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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

    Entries in 1919 (4)

    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)   

    Frederick’s First Risky Step in Constantinople

    In comparison to the vibrant world of popular, Western-style entertainment that Frederick Thomas had known in Moscow and even in Odessa, Constantinople was a backwater.  This was another aspect of the conspiracy of circumstances into which he fell that seemed tailored specifically for his skills and experience. 

    When he arrived, there were a few restaurants with music in Pera, the city’s European quarter, one or two places with variety acts on stage, and quite a few bars and other drinking establishments patronized mostly by Levantines (Ottoman citizens of foreign extraction) and the growing numbers of foreigners, especially military officers. 

    Down the hill near the Galata port, the narrow, foul-smelling streets, which quickly turned to mud whenever it rained, were filled with beer joints and cheap bordellos that catered to sailors and enlisted men; drugs, and especially cocaine, were also readily available.  Some of these places were so vile that they were put off limits by the military authorities. 

    Rare in Constantinople were precisely the kinds of places that Frederick had owned in Moscow—elegant, sophisticated whirls of Western music, entertainment, dancing, drink, and enticing cuisine.

    But to start something like this required money and Frederick did not have any.  He turned to moneylenders, several of whom offered him short-term loans at usurious rates—more than one hundred percent interest for six months.  It would be difficult to earn enough to pay them back, but he had to take the risk because he had no other choice: he had landed in Constantinople shortly before the beginning of the summer season and could not afford to miss it. 

    Frederick was also used to working with partners.  By May 15, or less than a month after he had arrived in Constantinople, he had settled on two likely prospects—Arthur Reyser, Jr., and Bertha Proctor (about whom more later). 

    Bertha’s popularity with British officers—her prices and "waitresses" were out of reach for the rank and file—would prove a boon to Frederick.  He also did his best to exploit his old American connection, and the name the partners gave their joint venture covered both sides of the Atlantic—it was the “Anglo-American Garden Villa,” also known as the “Stella Club.”  The dual name reflected the symbiotic relationship between the two parts of the enterprise, with Bertha presiding over her bar while Frederick handled everything else. 

    “Bertha and Thomas,” as the partners styled themselves, found a large parcel of land on the northern edge of Pera in an area known as Chichli.  It was across the street from the last stop of the Number 10 tramway line, which made it readily accessible by public transportation from the center of the European quarter.

     

    Antique map from 1923 showing the Chichli section of Pera, Constantinople, much as Frederick Thomas saw it in 1919.  His first venture was the property just below and to the left of the "235" reference mark on the map.  The oval in the wide street further to the left is the last tramway stop.

     

    But the location was also risky, because in 1919 it hardly looked like part of the city.  Only about half of it was built up, mostly with rather shabby, two and three-story houses of brick and weather-beaten wood, while the rest consisted of large fruit and vegetable gardens and empty lots that merged into the countryside a short distance away. 

    However, the parcel was relatively cheap to rent and had a scattering of old shade trees as well as a nice view of the Bosporus (the area is now completely built up with apartment buildings that block all street-level views).  There was also a roomy house in the corner of the property, which is where Frederick and his family probably moved after the Pera Palace.

    By the end of June, or just two months after Frederick landed in Galata, the empty lot had been transformed into a mini Aquarium:  several simple, wooden structures were built; there were pavilions and kiosks, neat gravel paths, and strings of electric lights that made the entire place glow at night.  Staff were hired and purveyors of food and drink lined up. An open air dance floor occupied a central spot, with a stage behind it, and tables for customers facing it.  The “Stella Club” was on the second floor of one of the buildings.  Advertisements had been appearing in local French and English-language newspapers for several weeks and on Tuesday, June 24, 1919, the Villa Anglo-American finally opened. 

