For most people, Jazz Age Paris means Josephine Baker, but before La Baker, there was Bricktop. Named for her fiery red hair, Bricktop (born Ada Smith) became among the most renowned nightclub owners/entertainers in pre–World War II Montmartre. Bricktop inspired songs by Cole Porter and stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald. She taught the Aga Khan to dance the Charleston, and Josephine Baker to sign her autograph. Today, however, Bricktop’s story is mostly forgotten.
“On the fourteenth day of August 1894, in the little town of Alderson, West-by-God Virginia, the doctor said, ‘Another little split tail,’ and on that day Bricktop was born,” she recounted in her memoir. Her father, Thomas, a Black barber, died when she was four, and her mother, Hattie—seven-eighths white, with a “trigger-fast Irish temper”—worked in Alderson’s boardinghouses to support her family. She later ran others in Chicago. “If you can do it for others, you can do it for yourself,” she said.
In Chicago, Bricktop got started. As a young girl, she would peek under saloon back doors and hear ragtime music lilting into the street. By 16, she was singing inside, going table to table, collecting tips, until Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight boxing champion, hired her for his new club, Cafe de Champion. It would’ve succeeded if Johnson’s white wife hadn’t died by suicide upstairs, igniting the racist press. Bricktop moved on to New York.
By 1922, she was headlining at Barron’s Exclusive Club in Harlem with Duke Ellington and His Washingtonians, then at Connie’s Inn, with a chorus of Black showgirls, dancing for mostly white audiences. That’s where Bricktop got word from Paris: a club, called Le Grand Duc, had a spot for a singer. Would she like to star, all by herself?
Paris clubs in 1924 had hardly any Black singers, and were comparatively oblivious to the racism that plagued the U.S. They were also small. When Bricktop first saw Le Grand Duc—a sleepy Montmartre bar with half a dozen tables—she burst into tears. Then she set to work.
One of her first regulars was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once arrived, dripping wet, with two policemen. He’d jumped into a nearby fountain, drunk. The policemen released him, on the condition Bricktop see him home. Bricktop put Fitzgerald into a taxi, which quickly came back. Fitzgerald had kicked out all its windows. “See, Brick,” he said. “I’m not responsible … You’ve got to take me home.” From then on, she did.
The following year, Cole Porter came to the club. He heard Bricktop sing, and left without a word. The next night, he returned and asked if she could dance. She launched into the Charleston, then almost unknown in Paris. Porter was delighted. He returned a third night with legendary hostess Elsa Maxwell, who hired Bricktop on the spot to give Charleston parties for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, British diplomat Sir Charles Mendl and Lady Mendl (formerly Elsie de Wolfe), and the 300-pound Aga Khan. The parties were a hit, and Bricktop became the darling of Paris’s most rarefied set.
Soon after came the arrival of Josephine Baker. She was an overnight sensation but could barely sign her name. For Bricktop, it was a reminder of the life she had once known. She became Baker’s big sister, and advised on her signature. “Baby, get a stamp,” she said, which saved Baker much embarrassment.
Bricktop was becoming more than an entertainer. She was a bridge between two continents and two worlds. One evening, Porter came into the club and told her about a lynching in the American South. “The man won’t lunch tomorrow,” replied Bricktop, ruefully. Porter was silent. A few days later, he returned. “I have a song for you,” he said, and handed her the sheet music to “Miss Otis Regrets (She’s Unable to Lunch Today).” The song would become a standard, and Bricktop’s anthem.
After a year at Le Grand Duc, Bricktop began looking for a bigger club, which she herself could finally own. “What should I call it?” she asked Porter. “Bricktop’s,” he replied. “That’s the only thing you should call it. It’s your place, it’s you. You’re the reason why people come.”
Bricktop’s became the undisputed center for Americans in Paris, both Black and white, for the next 15 years, until the Germans invaded the city. Bricktop made it onto the last steamship, sailing to New York in October of 1939, her passage personally arranged by the Duchess of Windsor and Lady Mendl.
In New York, Bricktop found a city at once unchanged and alien, and unused to an elegant Black woman in business for herself. She moved on to Mexico City, where she opened a club in the mid-1940s, then back to Paris, after the war, where she started another. During the 1960s, she founded one last club on Rome’s Via Veneto for the new royalty of “Hollywood on the Tiber,” until, at last, she closed its doors. On March 6, 1964, the New York Daily News ran the headline Bricktop, Queen of Nightclubs, Abdicates.
Bricktop died in New York on February 1, 1984. “Greatness comes,” she wrote, “from a person knowing who he is, being satisfied with nothing but the best, and still behaving like a warm and gracious human being.”
Patrick Monahan is a New York–based freelance writer and art adviser. He contributes regularly to publications in the U.S. and the U.K.