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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 Frederick Thomas (109)

    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

    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.

    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.

    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.