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    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

    The Russian Waitresses/Seductresses of Constantinople

    The styles of dress that these sirens (see my previous post) adopted  varied from restaurant to restaurant, but were of course always designed to enhance their appeal. 

    In one place they would flaunt their Russian boldness: “white Caucasian jackets, high black boots, thin scarves around their hair and heavy makeup.” 

    In another, they cultivated a softer, decadent seductiveness, as the famous singer Vertinsky promised in his nightclub Rose Noire: “the serving ladies will whisper to the clients the poems of Baudelaire between the courses.  They are to be exquisite, select, delicate and to wear each a black rose in their golden hair.  (Note:  If the hair is not naturally gold, it will be made so).” 

    Some wore dainty white aprons that made them look like soubrettes in light comedies, an impression that they augmented with their shyness and apologetic manner. 

    The reactions to them from Constantinople’s population fell along predictable lines, but was strong in any case. 

    A group of thirty-two widows of Turkish noblemen and high officials sent a petition to the governor demanding the immediate expulsion of “these agents of vice and debauchery who are more dangerous and destructive than syphilis and alcohol.” 

    The British ambassador to Turkey, Sir Horace Rumbold, explained wryly in a letter to Admiral de Robeck, the British High Commissioner, that the “little Princess Olga Micheladze” from Russia plans to marry “one Sanford, a nice quiet fellow in the Inter-Allied Police . . . He has money.” 

    A tourist visiting from Duluth, Minnesota, gushed that the owner of a restaurant “is an escaped Russian grand duke, and all the waitresses are Russian princesses of the royal family.”  The latter “were pretty and flirted terrifically.  I asked one if she spoke any English and the answer, with a quaint accent, was, ‘Sure, I know lots American boys’.”

    A cartoon in a local British newspaper showed a Turk asking a Russian woman:  “Parlez-vous français, mademoiselle?” to which she replies “No, but I know how to say ‘love’ in every language.” 

     

     

    French cartoon entitled “Everything is More Expensive in Pera”:

    “Client to the Russian waitress:  --What! Ten pounds for this meal? . . . although it is true that the sum includes your charm . . .”

    (Le Journal d’orient, December 30, 1921, p. 1)

     

    (To be continued)

    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)

    The Black Russian Lives at The Mark Twain House and Museum

    I learned a great deal while working on The Black Russian—not only about Frederick Thomas’s life and times, of course, but also about all aspects of writing a book for a trade publisher (which differs markedly from academic publishing).

    I am very pleased to have the chance to share what I’ve learned at a workshop this coming Saturday, September 6, 1:00 - 4:00 pm, at The Mark Twain House and Museum, 351 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, Connecticut  (see their website to register and purchase a ticket or click on the logo below).

     

     

    Entitled “Writing Historical Biography,” the workshop will cover all aspects of creating a non-fiction book—specifically, a biography of a person from the past—for publication by a trade press.  Topics to include:  subjects that trade presses might find attractive, how to research your subject, write the book, write a proposal, find and pitch an agent, work with a publishing house when your book is sold, and publicize the book both before and after it appears. 

    In addition to my experiences with The Black Russian, the workshop will be based on my preliminary research for two possible books dealing with Russia and the American Civil War.  I will also refer to my current project—a biography of Boris Savinkov, the remarkable Russian terrorist, revolutionary, writer, and political activist who waged wars against the tsar, Lenin, and the Bolsheviks.  Winston Churchill, who knew and admired Savinkov, included an essay about him in his book Great Contemporaries, where he said about him: “when all is said and done . . . few men tried more, gave more, dared more and suffered more for the Russian people.”  Another Englishman, the eminent writer W. Somerset Maugham, admitted: “I think Boris Savinkov the most extraordinary man I have ever met.”  In the eyes of the Soviet political police in the 1920s, Savinkov was so dangerous that no effort was spared to neutralize him.

    I gave a book talk at the Mark Twain House and Museum last winter and also participated in a "Writer's Weekend" there last spring.  I’m looking forward to supporting this wonderful institution once again via my workshop.

