As Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith knew as well as anyone, it’s about the company you keep. Smith—better known as the singer, dancer and saloonkeeper Bricktop—ruled nightlife in Paris and Biarritz before World War II and, after it, in Mexico City and Rome, entertaining but also cultivating friendships with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Elsa Schiaparelli, Cole Porter and the Duchess of Windsor—friendships that were as surprising as they were privileged.
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.”
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