Altman), all of whom, accompanied by the band TV Baby, recited poetry, sang songs, and spewed one-liners on the topic of faith. And while not everything was a sacrilege affair—Lyonne recited an existential passage from Hannah and Her Sisters—it was undoubtedly the cheap material that garnered the most cheers.
Photos: Hugo Glendinning
As Jacqueline you start out as such a sympathetic character and by the end, your obsessive love for your child is destroying his life. How did you handle those opposite poles?
Because you have to look into this woman’s heart and brain, even though she doesn’t use her brain so much, she’s very animal. And I did have sympathy for her because this woman is raising on her own, in the Seventies, a Down syndrome child who at the time had a 25 year-old life span. And she’s afraid he’s not going to make it. So she’s like a bulldozer. Usually you get the bad guy and the good guy. She was both in one.
In the film’s modern day portion, there’s a mystical element to the plot. Do you believe in reincarnation?
I’d like to believe in it. It’s better to think there’s something else after than nothing, you know? But I don’t believe it exists, I’d like to think it exists.
If you were to come back as something in another life, what would it be?
I think I’d love to be a tree.
A specific kind of tree?
A strong one, like the baobab. Is it the baobab that has the really strong roots? It seems indestructible.
You’d like to be indestructible?
I’d like to not finish in a fireplace.
Paradis as Jacqueline Cafe de Flore
And the idea of soul mates is also a running theme. Do you believe in them?
I’m a little skeptical of the idea. I believe in love. I believe in wanting to make it last. But as soon as you start to say, “Here’s my soul mate” it feels like you’re done. Love is a constant, evolving emotion. And the fact of putting a title on it, whether it’s your husband or your wife or your soul mate…then it seems like you know the end of the book. And I don’t like to know the end of the book or the movie. But I mean it’s beautiful when one day someone tells you you’re their soul mate—it makes you feel good.
Your son in the movie is obsessed with this one record, Café de Flore. When you were a kid, were you fixated on one song or record in the same way?
Marilyn Monroe. When I was really young, I think I was six years old, I found this book in my parents’ book shelf and it was these pictures, I hadn’t seen movies of her, and I got really mesmerized by this beautiful deep soul. And then I started to see the movies and listen to the records and I listened to her singing. And we never speak of how great a singer she was. She had an amazing voice. Everyone always talked about her beauty, her dramatic life. She had an amazing jazz voice. She was the one for me and she still is.
You recorded your first album when you were 14 years-old and haven’t stopped working since. Do you ever regret starting so young?
Anything that’s extreme like this, you have good and bad. The good was amazing. It’s rough to grow up in front of cameras and microphones. That’s not the best for the balance of a teenager. But I don’t regret it because first of all I was doing what I loved, I was singing and I traveled the world. And you know as rough as it was, it builds the character. So I don’t regret it for myself. I’d do it exactly the same way. But I wouldn’t recommend it.
Portrait: Getty Images