After an hour he left and strolled toward Montmartre…He passed a lighted door from which issued music and stopped with a sense of familiarity; it was Bricktop’s, where he had parted with so many hours and so much money.
So F. Scott Fitzgerald nostalgically recalled the Lost Generation’s favorite Parisian watering spot in his story, Babylon Revisited. During five decades, free souls like Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart drank elbow-to-elbow in Bricktop’s bistros in Paris and later Rome, lured by the ambiance and even more by the hostess herself. She was a captivating black chanteuse and dancer from Chicago whose jambes surpassed Mistinguette’s and whose christened name, Ada Smith, became “Bricktop” because of her bright red hair. Cole Porter was so smitten that he wrote Miss Otis Regrets for her, and a chagrined John Steinbeck begged forgiveness with a taxiful of yellow roses after she had him bounced one night for unruly behavior.
A lifelong expatriate, Bricktop, now 80, always yearned to return to Chicago, where her career began. This month, an incredible 60 years after she last performed there—on a bill with jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton—Bricktop achieved her dream and was again singing in a North Side club, The Tango—but, as the singer herself noted, “Anywhere I entertain becomes Bricktop’s.” Wandering from table to table, she guided her clear parlando through copyright songs like Ballin’ the Jack and I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird. When Bricky, as friends call her, spotted jazzman Ramsey Lewis sitting with his wife, she coquettishly sang, “I’m a big fat mama, and every time I shimmy, a skinny woman loses her man.”
“I’m 100 percent American Negro with a trigger Irish temper,” Bricktop laughs about her upbringing in Alderson, W. Va., the daughter of a black barber and a blond half-Irish mother. When her father died, they moved to Chicago where the young girl became a South Side Edith Piaf, singing on the streets and in saloons. At 17 she drifted to towns like Omaha and Minneapolis where, as she recollects, “the pimps and whores are the best; they never try to hook you on drugs.” Her breakthrough came in 1924 when a Paris boîte finally hired her away from Connie’s Inn in Harlem.
By the time she started Bricktop’s, she was teaching the Charleston to Cole Porter and his friends, prompting the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) to ask for a private lesson, she says, “to learn to dance the Black Bottom.” Jazz singer Mabel Mercer landed her first gig on piano at Bricktop’s. Saucy but never naughty, Bricky banned profanity in her clubs, which were always intimate, elegant and, as Henry Miller wrote in Tropic of Cancer, “too expensive.” Her marriage to saxophonist Peter Duconge, an Armstrong sideman, lasted barely two notes. During World War II she closed her Paris club, but by 1950, after converting to Catholicism and moving to Rome to be “nearer the Holy Father,” she began a smash 20-year run on the Via Veneto.
Now that her generation is genuinely lost, Bricktop has repatriated herself. She is in a $50-a-night hotel suite in a town where she grew up in a $6-a-month tenement. “I never have a dime,” she says. “The money I don’t give away I spend on living—my only vice.”