    Frederick and the Hoover Institution in California

    Actually, the closest Frederick ever got to California was when he started a trip there from Moscow  in 1904.  He said he travelled via Siberia, accompanying a Russian noblemen as a translator, but that they got only as far as Manila when the Russo-Japanese War broke out.  Frederick referred to this story several times in later years, and although I did my best to confirm it when I was researching his life, I was unable to find any corroborating evidence.  Perhaps it was apocryphal.

     

    The Hoover Institution Tower, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California

    However, Frederick's biographer is leaving for California and Palo Alto tomorrow (the Hoover Institution is on the campus of Stanford University) to do research in archives.  My new subject is Boris Savinkov (1879-1925), the terrorist revolutionary, writer, and political activist who waged wars against the tsar, Lenin, and the Bolsheviks.  He led an amazing life and the Hoover archives have a great deal of important information about him.

    I will return to Frederick's real life journey in future posts.

    A Singer’s Revenge Saves Frederick’s Nightspot

    Shortly after the scandal with the Russian Imperial anthem (please see my previous post), Yury Morfessi’s Turkish benefactor unexpectedly died.  His heirs had no interest in continuing to sponsor the nightclub he had established, as a result of which Morfessi had to look for a new home.  He found a new partner, the famous Russian Gypsy singer Nastya Polyakova, and for the new location settled on an abandoned garden in the Chichli neighborhood.  What attracted them to this outlying location was that Frederick’s Stella was nearby and appeared to be doing very well.

     

    Yury Morfessi.  If you click on the image, you'll be taken to a recording of one of his famous songs--the tango "Chernye glaza" (Black Eyes)

     

    Nastya Polyakova.  If you click on the image, you'll be taken to a recording of one of her famous songs--"Rasstavaias', ona govorila" (While Parting, She Said)

     

    Morfessi and Polyakova named their garden “Strelna,” after a famous restaurant in pre-Revolutionary Moscow.  The name’s additional advantage, especially for foreign ears not attuned to the niceties of Russian phonetics, was that it echoed Frederick’s “Stella,” which, moreover, was only two short blocks north on the same street.  Thus, anyone heading to Stella from the city center would automatically pass Strelna first, whose entrance beckoned with a dazzling array of electric lights. 

    Whether plotted and planned, or the result of fortuitous coincidence, Morfessi’s and Polyakova’s strategy worked.  Strelna began to siphon off Stella’s clients, leading Morfessi to boast that as Thomas’ “‘Stella’ dimmed,” Strelna’s affairs “blossomed” and went “blissfully well.”  The drop in attendance at Stella could have been its death knell, especially because of all the other financial difficulties that still hung over Frederick.  But fortunately for him, this is when Isa Kremer decided to pay Morfessi back for insulting her when she refused to rise for the singing of “God Save the Tsar.”

    Fuel shortages in Constantinople at this time resulted in electricity being rationed, and the Allied High Command established curfews for restaurants, nightclubs, and bars.  Owners naturally chafed at the restrictions, and some, like Frederick, tried unsuccessfully to appeal for permission to stay open later.  However, others, like Strelna, simply ignored or circumvented the regulations and often continued to operate until daylight broke over Chichli. 

    One night, when all seemed to be going very well, the Interallied Police suddenly arrived and shut Strelna down.  They also announced that as an additional penalty Strelna had to stay closed for eight days.  Someone had denounced Morfessi to the authorities.  Rumors soon reached him that it was Isa Kremer, and he of course concluded that she had done it to pay him back. 

    Establishments such as Strelna stood on a very fragile financial base and needed a constant flow of cash to function, so an eight-day closure meant the end.  Soon after, another disaster fell on Morfessi in the form of a huge municipal tax bill.  All of this proved too much for him.  He abandoned his Constantinople affairs, surreptitiously boarded an Italian ship, and left Turkey forever.  But Polyakova followed Kremer’s example and switched to performing in Stella as well, thus giving Frederick a second, highly popular singer. 

