Email Vladimir Alexandrov
This form does not yet contain any fields.

    WELCOME TO THE BLACK RUSSIAN BLOG--DEDICATED TO TOPICS CONNECTED WITH, AND CIRCLING AROUND, MY BIOGRAPHY OF FREDERICK BRUCE THOMAS, THE SON OF MISSISSIPPI SLAVES WHO BECAME A MILLIONAIRE IMPRESARIO IN PRE-REVOLUTIONARY MOSCOW AND 'THE SULTAN OF JAZZ' IN CONSTANTINOPLE To subscribe to this blog's RSS feed, please click on the icon above

    Public Lecture and Meetings with Students at Davidson College

     

    I had a very enjoyable visit to Davidson College in North Carolina on September 7-8, with a public lecture about The Black Russian and meetings with two classes in which students had read the book.  During the discussions the students raised lots of interesting points and asked intelligent questions, focusing on the "seams" in the story.  Many thanks to all the sponsors--the Russian Studies, Africana Studies, and History departments, the Public Lectures Committee, and the Dean Rusk International Studies Program--and especially the organizers, Professor Amanda Ewington and Professsor Roman Utkin (who just completed his Ph. D. in Yale's Slavic Department and joined the Davidson faculty in August, beginning what everyone who knows him also knows will be a brilliant career).

    THE BLACK RUSSIAN Musical--First Preview Performance

     

     

    The first preview of the musical based on my biography of Frederick Bruce Thomas will be staged tonight, 7 pm, at Moscow 57, 168 1/2 Delancey Street, NYC.  We hope that there will be additional performances scheduled soon.  Here is the program:

    First Preview Performance 

    THE  BLACK  RUSSIAN

    A  Musical

    Sunday, April 26, 2015, 7 p. m.

    Moscow 57, 168½ Delancey Street, N.Y.C.

    Starring Tyrone Roberson

    as

    Frederick Bruce Thomas

    Directed by Mercedes Ellington

    Music by Ethan Fein

    Lyrics and Book by Vladimir & Sybil Alexandrov

    Based on the biography The Black Russian

    by Vladimir Alexandrov

    Produced  by Moscow 57   212.260.5775

    ******************************************************************

    The setting is Maxim, Frederick Bruce Thomas’s elegant nightclub in Constantinople in 1926.

    THE SONGS

    1. Sultan of Jazz

    2. The Most Southern Place on Earth

    3. Going North

    4. Simply Being a Man

    5. My Black Russian Soul

    6. Elvira, My Love

    7. All the Glories of the Past

    8. Can’t Knock Me Down

    9. I Fear the Earth is Moving

     

    THE BLACK RUSSIAN Is Coming to Turkey

     

     

     

    I’m very pleased that Frederick Thomas’s remarkable life will become known to Turkish readers in a translation to be brought out late next year by the publisher Kültür Yayınları in Istanbul.  One of the things I hope will happen as a result is that people who have photographs, family recollections, or other memorabilia pertaining to Frederick’s life in Constantinople from 1919 to 1928 will read the book and be moved to contact me. 

    This is what already happened during the past six months with distant descendants of Frederick who emailed me from such far-flung places as Luxembourg, Australia, Geneva, and Dubai to tell me what a revelation my book was for them because they knew hardly anything about Frederick. 

    Even more fascinating is that two people in Moscow—a descendant of one of Frederick’s Russian business partners in 1911, and a distant relative of a daughter Frederick had (the result of an affair about which I did not know!)—sent me remarkable photographs they had of him that had been preserved in their families for over a century and that were new to me.  (I’ve been told even more are coming.)  I hope to post about this later, once I’ve secured permission to share the information, especially the photographs and the story of the affair (about which very little is actually known, although there are photographs of the woman and her daughter).  If possible, I’d like to include several of these wonderful new photographs in the Turkish and Russian translations of my book (the latter should be out in a year as well).

    Family memories fade quickly, and are often largely gone by the third or fourth generation. So, dear readers, write down what you know, keep old photos in a safe place, and pass everything on to younger generations so that future biographers will have this invaluable information when they need it.

    Frederick, the “KKK” of Constantinople, and the American Pearl (continued)

    Although the plan to rescue Pearl seemed to begin as a joke (please see my previous post) it was actually brought to life and had an amusing resolution. 

