Who Was the Sultan of Jazz?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: This black man ruled nightlife in Moscow and Constantinople.

Frederick Bruce Thomas (National Archives, NARA II)

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Thomas preferred living in cities and worked in a number of different service jobs, from flower boy to waiter to head bellboy to personal valet of the white well-to-do. Those experiences were his education — and escape — and while he didn’t mind telling people he was the son of slaves, he never mentioned his father’s murder. Only Alexandrov was able to connect the bloody drops while working in an archive a century later. In 1894, Thomas left the U.S. for good — he said to study music. After stints in London; Paris; Ostend, Belgium; Cannes, France; Cologne, Germany; Düsseldorf, Germany; Berlin; Leipzig, Germany; Monte Carlo; Milan; Venice; Trieste, Italy; Vienna; and Budapest, he crossed the border into Russia in 1899.

There, Thomas initiated a process he’d also have to keep secret when fleeing the Bolsheviks under U.S. “protection” in 1919, a petition for Russian citizenship. The pace of change in the intervening 20 years had been dizzying — and, near the end, frightful. Having renewed his U.S. passport several times since leaving New York, Thomas made the fateful decision to apply for Russian citizenship at the start of World War I in 1914, when Russian nationalist fervor against Germany was at its peak, and Thomas had a German wife, Elvira Jungmann (his third), and a fortune to protect. With a blue pencil, the soon-to-be-late Czar Nicolas II personally approved Thomas’ application with one word: “Agreed.” A few years later, Thomas lost his fortune anyway, but for another, even more divisive characteristic than his wife’s ethnicity or “the color line” of his youth.

The Black Russian

Frederick Bruce Thomas was a rich man caught up in a “class war,” with the Bolsheviks suddenly — and swiftly — on top. Thomas had made his first 150,000 rubles ($1 million today) in 1912 as the conquering Caesar opening his first club Maxim, one of several ventures Thomas launched as part of the nighttime Muscovite scene. In a column a few weeks ago, we saw how Madam C.J. Walker made her fortune around the same time as Thomas, but in the black hair-care industry, a product of America’s segmented culture. Thomas took the opposite path, abroad, gaining ever more influence and power as a black man in increasingly rarified white circles.

In Russia, Thomas quickly learned that being black was even more of a curiosity, and yet a non-issue, than in Western Europe. That didn’t mean every group was safe in Moscow; Jews were viewed as the scourge, ” ‘the Negroes’ of the Russian Empire,” Alexandrov writes (for more on their unfair, often horrific treatment, also see Alexandrov’s excellent essay “The Black Russian and the Jews” online at History News Network), but in a city of a million people, Thomas was one of only a dozen blacks. With his résumé of jobs in the finest European hotels and restaurants, he had the three things he needed most: opportunity, access and know-how. Also, for a change, he had history on his side. As we saw in previous columns in this series, the African Abraham Gannibal had been seen as “the dark star of the Enlightenment” in Russia as far back as the 18th century — and his great-grandson, Alexander Pushkin, the Shakespeare of the Russian literary tradition. 

While working in the most exclusive Moscow restaurant, Yar, Thomas squirreled his high tips away until he could afford to become an owner himself. With his talent for booking musical acts from Western Europe, Thomas’ night spots — Aquarium and Maxim — became the spots in which to be seen (and, for pleasure, in which to disappear) during Russia’s late imperial era. As Alexandrov writes, “[u]nabashed luxury was the norm,” and at Maxim, black performers visiting from the States remembered, everything was “gold and plush” so that “you would sink so deep in carpets that you would think that you would be going through the door to the cellar.”

Still, as far away as Thomas was from old Jim Crow, he was never wholly removed. At a minimum, he read the papers, Alexandrov explains, because in 1912, just days after America’s black heavyweight champ Jack Johnson was arrested for taking up with a white woman after defeating Jim “The Great White Hope” Jeffries in “the fight of the century,” Thomas offered Johnson an escape to Russia by setting up a boxing tournament that would culminate at Thomas’ garden club. Although Johnson arrived months too late to fight, the two men understood each other and might even have become business partners had the Great War not intervened.