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    Entries in Constantiniople (2)

    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).

    Frederick, the Rumanian, and Big Plans in Constantinople

    In addition to being the most modern hotel in Constantinople, the Pera Palace was one of the main centers of social and business life in the city, and a crossroads for people who either had money or ideas about how to make it. 

    Shortly after he arrived at the hotel, Frederick Thomas ran into an old Moscow acquaintance, the Rumanian musician Nitza Codolban, a large-nosed man with slicked-back hair, sad eyes, and a big smile.  He was a virtuoso of the cimbalom, an instrument resembling a hammered dulcimer that was very popular in Gypsy music. 


    Nitza Codolban (L), and his brother Nicky, at the Empress Club in London in 1951


    Codolban recalled later how struck he was by Frederick’s passion and eagerness to confront the difficulties ahead:  “I’m going to try something desperate,” the black man proclaimed, “and I’ve got a few ideas.” 

    Frederick went on to explain that he was going to start everything from zero.  He described how he had overcome far bigger obstacles than the Black Sea to stop now.  He also said that he liked this new city, which even reminded him of Moscow a bit. 

    He then swore to Codolban, as he said he had already sworn to his wife, that he had had enough.  No matter what happened in Constantinople, he would never leave.  This is where he would die, he declared, after “conquering the Bosphorus nights,” in Codolban’s florid recollection. 

    “And so, will you join me?” Frederick concluded with his memorable smile and extending his hand.

    Much impressed by Frederick’s energy, Codolban decided that he would put off leaving Constantinople and, in an allusion to their shared Moscow past, agreed to work in what he assumed would be a “new Maxim,” a descendant of Frederick’s famous venue in Moscow.

    But Frederick was not ready to move so quickly:  “Not a Maxim yet.  You have to move slowly with luck,” he explained, “I’m going to start with a Stella.”  (To be continued).