Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.
(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 40: How did the son of a former slave defy the color bar to become a wealthy fixture of European nightlife during the Jazz Age?
If, after the First World War, you had been an American tourist looking for a good time in Constantinople, late capital of the Holy Roman Empire, then of the crumbling Ottoman sultanate, you likely would've been directed across the Golden Horn to one of the popular Russian-Western, European-style "cafés chantant," where you could order a drink (outside of Prohibition), sample the finest cuisine, listen to all kinds of music and dance. In between spots, you might've been swept up by the views of the Bosporus, perhaps the sound of praying across the ancient city, but at some point, hearing the weird yet disarmingly familiar sounds of that original American art form, jazz, your ears and feet would've whisked you off again.
You would've known you were there when, in a crowd of British sailors, secularized Turks, Levantines and other international seekers, you were greeted by one even more exotic yet familiar: the man responsible for importing jazz to Byzantium, Frederick Bruce Thomas, the "ebony black," in one visitor's words, with his signature black tie and top hat. Based on his years in the business, working his way up from stateside waiter to Russian maitre d'hôtel and club owner, across three continents, Thomas would've known all he needed to know about you in an instant. But whatever stories he would've shared about where he was from (Mississippi; Louisville,Ky.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Chicago) or what his intentions were (to stay, to return to Russia to look after his investments or to go "home" to educate his sons in American schools), you'd never know the whole truth about him — at least not until 2013.
Many contemporaries knew Frederick Bruce Thomas by his Russian name, Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas. When I first heard of him a few weeks ago in an email from his current (and only) biographer, Vladimir Alexandrov, a professor at Yale, I knew I was in for an amazing story of "an indomitable character," as Alexandrov later described him over the phone, "and how he managed to reinvent himself repeatedly in the face of world historical changes," from the Jim Crow South to the Russian Revolution to World War I and the rise of the Turkish Republic. Early into an already-hot summer, reading Alexandrov's new book, The Black Russian, transported me across 25 different locales, all part of Thomas' improvisational life mapped out on the book's endpaper. It also filled me with wonder and sadness.
How had I not heard of Thomas before? What might he have accomplished if he'd gotten out of Constantinople with a new U.S. passport? Could he have done it again in Paris or even Harlem to keep the Renaissance going? Yet if he had returned to the U.S. — a big if — would he have been able to stand life back over the color line, or gone insane or — with a white wife and biracial children — been arrested or worse?
Vladimir Alexandrov has done a remarkable job piecing together the puzzle of Thomas' life (in fact, Alexandrov said the detective work became as compelling to him as the man himself, as was the writing), but he readily admits there are some secrets we will never know: among them, the first time Thomas heard jazz music and what his real view was of the racism he encountered repeatedly and very harshly in Constantinople, from American tourists and, more consequentially, U.S. consulate officials. As Alexandrov put it over the phone, by the time Thomas arrived in Turkey in 1919, "He had lived away from the States for 20 years and had had little contact with Americans, but was he ever far enough away to feel aloof from Jim Crow racism, or was it something more visceral still grabbing at his soul?"
Thomas' Greatest Secrets
Of all the secrets Frederick Bruce Thomas kept under his hat, for life, two stand out as most impactful. The first was the death of his father, Lewis, a former slave and landowner who had been swindled out of 600-plus acres in Coahoma County, Miss., by a white neighbor (the litigation would last years, befitting a Dickens tome). In late October 1890, just a few months after moving the family to Memphis, where he took work as a flagman for the railroad, Lewis Thomas was hacked to death in bed by a vengeful black tenant angry over Lewis' interference in his love life. Not only did Frank Shelton's ax slice Lewis' face and arm, it cleaved his victim's 17-year-old son's past and future. Just a short time later, Frederick Bruce Thomas, who'd only known life in the South, hopped on the rails (presumably on a Jim Crow car), first to Arkansas, then to St. Louis, Chicago and Brooklyn — anywhere, it seemed, but home.
