For Women’s History Month, GO is celebrating LGBTQ women we wish we could have learned about in high school history class. In case you missed one, you can find them all here.
Her full name was Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, but friends called her Bricktop for her bright red hair. Born in West Virginia in 1894, Smith grew up in Chicago and became an avid jazz singer and dancer. She was a professional vaudeville performer by the age of 17, touring the country with comedy duo Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lylesand impressing the likes of Duke Ellington and Cole Porter.
Smith was drawn to Paris for their cafe society, so when she was invited to work at the Le Grand Duc, she made the move. Cole Porter hired her to perform at his parties where she taught guests how to do the Charleston and another dance called “the Black Bottom.” (She famously instructed the future King Edward VIII how to do both.) She soon started to manage the clubs she entertained at, including Le Grand Duc and The Music Box, and eventually opened her own club, Chez Bricktop.
Smith was a well-loved fixture in the Parisian club scene, a celebrity among the who’s who of the 1920s. They called her the “doyenne of cafe society.” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the club in his story, “Babylon Revisited,” and T.S. Elliott dedicated a poem in her honor (“Bricktops”). Gertrude Stein was a patron. The Root writes that Chez Bricktop was a “refuge [for African Americans] from the stifling racism and limited opportunities of Jim Crow America in the interwar years.” Much of her success came for her booking of African-American jazz musicians and performers, and it was at the Brickstop that Smith met Josephine Baker. The two had an intimate relationship as detailed in “Josephine: The Hungry Heart,” a biography written by Baker’s son. (Smith married singer Peter DuConge in 1929, but they separated a few years later.)
Smith ran a French radio show in 1938 before relocating to Mexico City a few years later and opening a new club. She returned to Europe in 1949 and opened a club in Rome, which was in operation until 1961 when Smith retired, saying she was “tired of staying up all night.” She moved back to the States, helping her sick sister in Chicago and continuing to perform limited engagements, even into her 80s.
In 1974, she played herself in Jack Jordan’s “Honeybaby, Honeybaby,” and again in Woody Allen‘s 1983 mockumentary Zelig. Her memoir, “Bricktop by Bricktop: Prohibition Harlem, Cafe Society Paris, Movie Mad Rome, The Queen of the Nightclubs Tells the Exuberant Story of a Fabulous Life,” came out the same year, just a few months before she died in her sleep in her New York apartment. She was 89. Ada “Bricktop” Smith
Ada “Bricktop” Smith was a pivotal figure in helping to bring African-American artists and performers to stages in both the U.S. and especially Europe, and her want to have a place that anyone could feel at home made it a queer-friendy and inclusive spot for forward-thinkers in times of war and the Great Depression.
“Everybody belonged,” she wrote in her memoir, “or else they didn’t bother coming to Bricktop’s more than once.”