Ada “Bricktop” Smith June 22, 1934
Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress

In the 1920s and 1930s, Ada “Bricktop” Smith reigned as the grande dame of the Paris nightclub scene. T.S. Eliot wrote a poem for her, and she was a muse to the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who boasted, “My greatest claim to fame is that I discovered Bricktop before [songwriter] Cole Porter.” It was under Porter’s aegis that Bricktop—nicknamed for her bright red hair—became the darling of American expatriate celebrities in Paris after World War I.

Bricktop was the confidante of the Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaperelli and the American heiress Wallis Simpson. She taught Simpson’s then-lover, the future King Edward VIII, how to dance the Black Bottom. More impressively, she also tried to teach the 300-pound Indian millionaire, socialite and Islamic spiritual leader the Aga Khan III how to do the Charleston. Perhaps of greater importance, Bricktop’s several eponymous nightclubs in Paris’ Montmartre district served as an essential first port of call in the City of Light for African Americans seeking refuge from the stifling racism and limited opportunities of Jim Crow America in the interwar years.

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Despite her lustrous array of friends and admirers, Bricktop had no difficulty naming the star who made the greatest impression entering through the patent leather curtains of her club. She recalled in her autobiography: “On the night they parted and Jack Johnson stood there … the room went into an uproar. There was no mistaking those broad shoulders and that big wonderful smile” of the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion. “If anyone ever made me feel proud of who and what I am,” she wrote, “it was Jack. He bowed to no one, but everything was, ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘please,’ and ‘thank you.’ His behavior only made stronger my belief that you are born with ‘it’ or you’re not. Greatness comes from knowing who he is, being satisfied with nothing but the best, and still behaving like a warm, gracious, human being.”

Famously self-assured—though she had moments of self-doubt and periods of depression—Bricktop was also describing herself. Those who adored her in Paris agreed that she had “it.” She knew who she was, and she was certainly only satisfied with the best—while also aware of her limitations as a singer and dancer. And while her warmth, grace and keen business skills made Bricktop a celebrated hostess, it was her humanity that made her beloved.

Bricktop was always clear that who she was had been shaped by where she was from: the little town of Alderson in “West-by-God-Virginia,” where on Aug. 14, 1894, she was born to Thomas Smith and his wife Hattie Thompson, who had been born a slave. The child was christened Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia because her parents did not want to disappoint friends who offered suggestions for naming her. While her eldest sister, Blonzetta, inherited their mother’s blond hair and blue eyes, and her brother, Robert, resembled their darker-skinned father, Ada’s distinguishing features were red-gold hair and freckles, inherited from a Celtic forebear.

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In her autobiography, written in the 1980s, she disavowed the term “black,” describing herself as “100 percent American Negro with a trigger Irish temper.” Her father, who had built a successful barbering business with a largely white clientele, died when Ada was 4, forcing the family to start a new life in Chicago, where her mother worked as a domestic and then ran a boarding house. Living on Chicago’s South Side at the onset of the Great Migration, Ada quickly gravitated toward the stage, leaving school at 16 to perform as a vaudeville dancer and singer.

Performing first with the comedy duo of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, she traveled to both coasts and arrived in Harlem in 1911. It was there that a nightclub owner gave the flame-haired teenage performer the nickname Bricktop, which stuck.

By 1924 Bricktop, at age 28, was successful, but she was also bored and restless and harbored an ambition to manage and own her own club. Because of her color, such dreams could not be realized in her homeland, so when she was invited to work in France at Le Grand Duc, in the Parisian club district of Montmartre, she jumped at the chance. Le Grand Duc was then managed by Eugène Bullard, an African American from rural Georgia, who as an 11-year-old had stowed away on a ship bound for Scotland, and just before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, made his way to Paris as a vaudeville artist and boxer.

