West Virginia Hillbilly
August 6, 1983
She gave Duke Ellington his first big New York break in Prohibition Harlem. In caf‚ society Paris she took a young singer named Josephine Baker under her wing, worked with a busboy named Langston Hughes, taught the Prince of Wales to do the Black Bottom and caused F. Scott Fitzgerald to say: "My greatest claim to fame is that I discovered Bricktop before Cole Porter."
Now the whole story of her fabulous life is told for the first time in Bricktop by Bricktop with James Haskins, to be published by Atheneum on August 15, 1983, one day after her 89th birthday.
Born Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith in a small town in West Virginia, Bricktop moved to Chicago as a little girl. She recalls her early days peeking under saloon doors and longing to be able to sing in the backrooms; going on the road at sixteen (it was while playing a saloon in Harlem that she was dubbed "Bricktop" because of her red hair); working for heavyweight champion Jack Johnson at the Caf‚ Champ in Chicago; and the offer to go to Paris, where she arrived in 1924 at LeGrand Duc, "a room so tiny it felt crowed with six pairs of elbows leaning on the bar." Early one morning Cole Porter heard her sing one of his songs and began bringing his friends to hear Bricktop. Soon she was the queen of the nightclub scene of Paris.
Bricktop recounts her remarkable life the 20s and 30s when everybody who was anybody went to Bricktop's; getting out of Paris just before the Germans came in (with the help of Lady Mendl and the Duchess of Windsor)' her unsuccessful attempts to recreate Bricktop's in New York; her years in Mexico City; her conversion to Catholicism; and Bricktop's in Rome where she watched the marriage of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner break up and unwittingly presided over the first appearances together in public of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. From Sophie Tucker to Jascha Heifetz, from Jelly Roll Morton to Jimmy Walker, from Tallulah Bankhead, Gloria Swanson and Shirley MacLaine to Paul Robeson and Edward G. Robinson, her story is filled with anecdotes about the people she knew and her outspoken opinions of them all, be it F. Scott Fitzgerald ("It was impossible not to like him. He was a little boy in a man's body. He hadn't grown up and he didn't intend to."), Ernest Hemingway ("I never took to him. He just wanted to bring people down.") or Martin Luther King, Jr. ("He was one of the most calm, collected together persons I have ever met in my life.") BRICKTOP is receiving high praise:
"This living legend tells her own story in her lively, outspoken
way...A star studded tale indeed...Haskins has done a superb job of
keeping her narrative flow while letting Bricktop's Ebullient
personality speak for itself. Delightful reading."
"Loaded with wonderful ancedotes...A life like hers deserves to
be remembered and shared with others,"
"Her book tells it all in a lighthearted, amusing way, dropping
names like Fitzgerald, Waugh, Capote, Cole Porter, Schiaparelli,
Chevalier and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on every page. It's a
sure fire winner!"
"This book sounds just like the Bricktop I know-charming, tough,
"A fascinating story. I have never heard anybody else who could
equal her in sheer drive and guts."
Bricktop now makes her home in New York City. Her co-author James Haskins has written more than fifty nonfiction adult and children's books including biographies of Langston Hughes and Diana Ross and The Cotton Club which will soon be a movie. He is a professor of English at the University of Florida and divides his time between New York and Gainesville, Florida.
Sources on Bricktop