    Frederick had survived a close call, and although others would try to resurrect Strelna, none succeeded long enough to challenge him directly again.  Isa Kremer continued to perform for him twice weekly during the summer and with such success that he extended her booking through the fall and winter, after he had moved to a theater in Pera for the coldest months.  She drew crowds so large that many had to be turned away; a newspaper commented that even if Stella had been “three times” the size, it would still have been unable to fit everyone who wanted to hear her.  Only in February of 1921, after a collaboration with Frederick that lasted nearly nine months, did she move to another theater in Constantinople; then in the spring she left for Europe and the United States. 

    When I was working on my book, I learned that Kremer's papers were in a Jewish center in Buenos Aires and I had hopes that they might contain something about her time singing for Frederick.  But, alas, that was not the case.

    Frederick’s First Constantinople Nightspot Almost Goes Under

    Frederick Thomas was not the only “Russian” to escape to Constantinople.

    Despite the apparent successes of the White Armies in the Russian Civil War in 1919, waves of evacuees from southern Russia kept crossing the Black Sea to Constantinople, as a result of which the city was becoming increasingly Russified.  Among the new arrivals were many popular performers, some with experience running their own shows and theaters, and all needing to make a living.  

    Russian restaurants began to pop up all over Pera, the European quarter of Constantinople, with names like “Russky Ochag” (Russian Hearth), “Russky Ugolok” (Russian Cozy Corner), “Anglo-Russian Artistic Circle”—often with music, singing, or variety shows.  Most tried to play up the “broad Russian nature” that foreigners found highly seductive—an atmosphere of unbridled revelry and excess, now tinged with a delicious sadness over a lost glorious past.  Frederick discovered that the competition for a slice of the city’s nightlife had suddenly heated up.  Were it not for a bit of skullduggery on the part of one of his performers as well as some luck, Stella, his first venture, could well have gone under. 

    The singer Isa Kremer had become a major star in Russia during the Great War and arrived in Constantinople from Odessa in the beginning of 1920 during the so-called “second evacuation” of the city; the Bolsheviks, who had first occupied the city in April 1919 (shortly after Frederick escaped) and then been temporarily driven out by the White Army at the end of the year, were now back for good. 

    Kremer was a small, spunky woman with a wide mouth, a big voice, and a charming manner on stage who had trained for the opera before switching to an international repertoire of lighter songs—Neapolitan, French, Gypsy, Russian, Yiddish, as well as her own compositions.  Her popularity survived the Black Sea crossing and the cosmopolitan audiences in Pera quickly embraced her as a “diva.”  Frederick and Kremer may have met in Moscow; he undoubtedly knew her by reputation, especially because one of her most famous songs was the evocatively entitled “Black Tom” (but which, apart from the name, has nothing to do with Frederick). 

     

      

    Isa Kremer

     

    However, musical fame is not the only thing that followed Kremer from Russia.  As often happened in cases like hers, émigré politics did as well; and paradoxically, this is what also led to her unexpected role as Frederick’s savior. 

    Soon after landing in Constantinople, she became a headliner in a successful nightclub in Pera operated by Yury Morfessi, an older, but also hugely popular singer whose career in Russia began a decade before the war and who had even performed for Nicholas II.  Part of the reason for the success of Morfessi’s nightclub was its location in a luxurious townhouse that belonged to a rich Turk who was an admirer of the singer’s juicy baritone. 

    One evening in the spring of 1920, all the top Allied brass were there, including French, British, and American admirals, and the staff of the supreme Allied commander, French General d’Espèrey.  Also present were numerous Russian refugees, both military and civilian.  The Allied officers were very sympathetic to the White Russians, with whom they shared a loathing for the Bolsheviks, and the atmosphere was charged with patriotic and military fervor.  Consequently, when the Russians requested that the orchestra perform “God Save the Tsar,” the old Russian Imperial anthem, the Allied commanders joined them in rising to their feet.  The one exception was Isa Kremer, who, as Morfessi later described it, “demonstratively” remained seated.  Infuriated by her behavior, and egged on by a French colonel who felt that his superiors had been slighted by Kremer’s behavior, Morfessi confronted her.  He accused her of long-standing Red sympathies dating back to the time of the Bolshevik occupation of Odessa in 1919 (there was some truth to this), and ordered her to leave.