    After several weeks of plotting, scouting, and indecision, a dozen intrepid Americans decided to act.  One night, taking advantage of the Prince’s trip ashore with half of his crew, they slid up to the yacht in a boat belonging to a Turkish fisherman who had agreed to help them, overpowered the sailor on watch, trapped the remaining guards in their quarters, and proclaimed the Meteor captured “in the name of the Ku Klux Klan of Constantinople.”

    “We have come to rescue you,” the leader of the raiding party blurted out when “Princess Pearl of Hollywood, U. S. A.,” suddenly appeared at her cabin door, dressed in a fetching kimono and looking very angry. 

    “You roughnecks have your nerve with you,” she snapped and slammed the door in their astonished faces. 

    The chastened Americans hurried off the yacht and returned to Maxim, where the “K. K. K. of Constantinople was permanently dissolved at a killjoy konklave.” 

    This time, however, they presumably paid for their drinks themselves.

    But the Prince continued to cut a swath through various hot spots in the U. S. and Europe for years after. He inevitably also left a lurid trace in many magazines and newspapers that relished his exploits. 

    Here is a report of one of his adventures from 1929, as described in Time magazine.  The article is entitled “Ibrahim’s Best Bust” (and uses a somewhat different set of names for him than the ones that Frederick’s tipplers did):

     

    A beautifully restored 1921 Farman A6B Super Sport


    Prince Mohammed Ah Ibrahim of Egypt is a spectacular figure in Europe's baccarat belt. He traces his ancestry back to Mehemet Ali Pasha, the "Terrible Turk" who conquered all Egypt in 1805, beat the British at Rosetta, decorated the streets of Cairo with the bluish severed heads of British soldiers. Prince Ibrahim disregards his cousin, Egypt's plump King Fuad I, nor is he interested in Egyptian politics. On an income of $150,000 a year, he confines his interests to champagne, roulette, a beautiful wife and numerous attractive friends. Also he takes a sparring partner with him wherever he goes, though boxing circles are more impressed by the fearsome hairiness of His Highness's chest than by the power of his punch. Lastly Prince Ibrahim has a talent for catastrophe.

    In a magnificent bust-up near Montélimar in southern France last autumn His Highness wrecked a brand new super-costly Farman, strewed the highway with a tonneau full of fragile young ladies, escaped unscathed. Some three weeks ago, off the coast of Norway occurred Prince Ibrahim's latest, grandest bust-up. Five minutes after His Highness's famed quarter-million-dollar Diesel yacht Nazpermer ("Beautiful Lady") struck a rock, it sank. How it all happened, a Miss Margaret Woolf of Rochester, N. Y., cheerfully told Paris reporters last week. Excerpts:

    "When we retired for the night it was still light. . . . The sea was absolutely calm. I was awakened by a terrific crash which threw me partly out of my bunk. . . . I ran in my nightdress out into the saloon where I found the Prince and Princess also in night clothes. . . . Water began coming in on top of me through the portholes. The Prince aided me out on deck, returning to get the Princess. . . . They had told a sailor to swim with me, as the captain said that the ship was sinking so fast it was impossible to make any use of the lifeboats.

    "We were about 200 yards from the rocky shore, so I told the sailor I would swim by myself, not that I was brave, but I like swimming. . . . The Princess, who does not swim well, was helped by two sailors, and was almost the last to jump.

    "We all clambered ashore over the slimy rocks, most of us almost entirely unclothed. My nightdress was torn, and a sailor gave me an Arab cloak which was wringing wet. One of the ship's officers still wore his fez, but he had no trousers on. . . ."

    The Roaring Twenties  . . . those were the days.

    Frederick, the “KKK” of Constantinople, and the American Pearl

    Frederick Thomas had a penchant for embracing people during spontaneous expressions of good feeling.  Once this even led him to treat in light-hearted fashion something as inherently humorless as the Ku Klux Klan. 

    On the night of July 4, 1923, his popular nightclub Maxim had filled up with American businessmen, merchant sailors, mining engineers, and, as an observer put it, other “adventurers” from every corner of the Near East—all of whom had naturally gravitated to the place to celebrate the holiday.  Feelings were running especially high and Frederick, “the jovial American Negro proprietor,” was generously “setting up drinks on the house time and again.”  Completing the inviting setting was a jazz band playing “Last Night on the Back Porch (I Loved Her Best of All)” and a bevy of Greek and Levantine dancing girls. 

    The night was progressing happily when, suddenly, “a dense hush fell on the noisy, singing, cursing assemblage as a beautiful young American girl entered with a handsome Egyptian and two ugly Lascar sailors.  ‘That’s her,’ whispered the habitués of Maxim’s, ‘and two of her guards’.” 