    A new era in Constantinople’s night life had begun. (To be continued)

    Frederick’s First Steps in Constantinople

    The American Consulate General in Constantinople did not have the money or the inclination to provide much help to the refugees from Odessa after they finally disembarked on the Galata quay.  In any event, Frederick initially took his family to live at the Pera Palace Hotel, which was one of the two best in the city.  Staying there was an indulgence that he could ill afford, although it was surely an enormous relief to be able to immerse oneself in the cleanliness and comforts of a first-class hotel after the filth and deprivations of Imperator Nikolay and the quarantine at Kavak. 

    The Pera Palace had opened in 1895 on the heights of the European district of Constantinople as a modern residence for the passengers of the Orient Express, the fabled train that ran from London, Paris, and Venice, in reality as well as fiction and film, across all of Europe to the Sirkeci Terminal in Stambul (the terminal still stands).  Other than the Sultan’s Dolmabahçe palace, the Pera Palace was the first building in Constantinople with electricity, an electric elevator, and hot running water. 

     

     

    In its heyday before and after the Great War, its many famous guests included Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, Edward VIII of the United Kingdom, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern-day Turkey (whose revolutionary policies would, before long, play a fateful role in Frederick’s life), as well as Ernest Hemingway, Greta Garbo, and Agatha Christie.

    The Pera Palace Hotel exterior, as Frederick Thomas saw it in 1919

     

    Lavishly decorated with stained glass, marble, gleaming brass, and gilded plaster (and recently refurbished to all its former glory) the hotel had wonderful views of the Bosporus and the Golden Horn and was the epitome of the Pera district in which it was located—a cosmopolitan, westernized island in an otherwise Turkish Muslim sea.

     

     

    The Pera Palace Hotel, lobby bar, c. 1919

     

    As Frederick discovered within days of arriving, Pera fit him very well.  (To be continued).

     

    The Pera Palace Hotel lobby, contemporary restoration

    Frederick Trapped, or the French Betrayal in Odessa in 1919

    The French occupation of Odessa in 1918 had awakened fervent hopes among anti-Bolshevik Russians in the city and throughout the rest of the ravaged country that this was the beginning of the end for Lenin’s and Trotsky’s bloody reign.  But the fates that always seem to rule over Russia’s tragic history decided otherwise.

    It turned out that the French had no real interest in fighting the Bolsheviks and had placed unrealistic expectations on the Whites and on popular anti-Bolshevik sentiment in Russia.  The Allied troops were tired after four years of the Great War and wanted to go home.  For the North Africans especially, fighting Russians made even less sense than had fighting the Germans. 

     

    Views of Odessa at the beginning of the 20th century

     

    The French also did not fully understand the complexities of the political situation in Russia or the differences among the various anti-Bolshevik factions.  The tactless and hectoring attitude of the French high command toward the Whites, which stemmed from a kind of neo-colonial disdain for the “natives,” alienated the leaders of the Volunteer Army, who, in turn, aggravated the situation by squabbling among themselves.  Finally, the Bolsheviks in the Odessa underground lost no time in propagandizing the French sailors and colonial soldiers against their white commanders, thus driving a demoralizing wedge between them.

    By the end of March 1919, much of Odessa’s population—scores of thousands of refugees from the north like Frederick Thomas, the local bourgeoisie, officers of the White Army, stranded foreigners, the intelligentsia—was looking with increasing nervousness to the French as their only salvation and hope.  No one knew, however, that the French had already betrayed them.

    The high command in Paris and Constantinople had recently concluded that the entire Odessa adventure was a mistake and that the Allied forces faced disaster if they did not leave soon.  Realizing that this decision would cause panic if it got out, the French commander in the city, General Philippe d’Anselme, decided to lie:  he not only kept the news from the civilian population, but also from his Greek comrades-in-arms and from the Whites, his ostensible allies. 

    Moreover, to dispel rumors, on Tuesday, March 25, 1919, he published an announcement in Odessa’s newspapers that he would not give up the city without a fight and that more troops and assistance were on the way. 

    In secret that same day, however, he prepared a detailed plan for the evacuation of all of his forces and began to wait for final authorization from Paris.  (To be continued)