Behind every great man is a great woman, they say. Often she’s sitting on a piano stool, if my “forgotten ladies” features are anything to go by. But while plenty of women provided the rhythmic and harmonic foundations for a famous musician or band, few can claim to have catalyzed American culture like Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith—known to her famous friends and fans as Bricktop.
The dancer, singer, vaudevillian and self-described “saloon-keeper” from West Virginia was a spark plug in the careers of Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, Maya Angelou, and others. Her nightclubs’ celebrity patrons included Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, King Farouk I of Egypt, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor—the Baltimore-born socialite for whom King Edward VIII relinquished the British throne.
Cole Porter wrote a song especially for Bricktop, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli wrote a song about Bricktop, T. S. Elliott wrote poetry in her honor, and actresses including Dorothy Dandrige, Lena Horne, and Pearl Bailey lined up to play her in a planned biopic. And it would have been a thrilling watch: the story of a mixed-race, bisexual woman—the daughter of a former slave, no less—who ended up running popular nightclubs on three continents, as well as starring in movies by both Michael Schultz and Woody Allen.
And yet, I’d never even heard her name until very recently. So strap in and allow me to introduce you to perhaps the most influential woman of the Jazz Age, if you don’t already know her.
Ada Smith’s mother was born into slavery in 1861, the progeny of Smith’s enslaved grandmother and (most likely) their Irish-American master. By the time little Ada came along, in 1894, the family was free and living in Alderson, West Virginia. When her father died the surviving members—including Smith’s three older siblings—moved to Chicago. They arrived there just before jazz: as Smith recalled in a 1975 interview with Pulitzer-winning historian Studs Terkel, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong had yet to make their Chicago debuts.
By that time Smith had become embroiled in the Chicago club scene. In 1912 she had been working as a singer and dancer at a segregated club called Roy Jones’, in the Levee District. The whites-only venue made an exception for Jack Jones, the “Galveston Giant”—then the heavyweight champion of the world and an A-list celebrity—who saw Smith performing there one night. The boxer and nightlife entrepreneur ended up poaching Smith to work in his own Cafe de Champion, overruling his manager’s objections to bring her onboard. (Smith was singing there on the night in 1912 that Jones’ wife Etta Duryea took her own life in their apartment upstairs, she later recalled.)
When Prohibition came in 1920, Smith briefly moved to Vancouver where she performed with Jelly Roll Morton. Working in New York City in 1923, she introduced a struggling young musician named Edward Ellington to nightclub impresario Barron D. Wilkins, who gave Duke’s band one of their early breaks at his popular Barron’s Cabaret. (It was Wilkins who first dubbed Smith “Bricktop,” for her russety locks.) Smith’s career then moved to Connie’s Inn and then, the following year, to Paris—pushed by a government crackdown on Harlem speakeasies and drawn by improved socioeconomic opportunities there—settling in the Montmartre district of the city’s northern 18th arrondissement.
There, Bricktop took up a residency at Le Grand Duc, a typically tiny Parisian nightclub where jazz poet Langston Hughes was then working as a busboy. She quickly made connections with the great and good of European society, with help from her friend Cole Porter: the composer arranged for Smith to teach his friends Aga Khan III and the Duke of Windsor how to do the Charleston and the black bottom, on a yacht he kept in Venice. But Smith longed for the splendor of pre-Prohibition US nightlife, so she opened her own Harlem-style club, Chez Bricktop—the first of several nightspots to bear that name.
The popular Parisian venue attracted the top performers of the age, as well as the cream of European society. Josephine Baker got her big solo break there, having only performed as a chorus girl Stateside. “I was one of the first colored Americans to move to Paris,” she told The Guardian’s Tim Murari in 1974, adding: “Bricktop was there as well… and we had a marvelous time. Of course, everyone who was anyone knew Bricky. And they got to know Miss Baker as well.” Sidney Bechet was a regular performer at Chez Bricktop, while the Quintette du Hot Club de France became its house band in 1937, backing Smith and her good friend Mabel Mercer.
As a doyenne of Parisian nightlife, Smith established a seemingly oxymoronic reputation as both a macho character and a sophisticated lady: she was tall, broad, wore a fedora and smoked cigars, but she also sported a feather boa, adorned herself with jewels, and abhorred cursing. “I’m the only saloon-keeper who doesn’t use bad language,” she told Terkel. “I might get drunk and fall on my face, but that bad language—I don’t care for it.”