     

     

    Many of the Americans knew that Prince Mehmed Ali, a cousin of King Fuad of Egypt, had recently arrived in Constantinople on the Meteor, a stunning sailing yacht that had belonged to the German Kaiser, and that Pearl Shepard, an American chorus girl and film actress, was on board.  Many also believed that Pearl was a “semi-prisoner” because she was never seen to leave the yacht without the Prince or his “fierce” East Indian guards.  Rumor also had it that a woman’s “piercing screams for help from the direction of the Meteor were heard many nights.” 

    The combination of Pearl’s unexpected appearance at Maxim and the patriotic feelings that Frederick’s libations helped fuel emboldened one of the American mining engineers to suggest “we can rush those Lascars and rescue her!”  But a more sober voice prevailed by pointing out that “the Egyptian has a dozen more of his sailors outside, and they are armed to the teeth with automatics, knives, and blackjacks.” 

    For a while the Americans watched the Egyptian and his lovely companion, who seemed to be throwing “deeply appealing glances at her compatriots.”  But the Prince threatened her each time he caught her looking in their direction until, finally, he had enough and “dragged her” to a huge limousine outside with the Lascars covering his retreat in another big car. 

    By then the sun was beginning to rise behind the Bosporus.  The mining engineer decided that it was time to act and proposed that all the Americans present form the first “Ku Klux Klan in the Near East,” a suggestion that was greeted enthusiastically.  Thus it came to pass that the “mining engineer, the vice president of one of the largest New York shipping companies, an American lawyer from Paris, and half a dozen other Yankees, including several Jews and Catholics” all solemnly chanted, their tongues firmly in their cheeks: “I swear to be faithful to this K. K. K. and rescue our American compatriot from that awful Egyptian.”  Given where this all happened and whom it included, it may well have been the first time in history that an American black man witnessed an oath such as this. [To be continued]

    Frederick Thomas and Armistice Day

    When the Great War ended with the signing of the armistice between the Allies and Germany on November 11, 1918, at Compèigne, France, Frederick had been in Odessa, Russia, for the past four months, following his harrowing escape from the Bolsheviks in Moscow.  Although far from the momentous event near Paris, Frederick and scores of thousands of others like him knew that their lives were now also changed because the Germans occupying the north coast of the Black Sea would have to leave and the French would replace them.  It seemed at the time that this would be the end of the Bolsheviks.

    I was reminded of this today in Paris when I went to watch the Armistice commemoration that takes place on November 11 at 11 am every year, with a parade of some one hundred and fifty cavalrymen of the Garde républicaine on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées while wreaths are placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe.

     

    A Young Turk’s Disdain for Western Popular Culture, or Not Everyone Loved Frederick’s Jazz

    One warm summer evening in 1921, a well-born and sharp-eyed young Turk visited Frederick Thomas’s nightclub in Constantinople and noted his impressions of the place.  These are jolting because they hint at some of the nationalistic forces that were already at work in the country, and that would transform it, and everyone’s lives in it, in just a few years. 

     

     

    Mufty-Zade K. Zia Bey had lived in the United States for a decade before he and his American wife returned to Constantinople during the Allied occupation.  Together with a Greek friend, they decided to sample the town’s nightlife and began with a Russian restaurant in Pera, which they followed with a performance by dancers from the Imperial Russian Ballet in Petrograd.  Then, at the Greek’s suggestion, they continued the evening at a “café chantant” that was widely thought to be the “best” in the city. 

    Frederick’s “Anglo-American Villa” was crowded when the three arrived, and Zia Bey, who was very proud of his conservative and traditional Turkish values, was immediately put off by the libertine atmosphere he witnessed:

     

    Every one seems to be intoxicated and the weird music of a regular jazz band composed of genu­ine American Negroes fires the blood of the rollick­ing crowd to demonstrations unknown even to the Bowery in its most flourishing days before the Volstead Act. Much bejeweled and rouged “noble” waitresses sit, drink and smoke at the tables of their own clients. The proprietor of the place, an American colored man who was established in Russia before the Bolshevik revolu­tion and who—it seems—protected and helped most efficiently some British and American officers and relief workers at the time of the Revolution, is watching the crowd in a rather aloof manner. Frankly he seems to me more human than his clients; at least he is sober and acts with con­sideration and politeness, which is not the case with most of the people who are here.

