Discovering Bricktop’s story was like flipping through a yearbook belonging to the most popular girl on campus; everybody knew her. When a young Jelly Roll Morton couldn't decide if he should take-up pimping or piano-playing, she advised that he could do both! When Duke Ellington was playing small-time clubs in D.C., Bricktop secured his first gig in New York City. And when Josephine Baker rocketed to stardom overnight, Bricktop showed her the ropes.
But her life isn’t just some rags-to-riches story boasting a supporting cast of names like Jack Johnson, Cole Porter, and Frank Sinatra. It provides a glimpse into the African-American community, in the United States and abroad, from the early 1900s through the 1980s.
Born Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith on August 14, 1894, Bricktop’s family soon left hometown Alderson, West Virginia for Chicago. Chicago’s South Side boasted countless saloons, and young Bricktop was transfixed by the entertainers who performed in the backrooms. Though she’d eventually become a saloon-singer herself, Bricktop first hit the vaudeville circuit, touring with the Oma Crosby Trio, Ten Georgia Campers, and Kinky-Doo Trio. On returning to Chicago, Bricktop got her break; she performed in saloons and clubs across the country like boxer Jack Jonson’s Café Champ. In Washington, D.C. she was presented the chance to entertain in Paris. She arrived May 11, 1924.
Bricktop wasn’t initially a sensation in Paris. It wasn’t until F. Scott Fitzgerald stumbled into her club, Le Grand Duc, she became saloon-keeper of the “Lost Generation.” After Cole Porter requested she teach his society friends to Charleston, Bricktop was catapulted to stardom. When she opened her own club, “Bricktop’s,” it became the most fashionable and exclusive joint in Paris.
When the Great Depression reached Europe, and Nazi Germany looming on the horizon, Bricktop returned to America. After a short, and disappointingly unsuccessful at home, she headed to Mexico City. Though her nightclub there was profitable, she was determined to return to Paris to open a second incarnation of Bricktop’s. Unfortunately, several of her posh clientele had abandoned Paris or could no longer afford their extravagant lifestyles. Undeterred, she relocated to Rome; the Italian Bricktop’s was a triumph. Regulars included Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, Princess Margaret of the Great Britain and King Farouk of Egypt. Bricktop’s closed March 6, 1964 when its namesake retired from the nightclub business.
During her retirement Bricktop continued to occasionally perform; at age 84, she even played the Playboy Club in London! She died February 1, 1984 aged 89 having reigned as the Cabaret Queen of Paris and Rome for nearly 60 years.
Looking for more juicy gossip about Bricktop and her celebrity pals? Check-out these History Bitch approved readings for the inside scoop:
These websites have some great sound bites/videos about Bricktop, too:
Historian Tyler Stovall on Bricktop’s
Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith: Once the Grande Dame of Paris’ Nightclub Scene
A Night at Bricktop’s: Jazz in 1930s' Montmartre
To Bricktop, on Her Belated Birthday
BRICKTOP, CABARET QUEEN IN PARIS AND ROME, DEAD
The History Bitch
Podcaster, tea aficionado, Anglophile, 'Game of Thrones' enthusiast.