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.
With Thomas' help, Johnson departed for Europe (the boxer will also appear in a later column in this series). Thomas remained in Moscow, however, his fate (and wealth) too tied to the Russian Empire to abandon. During the war, Thomas did his part to support the war effort by holding benefits for soldiers, but when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsar (and later, the provincial government), laying the groundwork for the Soviet state, none of that mattered. Not even Thomas' clubs' status as "the favorite place of Muscovites" could insulate him from the storm of revolution. To the followers of Lenin, he was just another Tsarist "White Russian" whose properties needed to be nationalized.
Fleeing to Odessa, then as a refugee to Constantinople, Thomas, at 47, had to reinvent himself again — this time with only $25 to his name. Adding to the pressure, he had his wife and three children (a fourth was missing) to support, with his second wife, Valentina Hoffman, (and other children) about to be nipping at his heels for money all the way from Western Europe. The amazing thing is that he almost pulled it off, which brings us back (or forward) to our American tourist looking to chase a good time with good money.
The Sultan of Jazz
Frederick Bruce Thomas was not only co-owner of two successful clubs in Constantinople. He was their frontman "directeur-propriétaire" (as his business card stated) and a very different kind of sultan, "the Sultan of Jazz" (a title coined by an American obituary writer). Whatever Thomas' virgin experience of jazz music was, he gave his refugee city its first taste at his Anglo-American Garden Villa (the "Stella Club") on August 31, 1919, with acts by "Mr. F. Miller and Mr. Tom." At his second club, also called Maxim, he hired Harry A. Carter and the Shimmie Orchestra to headline the first season in 1921 to 1922.
Others would follow. While it is impossible that Thomas heard jazz music as we know it firsthand in America (it didn't get going in Harlem until the 1920s), he always had "a nose for innovation," Alexandrov writes, which I guess makes Thomas "the Cyrano de Bergerac of Jazz," because you'd have to have some nose to sniff it all the way from Turkey in 1919. More likely, he sampled it in Europe or by trying out musical acts passing through.
Still, it is amazing, even astonishing, that a black American expat who'd left the U.S. in 1894 — and had become a Russian citizen in 1914 — was bringing America's greatest musical gift to the other side of the world by hosting black jazz bands in Constantinople before Louis Armstrong had even joined King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band or moved to New York City. But Thomas had already done similar things for the tango in Russia, Alexandrov writes, and whatever obstacles he had to overcome as a Russian refugee, in Turkey, at least in Ottoman, there was no word for "Negro." There were second acts, however (to riff off Thomas' Jazz Age contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald). Actually, by then Thomas was on his third or fourth act, telling those who visited his clubs "he was 'conservatively rated to be worth at least $250,000,' which," Alexandrov notes, "would amount to $10 million today."
Whatever you, our American tourist, had been looking for at Stella or Maxim — the music, the food, the drinks, the former Russian noblewomen Thomas had saved by hiring them to dance — Thomas could have greeted you in a number of languages. Had English been your tongue, that's when you would've recognized his Southern drawl; otherwise he might have projected what he thought you expected to see in Turkey — a dark Muslim in a classic fez — and order you a glass of champagne to sip along with other members of the Lost Generation.
At his clubs, the music was always front and center. One proud Turk who'd spent time in the States observed of the Stella Club (as quoted in The Black Russian):
Every one seems to be intoxicated and the weird music of a regular jazz band composed of genuine American negroes fires the blood of the rollicking crowd to demonstrations unknown even to the Bowery in its most flourishing days before the Volstead Act. Much bejewelled and rouged "noble" waitresses sit, drink and smoke at the tables of their own clients. The proprietor of the place, an American coloured man who was established in Russia before the Bolshevic revolution … is watching the crowd in a rather aloof manner. Frankly he seems to me more human than his clients; at least he is sober and acts with consideration and politeness, which is not the case with most of the people who are here.