     

    Despite his sophistication and familiarity with the United States, Zia Bey disapproved of the drinking, the unbridled exuberance, and the women on gaudy display.  By contrast, his sketch of Frederick is very un-American—and quite Turkish—in its respectful acceptance. 

    Zia Bey also bristles at the way everything about the Villa reflects the Allied presence in Constantinople and the secondary role that has been forced on the city’s Muslim natives:

     

    Not one real Turk is in sight. Many foreigners, but mostly Greeks, Armenians and Levantines—with dissipated puffed-up faces, greedy of pleasure and materialism. We have a liqueur. The show is a vaudeville which is not very interesting. Every minute that passes makes the crowd more and more demonstrative.  Carayanni [the Greek friend] is enjoying it immensely, but I realize that our presence puts a damper on his good time and although he de­fends himself in the most exquisite manner when I tease him about it and accuse him of being evidently an “habitué” of the place, the glances that he exchanges surreptitiously with one of the waitresses—a real Russian beauty with pale skin, fire-red lips and languid black eyes—confirm my suspicions.  

     

    After a short while, Zia Bey decides that the Villa’s alien atmosphere has gotten “decidedly too tense” for him and his wife, and starts to think about leaving, when, suddenly, a party of two couples enters a private box near the stage and “immediately pulls the curtain, thus cut­ting itself entirely from the view of the public.”  Zia Bey’s wife looks at him with genuine surprise, as if she has imagined that the four are about to launch into some sort of incredible debauch behind the curtain.  “We really must go,” he quickly concludes, and after leaving the Greek friend to his Russian beauty, they hurry to take one of the automobiles waiting outside in a long line by the curb. 

    Before long, Zia Bey and his wife are safely out of Pera, across the Galata Bridge, and back home in “our Stamboul, the beautiful Turkish city, sleeping in the night the sleep of the just; poor Stamboul, ruined by fires and by wars, sad in her misery, but decent and noble; a dethroned queen dreaming of her past splendour and trusting in her future.” 

    Zia Bey’s attitude represented manifold concealed threats to the world of which Frederick was a part, although few could have foreseen at the time how these would develop.    

    The Tragedy of the Russian Waitresses in Constantinople

    When dining at one of the popular Russian émigré restaurants in Constantinople in the 1920s where the waitresses were all attractive young Russian women--the city’s renowned “dames serveuses” (please see my previous posts)--more than one visiting foreigner was moved by the sight of an exiled Russian officer rising from his table with an expression of somber respect on his face to kiss the hand of the waitress approaching him because they had known each other under very different circumstances in their previous lives. 

     

    Princess Lucien Murat

     

    Princess Lucien Murat, a French tourist who took an interest in the plight of the Russian refugees in Constantinople, had a series of similar heart-wrenching encounters with a number of people she had known in pre-Revolutionary Petrograd:  a Baron S., whom she found working as a street bootblack, a Colonel X., who now manned a cloakroom in a restaurant. And then, at a bar

    I fall upon my old friend, the Princess B. . . Fortunately for her, she had once been to America and there had learned the now lost art of mixing cocktails.  Here in Pera, all night long, in order to feed her child, she shakes Martinis and Manhattans.  To talk to her, I climb awkwardly on one of the high, bar stools, my legs hanging loose.  I think of the last ball in Petrograd at which we met.  How beautiful she was that night in a silvery dress, with her marvelous emeralds in a diadem on her lovely forehead. . . . The Princess tells me her lamentable tale, her escape from the Bolsheviks, her flight in a crowded cattle-car . . . A client interrupts us.  She smiles and suggests an American cocktail.  Meanwhile, the “Boss” hovers around, an ebony black, who, in the old days, kept the most fashionable restaurant in Moscow where, many a time, the Princess dined and danced to the music of the tziganes.

    Princess Murat does not mention it, but Frederick Thomas (he is not named in the sketch, which appeared in Vogue in 1922) developed a reputation among Russian refugees in Constantinople as a humane, as well as a watchful, employer, who protected his waitresses from aggressive clients.

    Princess Murat’s reaction to seeing her old Russian friend in Frederick’s employ is jolting because it is a reminder of how anomalous his entire enterprise actually was; how much it depended on a political and social situation that was just a small eddy in the broad flow of history after the Great War; and, consequently, how vulnerable it would be to any shift in the flow’s direction.  Her reaction also provides a glimpse of the dames serveuses from a different point of view than that of an admiring male.