It was a 22-year-old busboy and dishwasher named Langston Hughes who comforted Bricktop with chicken and dumplings on the day she arrived at Bullard’s, exhausted from the sea crossing and broke, having lost her life savings on the journey. The tiny club was much less grand than the venues she had left in New York, and in her first week, the audiences were tiny. Bricktop stuck it out, however, and within a year, the crowds at Le Grand Duc began to swell, in part because of Bullard’s success in hiring bona fide African-American jazz musicians, but also because of the “pleasingly plump, freckled-face, reddish-haired young lady who sang well and danced a little … and treated everyone so hospitably,” in Hughes’ description.

Soon Bricktop’s fame and celebrity had outgrown Le Grand Duc. She began giving private Charleston and Black Bottom dance lessons to the many celebrities she had met and entranced, which secured the money needed to open her own, much grander nightclub by 1926. Cole Porter helped finance the club, persuaded her to name it Chez Bricktop and helped publicize it as the venue for well-to-do Parisians and aristocratic visitors alike. “Everybody belonged, or else they didn’t bother coming to Bricktop’s more than once,” she wrote in her autobiography.

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Dressed by Schiaperelli, wearing diamonds by Cartier, but with a gritty attitude born of West Virginia, the South Side and nearly two decades on the stage, Bricktop was the grande dame in charge. She would begin a number still standing at her cashier’s desk, keeping track of her accounts. With her eye on every facet of the club’s operation, she would pause a song to coax a reluctant customer to pay his bill or prevent others from coming to blows. Her signature tune was Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets,” a song about a woman “unable to lunch today” after being killed by a mob for shooting her lover.

While she took care of her club’s business, Bricktop yielded the floor to a succession of talented black chanteuses, including the elegant, English-born Mabel Mercer. Bricktop’s served as both anchor and magnet for a community of African-American female artists, dancers and musicians. Among these were singers Valaida Snow and Alberta Hunter, writers Gwendolyn Bennett and Eslanda Robeson, painter Lois Mailou Jones and sculptor Augusta Savage. These women and others would have learned of her cabaret and the freedom and opportunities for women of color in Paris from the breezy columns Bricktop wrote for the African-American press.

Bricktop’s autobiography suggests that she enjoyed a similar nurturing relationship with Josephine Baker, the exotic dancing sensation who would eventually outshine her as the brightest African-American star in interwar Paris.

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The Great Depression had finally caught up with the Paris nightclub scene by the late 1930s, forcing Bricktop to sell her club and beloved country home. When German invasion seemed imminent in 1939, Wallis Simpson, now the Duchess of Windsor, helped Bricktop escape from France. She arrived in New York much as she had in Paris: broke. Bricktop found her efforts to reinvent her role as “saloonkeeper par excellence” in New York unappreciated. She relocated to Mexico City, where she successfully ran clubs until the European war was over. Again, she prospered in a milieu where her talents and celebrity mattered most, and where her race was seen as exotic, perhaps.

Returning to Paris in 1950, she found her old stomping grounds much changed, as was the clientele. After trying and failing to revive the prewar atmosphere, Bricktop moved to Rome, where on the Via Veneto from 1951 to 1965 she opened a new Bricktop’s catering to American and European celebrities. While it served as the backdrop to the budding romance of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor while filming Cleopatra, Bricktop never fully accepted Hollywood film stars as the equals of the blue blood aristocrats of the Montmartre clubs in her heyday.

Bricktop returned to Chicago in 1965 to nurse her sister Blonzetta and, in her final years, lived in Los Angeles, Europe and finally New York City, where she attempted to start another club, again with little success. She appeared on Italian television performing the classic “St. Louis Blues” at age 76 in 1970, and in 1974 she had a small role in the film Honeybaby, Honeybaby.

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In August 1983, Bricktop published her autobiography, written with Jim Haskins, Bricktop by Bricktop: Prohibition Harlem, Cafe Society Paris, Movie Mad Rome, The Queen of the Nightclubs Tells the Exuberant Story of a Fabulous Life. Five months later, she died in New York City. Right up to the end, as Haskins put it, “she was a lady of the dawn who drank only champagne and expected a rose from every male visitor.”

Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center. This biography was adapted from the AANB entry.

Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.