Not even her celebrity clientele could get away with earthiness, at Chez Bricktop: Smith once ejected Nobel laureate John Steinbeck from one of her clubs for his “ungentlemanly behavior.” (Steinbeck sent a taxi cab full of roses to Bricktop’s the following day, and was eventually allowed back in.) “I’ve been a tomboy all my life,” she explained in 1975, “but… I like the idea of being treated like [a lady].” Hearing guests curse, she recalled, she would “walk over and say, ‘Do you mind?’ And they say, ‘What is this, a church?’ and I say, ‘Well, not exactly but I just don’t want to hear it… I come here to have fun and I just don’t want to hear it.’”
Smith was reportedly the perfect hostess. The poet Robert McAlmon visited Chez Bricktop, reporting how “one drunken Frenchman wanted to get away without paying his bill,” he reported, while “at another table a French actress in her cups was giving her boyfriend hell and throwing champagne into his face,” and “in the back room several Negroes were having an argument.” Bricktop defused all three timebombs, all while doing the books. “With a wisecrack she halted the actress in her temper, cajolingly made the Frenchman pay his bill, and all the while she was adding up accounts, calling out to the orchestra to play this or that requested number,” McAlmon recalled.
“She began to sing ‘Love for Sale,’ while still adding up accounts,” he added. “Halfway through the song there was a commotion in the back room where the argument was taking place, which meant that the colored boys had now come to blows. Brick skipped down from her stool, glided across the room, still singing. She jerked aside the curtain and stopped singing long enough to say, ‘Hey you guys, get out in the street if you want to fight. This ain’t that kind of joint!’ Then she continued the song, having [missed] but two phrases, and was at her desk again adding accounts.”
By now a celebrity in her own right, Smith presented a Parisian radio show from 1938 to 1939—but the fun wasn’t to last: War was coming, and Europe was soon to become a hostile environment for non-whites, Americans, and jazz musicians. At the urging of her friends Lady Mendl and Wallis Simpson, Smith returned to New York in 1939, shortly before Paris fell to the Nazis. In 1944 Smith moved to Mexico and established another Chez Bricktop in Mexico City. There she became a devout Roman Catholic—while retaining “the greatest respect for everyone’s religion”—and took a vow of celibacy (in stark contrast with her younger years, when she allegedly had an intimate relationship with Baker, making her a queer icon today).
Smith returned to Paris in 1949 and tried to recapture former glories, but the new Chez Bricktop never achieved the popularity of its pre-war incarnation. Undeterred, she emigrated to Italy and set up shop in Rome: patrons of the fourth Chez Bricktop included Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, and Martin Luther King, who was in Europe to collect his Nobel Peace Prize. By 1961 pop was threatening jazz as the music of the masses, and Smith’s club became harder to fill. She retired from running venues and spent four more years in Rome, before returning to the US in 1965.
But the irrepressible Bricktop wasn’t done with showbiz. During the early 1970s she recorded with Cy Coleman and Dorothy Donegan, although the results were, sadly, never released. She appeared in two Hollywood movies—Schultz’s Honeybaby, Honeybaby (1974) and Allen’s Zelig (1982)—as well as performing cabaret shows into her eighties. Nevertheless, she told Terkel, she considered herself a businesswoman first and a performer second.
Ada “Bricktop” Smith died in her Manhattan apartment one night in 1984, aged 89. Cole Porter declared that his friend must have been “an empress” in a former life. It seems an apt description of a no-nonsense woman who carried herself with regal grace (when sober), entertained the world’s political and artistic elite, raised cultural heroes, and oversaw a business empire which spanned continents. Despite this, she remained remarkably humble: She would make time to chat with each of her patrons every night, it was fondly recalled, and would often end up driving one or more home—usually F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“Greatness,” Smith once said, “comes from a person knowing who he is, being satisfied with nothing but the best, and still behaving like a warm and gracious human being.” There’s every reason for the world to remember Bricktop as a great individual, but in death she has slipped into obscurity, relative to the cultural icons she entertained—and even helped to establish—during her fascinating life.