    THE BLACK RUSSIAN A Brief Video Interview

     

     

    The MacMillan Report is a series of short video interviews with people at Yale about their work.  Here is one with me that was uploaded today in which I talk about writing the book and about its possible afterlives. (To see the video, please click on the screenshot above.)

     

    My Late Father and THE BLACK RUSSIAN

    My father, Eugene A. Alexandrov, died last week, on September 16, 2014, at the age of 98 and five days.  He was born on September 11, 1916, in the small city Cherkassy, which was then in the Kiev Governorate (Guberniia) of the Russian Empire.  His parents taught in local gymnasiums, which are types of schools in parts of Europe that provide advanced secondary educations, roughly comparable to American high schools and the beginnings of college.  My paternal grandfather taught history; my grandmother—French.

     

    One of my favorite photographs of my late father and my late mother, Natalia, at a ball in New York City in 1966.

     

    My father became a geologist and got his Ph. D. at Columbia in 1965.  He taught his special field, economic geology (as well as other subjects), in Queens College of CUNY for many years.  He loved field work and became famous for the summer excursions he organized for his students to visit working mines in the United States, Canada, and even Europe.  I have been touched by the number of his former students and colleagues who wrote to me about their fond recollections of these trips, how much they learned from him, and what a caring mentor he was.

     

    My late father with two students examining a specimen during a visit to a working mine in 1971.

     

    My late father with a group of students on a field trip in the early 1970s.

     

    But my father’s interests were much broader than geology, or even natural history (a love for which he instilled in me at an early age via numerous walks through forests and fields in the New York area, as well as elsewhere in the US and abroad).  He knew well six languages, had a smattering of many others, was interested in archeology, anthropology, ethnology, cosmology, history, literature, and many other aspects of culture. 

    He also helped me in two important ways when I was working on The Black Russian.

    When I did research on Frederick Thomas’s family in the Chancery Court of Coahoma County in Clarksdale, Mississippi, I found documents in which Frederick was listed as having a half-sister named Ophelia.  I researched this name in studies of black American naming patterns and discovered that it was very rare.  So why was she given it?  The first source that came to mind was of course Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it didn’t make sense to have a girl child named after a tragic suicide.  Perhaps, I thought, the name was chosen simply because it was euphonius.  But then I thought of my subject’s first and middle names—Frederick and Bruce—and decided that there might be a more complicated reason. 

    “Frederick” was very likely inspired by Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a celebrated abolitionist, author, and statesman.  He was widely known throughout the United States starting in the 1850s, and his name carried impressive associations that would have appealed to black people like the Thomases, who had also transcended the legacy of their enslaved past.  A possible source for Frederick’s middle name—and one that was quite near at hand—was Blanche K. Bruce.  He was a former slave who became a rich landowner in Bolivar County, Mississippi, during the late 1860s, and a politician both there and in Tallahatchie County, before being elected to the United States Senate in 1874 (where he was the first black man to serve a full term).  Because Coahoma County shares borders with both Bolivar and Tallahatchie—and the latter was very near the Thomas farm—it is possible that the Thomases knew Bruce personally.  They could have been moved to give his surname to their son as a middle name.

    I told my father about my research, and asked him what he thought of Ophelia’s name.  It didn't take him very long to come up with what strikes me as a plausible explanation. He suggested that the source may have been Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which Miss Ophelia St. Clare is an admirable secondary character who overcomes her northern prejudice against blacks.  This could have made her into a suitable namesake for the child of ambitious black parents like the Thomases.  And because the novel had been published in 1852 and was the second biggest best-seller in the United States in the nineteenth century (after the Bible), where it was celebrated in the North and reviled by whites in the South, it is quite possible that Ophelia’s mother, who was literate, knew it.  I had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in high school and forgotten.  My father read the novel much longer ago and remembered.

    The second way in which my father helped me reflects his command of languages.  In the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, I found several letters that Frederick’s ex-wife, Valli, wrote in German to American diplomats in Constantinople in the early 1920s.  I can read modern German, and, with some difficulty, the old-style, printed Gothic German.  But Valli’s letters were in handwritten Gothic German that I had never seen before and could scarcely make out.  I feared that I was facing a long struggle to learn how to decipher this script.  And then I remembered that my father went to a German-language high school in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  I gave him copies I had made of the letters, and he was able to read and translate them for me without any special effort, commenting only that the woman’s handwriting wasn’t very clear.  This was many decades after he had had any significant exposure to handwritten Gothic German. 

    He read my book before he died, and was pleased that he could be helpful.

    My family and I miss him.

    Вечная Память.  Eternal Memory.