    Morfessi’s loss would be Frederick’s gain, and not just because he got to hire Kremer.

    (To be continued).

    A Thought on THE BLACK RUSSIAN and Novels

    THE BLACK RUSSIAN "flows as well as any novel," or so says Marina Maxwell, a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society

    This review, which just came out, was a very pleasant surprise for me, especially because it appeared on the site of an organization that normally focuses on historical novels, as its name and mission indicate.  I did try to tell Frederick Thomas's story as engagingly as possible in my book, and it's very gratifying when someone says I've succeeded. 

    I might mention, or confess, that I was conscious of a severe constraint when trying to use novelistic techniques in fashioning the book's plot, characters, and settings.  Most importantly and obviously, this was the need to be absolutely faithful to the facts; to have done anything less would have been to betray my subject.  But this also meant not yielding to the temptation to indulge in stylistic embellishments that were not warranted by the data I had discovered.  In a non-fiction book, an expressive or dramatic style has to be undergirded with factual details.  Style is, or should be, a correlate for substance.  If I did not know what Frederick Thomas's reaction was to some major or minor event, but only that the event had happened and that he had witnessed it, I did not feel free to project my, or someone else's, reaction onto it.  At the same time, I didn't want to narrate the event in a dry and bland way.  Walking that ridge was frequently a challenge.

    In lieu of continuing Frederick Thomas's story this week, I thought I'd post the complete review and a link to the site where it appeared.

     

    Frederick's Application is Sabotaged by the American Consulate General

    When Frederick tried to apply for a new passport at the American Consulate General in Constantinople, his long residence abroad immediately emerged as a major problem because it raised suspicions that he had expatriated himself (although Frederick must have blessed his foresight in concealing what he had actually done in 1915, as I describe in my book).  There was little that Frederick could say to Allen, the consul in charge, to mitigate this, but he tried.

     

    Entrance to American Consulate General in Constantinople c. 1919, when Frederick Thomas went there to try to get a new passport (Carpenter Collection, Library of Congress)

     

    Frederick explained that he had intended to return to the United States in 1905 when he accompanied a Russian nobleman as an interpreter on a trip to San Francisco, which, however, had to be aborted in Manila in the Philippines because of the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War.  Whether or not Frederick took such a trip is uncertain, although he did mention it to other Americans later and provided some plausible-sounding details. In any event, such a trip would hardly have satisfied Allen’s misgivings about Frederick’s decades-long residence abroad and consequent automatic expatriation.

    For his part, Allen responded to Frederick’s duplicity with a carelessness that was negligent or worse.  This ranged from not bothering to correct the typo “Frederirick,” which was the first item that appeared on the passport application, to not filling out several important sections in accordance with instructions found on the forms themselves, including those about the applicant’s family, his identity as an American, and the Consul’s evaluation of the application.

    These omissions would have been sufficient to invalidate the application in the eyes of the State Department, had it been sent.  But Allen did not even bother to forward what he had to Washington and let the documents languish in the Consulate General for the next fourteen months.  The most likely conclusion is that Allen sabotaged the application simply by setting it aside, and that he did so because of his distaste for Frederick specifically or for black people in general.  This is in fact suggested by some slighting comments he made to the State Department the following year when he finally did submit paperwork on Frederick’s behalf.

    (To be continued)

     

    Frederick Has to Lie to American Diplomats in Constantinople

    The note in Orient News was a wonderful endorsement for Frederick’s new nightspot in Constantinople, and a “Winter Salon” did open in the Anglo-American Villa a month later with a program similar to what had proven successful during the summer.  But Frederick’s optimistic plan to travel to the capital of Romania to book new acts ran into a serious obstacle. 

    To leave Constantinople, he would need a passport, and to get one he had to apply to the American Consulate General.  This would be more complicated and risky than dealing with Jenkins, the American Consul in Odessa, had been.  Unlike him, the American diplomats in Constantinople were not facing a panicked evacuation and would not act without authorization from the State Department in Washington.

