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Ada "Bricktop" Smith

Bricktop
Born August 14, 1894
Alderson, West Virginia
Died February 1, 1984 (aged 89)
New York City, New York

Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, better known as Bricktop (August 14, 1894 – February 1, 1984) was an American dancer, singer, vaudevillian, and self-described saloon-keeper who owned the nightclub Chez Bricktop in Paris from 1924 to 1961, as well as clubs in Mexico City and Rome. She has been called "...one of the most legendary and enduring figures of twentieth-century American cultural history."

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Early life

Smith was born in Alderson, West Virginia, the youngest of four children. When her father died, her family relocated to Chicago. It was there that saloon life caught her fancy, and where she acquired her nickname, "Bricktop," for her flaming red hair and freckles. She began performing when she was very young, and by sixteen, she was touring with TOBA (Theatre Owners' Booking Association) and on the Pantages vaudeville circuit.

At age twenty, her performance tours brought her to New York City. While at Barron's Exclusive Club, a nightspot in Harlem, she put in a good word for a band called Elmer Snowden's Washingtonians, and the club booked them. One of its members was Duke Ellington.

Her first meeting with Cole Porter is related in her obituary in the Huntington (West Virginia) Herald-Dispatch:

Porter once walked into the cabaret and ordered a bottle of wine. "Little girl, can you do the Charleston?" he asked. Yes, she said. And when she demonstrated the new dance, he exclaimed, "What legs! What legs!"

Cafe society

By 1924, she was in Paris. Cole Porter hosted many parties, "lovely parties" as Bricky called them, where he hired her as an entertainer, often to teach his guests the latest dance craze such as the Charleston and the Black Bottom. In Paris, Bricktop began operating the clubs where she performed, including The Music Box and Le Grand Duc. She called her next club "Chez Bricktop," and in 1929 she relocated it to 66 rue Pigalle. Her headliner was a young Mabel Mercer, who was to become a legend in cabaret.

Bricktop broadcast a radio program in Paris from 1938-39, for the French government. She left Paris during World War II.

Known for her signature cigars, the "doyenne of cafe society" drew many celebrated figures to her club, including Cole Porter, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald mentions the club in his 1931 short story Babylon Revisited. Her proteges included Duke Ellington, Mabel Mercer and Josephine Baker. According to Jean-Claude Baker, son to Josephine Baker, as recorded in his book about his mother's life, titled Josephine: The Hungry Heart, Josephine and Ada were involved in a lesbian affair for a time, early in their careers.[1] She worked with Langston Hughes when he was still a busboy. The Cole Porter song, "Miss Otis Regrets," was written for her to perform, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli wrote a song called "Brick Top", and she has been written about by Fitzgerald, Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, Evelyn Waugh and T. S. Eliot.

Later life

Bricktop made a brief cameo appearance, as herself, in Woody Allen's 1983 mockumentary film Zelig, in which she "reminisced" about a visit by Leonard Zelig to her club, and an unsuccessful attempt by Cole Porter to find a rhyme for "You're the tops, you're Leonard Zelig." She also appeared in the 1974 film Honeybaby, Honeybaby, where she played herself operating a "Bricktop's" in Beirut, Lebanon.

In 1972, Bricktop made her only recording, "So Long Baby," with Cy Coleman. She preferred not to be called a singer or dancer, but rather a performer.

She wrote her autobiography, Bricktop by Bricktop, with the help of James Haskins, the prolific author who wrote biographies of Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks. It was published in 1983 by Welcome Rain Publishers (ISBN 0-689-11349-8), and is "...crammed with anecdotes about the rich, powerful, and famous," including John Barrymore, Jelly Roll Morton, Jack Johnson, Legs Diamond, John Steinbeck, Django Reinhardt, Frank Sinatra, Edward G. Robinson, Tallulah Bankhead, Gloria Swanson, and "...a dazzling array of kings and princes."

Bricktop died in her sleep in her apartment on New York City's West Side in 1984.

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