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    Frederick and the Ladies of Constantinople

    Frederick Thomas knew well that variety was the spice of entertainment and therefore one of the keys to his success.  As he had in earlier seasons, he periodically introduced innovations as a way to expand his clientele and to keep the regulars coming back:  these included a roller-skating rink, a “genuine” black American jazz band (in contrast to earlier white European “imitations”), and even Friday afternoon matinees especially for “Turkish ladies.” 

    Frederick’s aim with them was of course purely pragmatic:  if he succeeded in getting women who had been used to a traditional, housebound Ottoman existence to venture into his entertainment garden for the sake of some staid secular entertainment, he would be developing an entirely new category of clients.  But whether he realized it or not, he would also be abetting, in yet another way that complemented couples dancing, the revolution in Turkish mores that was beginning to gather momentum in Constantinople.



    Contributing to this change was a second, and very different category of women that Frederick began to attract to Stella in increasing numbers during the 1920 summer season.  These were the famous “dames serveuses,” or “serving ladies,” or, most simply, “waitresses,” that he and other restaurateurs hired and who left an indelible impression on the imaginations of locals and tourists alike during the early and middle 1920s.  There is hardly a memoir of the city during these years that does not mention these alluring young women.

    Among the waves of refugees from the south of Russia who kept arriving in Constantinople after every new setback for the White Army that was battling the Bolsheviks were numerous members of the Russian nobility.  Many of the women who belonged to this class had never had to work for a living and had no professions or salable skills.  At the same time, quite a few of the younger ones were very attractive, had well-developed social graces, and often knew foreign languages, in particular French.  The majority of the refugees were also destitute, whatever their class, and were willing to take any work they could find. 

    Owners of restaurants quickly realized that they had an exploitable resource.  Pretty and graceful young women, in particular blue-eyed blondes who were real “princesses,” “countesses,” or “duchesses,” could be a very effective draw for any establishment that was trying to attract more customers.  This was especially true if most of the clients were men used to seeing only waiters, which had been the norm in conservative Ottoman society, or women who were olive-complexioned, sloe-eyed, dark haired, and usually swathed in fabric from head to toe. 

    Thus it happened that the French term “dame serveuse” came to denote a young Russian noblewoman who occupied a tantalizing place in Constantinople’s collective male imagination—whether that of a Muslim Turk, a Levantine, an Allied officer, a fellow Russian refugee, or a tourist taking in the city’s exotic sights. 

    The thrill that a title of nobility would give a customer, and the resulting tips, were sufficient reason for many of these ladies to enhance their birthrights, sometimes quite shamelessly: never did any city in Russia have as many women of blue and even royal blood as Constantinople in the early 1920s. 

    It was also inevitable that the ambiguous status the young women had—underpaid and frequently obligated to dance with any male client who took a fancy to them—made it easy for some to slip into the demi-monde.

    (To be continued)

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