Another guest was more ecstatic about what he saw and heard at Maxim:
We came into the well-lit basement. This is where the famous Black music was being played. What a crashing of percussion instruments, what a noise, what a cacophony of sound … One fellow was beating on the cymbals with all his might; another, seized with some rage, kept running his fingernails across a thick-stringed instrument, as if he had gone quite mad; while the violin, the piano, and the drum all mixed it up with them … it reminded me of the wild musical rituals performed by old [African] Arab pilgrims on their way to Mecca … I could no longer feel, hear, or walk; in short I was no longer among the living.
Yet even when the U.S. Consulate in Constantinople admitted that Thomas ran the "highest class cabaret" in the city, to visiting Americans, including one Southern white woman, Thomas would always be a "good, polite Negro," though one "rolling in wealth." Others couldn't help but over-sexualize him in their gossip, despite Thomas' long record of protecting his dancers from abuse. For this reason and others, Alexandrov explains, it would never be the same for Thomas in Constantinople as it had been in Moscow. While he certainly benefitted from (and was part of) Turkey's increasing secularization in the 1920s, he always seemed to be fending off rumors or creditors insisting he owed them money.
No one in the consulate knew Thomas was an ex-patriot when he applied to renew his U.S. passport (his only ticket out, since Russia was no longer safe). If anything, Alexandrov explains, American officials were too blinded by their own perceptions of Thomas — that whatever name he went by (English or Russian), however rich he was, he was a black man with a white wife and "mulatto" children who would have been crazy to return to the U.S. under Jim Crow. As a result, when the Allies left and the Turkish Nationalists swept into Constantinople in 1923, Thomas was again on the verge of losing everything he'd built — this time to taxes, regulations and a state-sponsored rival, the Yildiz Municipal Casino under Italian businessman Mario Serra. There would be other ventures before it was all over, other attempts to break through by Thomas, including the opening of Villa Tom, another "Negro Jazz" club, but never again would he reach the heights of wealth and acclaim he'd enjoyed as "The Black Russian."
And so one wonders what hearing jazz music on the border of East and West evoked in him — those evolving strains of the blues, the memories of his parents' church, the voices of those black singers who had been shaped for many more years under American-style racism — at least while the party lasted. For a few short years later, there would be no sounds of jazz or any music where Frederick Bruce Thomas ended up — a man without a country but with insurmountable debts. A genius of self-reinvention, the early Jazz Age's black Gatsby abroad, Thomas died in Constantinople in 1928 at the age of 55. Under new ownership, his club Maxim would continue for another 50 years.
There was at least one more astonishing discovery that Vladimir Alexandrov made in the course of his research. Thomas had a living grandson, Bruce Thomas, residing in the City of Lights to which his grandfather had never made it back — Paris — himself having married a famous designer of lingerie, Chantal Thomass. Bruce was more than helpful, Alexandrov said over the phone, but the story he recounted, one based on family oral history, was "wild," including claims that Frederick Bruce Thomas had been born in New Mexico and was (predictably!) more Native American than black (a common claim, as we have seen, among African Americans). In "fact," Bruce said his grandfather hailed from the so-called Tomac tribe and apparently had shipped out of Vera Cruz on a merchant ship and became a smuggler on the South China Sea, where, in a Shanghai bar, he saved the life of a rich Russian who was so grateful he took Thomas to Moscow and set him up in style.
Here's what I know: The real story of Frederick Bruce Thomas' life is in every way more compelling than the legend (though I promised Alexandrov I wouldn't give away all the secrets in his book). So if, like the lead character in Woody Allen's film Midnight in Paris, you ever have the opportunity to travel back in time to the 1920s — this time to Constantinople — follow your ears to club Maxim in Pera's Taksim Square and look for the black man in the top hat, the one offering the finest jazz music in town. He might just tell you, as he did one tourist, how he'd overcome "difficulties that would stagger the ordinary man."
Unlike many actual Americans whom Thomas met abroad, I hope you will believe him. I know his story staggered me.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.