BRICKTOP by Bricktop with James Haskins


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This memoir by the legendary ""hostess-entertainer"" of between-the-wars Paris has, not too surprisingly, a good deal of the over-homogenized flavor of as-told-to autobiographies. (Bricktop is, after all, well into her late 80s, and Haskins is a veteran YA biographer.) Somewhat disappointing, too, is the lack of warmth and feeling in Bricktop's narration: ""I was still very young when I promised myself, 'Nobody's ever going to make me cry,'""she says--and along with that toughness there's a distanced, uninvolving quality here. But, despite these drawbacks, anyone interested in either the saloon/cabaret performing tradition or the Paris-expatriate scene will want to follow skinny, red-haired ""colored girl"" Ada Smith--starting in pre-WW I Chicago, where she was fascinated by saloons even as a child. (""I don't think I set out to want anything but to get into the back rooms of those saloons."") As a teenager, Ada went dancing-and-singing on the shabbier vaudeville circuits, then got off-and-on stints as a back-room singer, including a 1913 spot at ""wonderful"" Jack Johnson's Cafe Champ: Ada was singing in the private dining room one night when a shot rang out--the suicide of Johnson's white wife Etta. After a doomed love affair with an opium addict, Ada (now""Bricktop"") was a headliner in Harlem, but restless--and accepted a 1924 invitation to sing at Le Grand Duc in Paris. Success came slowly there, however--first with help from the social/literary set (frequently taking a drunken Scott Fitzgerald home to Zelda), then really catching on as the favorite Charleston teacher of ""shy"" Cole Porter, with Elsa Maxwell and Lady Mendl adding to the hoopla. Soon, then, Bricktop had her own club, hired Mabel Mercer, entertained everyone from Noel (""He was always trying to make somebody"") to the Prince of Wales and his brother Prince George (""He was very nice. His favorite song was 'Blue Room'""). But the Depression brought the end of a bad marriage and hard times; the Duchess of Windsor and Lady M. helped Bricktop to sail to N.Y. in 1939--with disappointing attempts to recreate Paris in Manhattan; Mexico City followed, then a dim postwar Paris comeback, and finally a good club in Rome--with Bricktop now converted to Catholicism and a vow of celibacy. Song enthusiasts will find only a page or two about that great repertoire for non-singing ""diseuse"" Bricktop (including ""Miss Otis Regrets,"" written for her by Cole). Collectors of society/showfolk anecdotes, however, will find no shortage here--from Tallulah to Rubirosa to King Carol of Romania.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1983
ISBN: 1566491142
Publisher: Atheneum