    Frederick took the plunge on October 24, 1919, and met with Charles E. Allen, the Consul in Charge.  Allen was a young southerner and a fairly low-ranked figure among the Americans at the Consulate General.  And as documents in the National Archives demonstrate, he resented the black man in front of him, who had arrived trailing stories of riches and fame in Moscow, and with a white wife and a clutch of mixed-race sons to boot.

     

    Charles Allen, the American diplomat with whom Frederick Thomas had to deal in 1919

     

    Without going into all the details that I discuss in my book, it is clear that Frederick tried to do whatever he could to protect himself and his family.  For the first time in many years, the long arm of American racism was reaching out to him across oceans and continents. 

    During his interview, Frederick told Allen a series of big and small tactical lies about his past, such as inventing a sister in Nashville who could supposedly vouch for him.   He was also very canny about his future intentions and said exactly what he thought Allen would want to hear.  This included that Frederick wanted the passport to go to Russia and France because he intended to “settle my property interests en route to the U. S. to put my children in school.”  Frederick also indicated that he planned to return to the United States within six months and to reside there permanently. 

    This was all a smokescreen and it is unlikely that Allen believed him.  Frederick had no financial interests in France (although he might have fantasized about moving there because Paris was becoming famous for its hospitality toward black Americans after the Great War).  And he could not possibly have wanted to return to Russia while the Bolsheviks were in power and a civil war was raging. 

    Frederick also undoubtedly understood that he and his family would not be able to lead normal lives in most of the United States, where Jim Crow was riding triumphant and where Frederick’s marriage to Elvira would be seen in many states not only as reprehensible, but illegal. 

    The situation of black people in the United States was well known in Constantinople, where English and French-language newspapers regularly ran lurid articles about American racial policies and lynchings. 

    (To be continued)

    Frederick Thomas and First Jazz in Constantinople

     

    On August 31, 1919, or two months after the Anglo-American Villa opened, and only four months after Frederick arrived in Constantinople, he made history.  An ad in Orient News, the authoritative newspaper of the “Army of the Black Sea,” as the British occupiers of Constantinople pompously called themselves, announced the first performance of a new kind of music, one that would become a key to Frederick’s future success:  “For the first time in Constantinople a Jazz-Band executed by Mr. F. Miller and Mr. Tom, the latest sensation all over Europe.”  

     

    A Russian émigré journal’s illustration suggesting what Frederick Thomas’s “Anglo-American Villa” looked like—with a dancer in a skimpy outfit on stage, a band to the left, and civilian and Allied military customers at tables.


    Freddy Miller was an Englishman who did parodies of musical acts and sang humorous songs—his most popular was the stuttering hit “K-K-K-Katie”; while “Mr. Tom,” a black American, was an “eccentric” dancer with an amusing routine.  They were not professional jazz musicians and probably put on a comedy act that included some jazz interludes.  Nevertheless, their performance was a hit, and together with Frederick they get credit for introducing this quintessentially black American music to Turkey just as it was beginning to conquer London, Paris, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, and everywhere in between. 

    As he had in Moscow, Frederick clearly continued to follow new trends in entertainment that were developing in Europe and the United States, and he would import much more real jazz to Constantinople in the years ahead.  Even with his nose for successful innovations, however, he could not have foreseen the way that this jaunty, raucous music would contribute to the revolutionary transformation of Turkish society, or the extent to which he would himself become an unwitting player in the process.

    By the end of the first summer season, the Anglo-American Villa was pronounced a resounding success by the Orient News:

    Far the best evening entertainment in town is to be found at the Villa Anglo Americain, Chichli.  Mme. Bertha and M. Thomas have succeeded in engaging the finest talent for their stage and attracting the most elegant monde to their tables. This enterprising summer effort which has established their reputation is now drawing to an end with this season of outdoor entertainments and we understand that the indoor premises of the Villa are about to be enlarged to meet the needs in winter. There is no doubt that the Chichli Villa will continue to give the best vaudeville in Constantinople. That fine hunting ground for artistes, Bucharest, is to be searched by M. Thomas for new talent for the winter season.

    (To be continued)