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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)

    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)   

    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, 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).

    Frederick Discovers an Oasis in Constantinople

    Like the character of Pera, the post-war history of Constantinople seemed specially fashioned for Frederick Thomas’s needs.  The Allied occupation of the city began only days after the Armistice on November, 11, 1918, and Pera was placed under British control.  The French got Galata as well as Stambul, while the Italians were in Scutari, on the Asian side of the Bosporus. 

    Because the Americans had not been at war with Turkey, they did not administer any territory, but their activities and interests were also concentrated largely in Pera; in fact, the American Embassy was only a few dozen steps from the Pera Palace Hotel.  As a result, Frederick discovered that he did not need to know Turkish in order to deal with the city’s civilian or military administrations.

     

    American Consulate General, Constantinople, c. 1920, a place Frederick Thomas visited often for reasons that were almost entirely unhappy. 

    The handsome building still stands in the old, European part of the city; but decades ago it was disfigured by a tall security wall and is now boarded up.  The new American consulate is on the city's outskirts

     

    Another direct result of the occupation was that the international character of Pera and Galata became even more pronounced because of the thousands of British, French, Italian, and American officers, soldiers, sailors, diplomats, and businessmen who poured into the city and settled in properties that they rented or expropriated from local residents.  The nature of commerce in the district changed accordingly.   The new military arrivals were mostly single men who brought with them an appetite for wine, women, and song.  Such interests were (officially) inimical to conservative Turkish Muslim culture, but liberal, Europeanized Pera was very happy to satisfy them.  And it is doubtful that there was anyone in the district in the spring of 1919 with more or better experience in this line of work than Frederick. (To be continued)

    Moscow and Constantinople, or Frederick Sees Similarities

    As Frederick Thomas discovered within days of arriving, Pera, the European sector of Constantinople, fit him very well.

    All the Western embassies were located there, as were the most important businesses, banks, fashionable restaurants, bars, and shops.  Many of the buildings on the main streets were half a dozen stories high, built of ornately carved light-colored stone, and European in style (typical Turkish dwellings were two or three stories and of weather-beaten grey wood). 

     

     

    Grande Rue de Péra, the central street of the European part of Constantinople, as Frederick saw it in 1919.  This sector of the city is now called "Beyoğlu", and the street has been renamed "İstiklâl Caddesi", or "Independence Avenue."  It is a pedestrian zone, and a historic tram, like the one in the photograph, and much beloved by tourists, runs along it, recalling the cable cars in San Francisco. 


    The population of Pera was mixed, and in addition to Turks there were large numbers of Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and people known locally as “Levantines,” or natives of European descent. 

    Even though spoken Turkish was unlike anything Frederick had heard before, and its written form in Arabic was unintelligible, the language of commerce and the second language of the city’s elites was French, which he spoke fluently.  This would make life and work in Constantinople much easier.

    Frederick also soon noticed some similarities between Constantinople and Moscow because of how both straddled East and West. Despite its cosmopolitan character, pre-Revolutionary Moscow often struck visitors as having an Oriental cast due to the unfamiliar architecture of its numerous churches and the traditional garb worn by peasants, priests, and other exotic types.  Similarly, in Constantinople, the shop signs in French on the Grande Rue de Pera, the district’s central thoroughfare, as well as the automobiles, the streetcars, the men in business suits—all proclaimed “Western Europe.”  But like the fez (the signature tasseled red hat of the Ottoman Empire) that many of the men also wore, reminders that Constantinople was on the border between continents and cultures were never far from sight. (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’s First Glimpse of Constantinople

    When the humiliating and painful French quarantine procedures were finished, the Russian refugees were finally put on steamers for the hour-long trip south to Constantinople.

    Then as now, the first glimpse of the city was breathtaking. 

     

    View of Stambul much as Frederick Thomas first saw it in 1919

     

    Galata Bridge leading to Galata and Pera, Constantinople

     

    As the boat transporting Thomas and his family navigated the final, right bend of the Bosphorus, with Asia on the left and Europe on the right, the steep green banks parted slightly and all of Constantinople swung into view. 

    Shimmering straight ahead in the distance, and dominating the promontory known as Seraglio Point, stood Topkapi Palace, the old seat of the Ottoman Sultans, and beside it, silhouetted against the sky, rose the thin minarets and giant domes of the mosques in the old part of the city—the legendary, Muslim Stambul. 

    On the right, by the water’s edge, the boat soon passed a vast, low building of gleaming white marble, the present Sultan’s Dolmabahce Palace, decorated with elaborate carvings that looked like frozen sea foam. 

    A bit further on, small houses suddenly began to increase in number and to climb up the steep slopes of Galata and Pera, the European parts of the city, over which loomed the stubby cylinder of the Galata Tower. 

    The Golden Horn, a long natural harbor between Stambul and the European parts of the city, as well as the entire waterway around Thomas’ boat, teemed with traffic:  dozens of grey European warships rested heavily at anchor; ferries linking the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus churned back and forth; countless small boats under oars or sail coursed in every direction. 

    Never in all his travels had Thomas seen anything like this ancient capital of the Ottoman Empire. 

    Prince Lobanov-Rostovsky, the Russian naval officer who was on the same ship with Thomas from Odessa, recalled that when he first saw Constantinople he “gasped at the vision of beauty.”  He searched for something to compare it to and decided that it could only be “the view of the Golden Gate and the Bay of San Francisco from Telegraph Hill.”  But, he added, “San Francisco lacks the oriental glamour which gives such colour to the sky line of Constantinople.” 

    The evacuation from Odessa was now a bad memory.  What lay ahead was full of uncertainty and would surely be difficult. 

    But not long after he stepped ashore for the first time Thomas decided that he liked the look and the feel of the new city.

    The Horrors Frederick Left Behind in Bolshevik Odessa

    The brutality and abuse that Frederick and the other evacuees from Odessa suffered at the hands of the French in April 1919 might have made some of the Russians regret that they had decided to flee the Bolsheviks. 

    But those doubts disappeared when reports began to arrive from Russia about the reign of terror that the Bolsheviks, and especially the Cheka--their notorious political police, unleashed as soon as they occupied the city. 

     

    Victims of the "Red Terror" During the Russian Civil War

     

    The Bolsheviks began by levying a tribute of five hundred million rubles in cash on local residents whose names, and the specific sums demanded from them, were published in local newspapers.  Those who did not pay were thrown into prison or made to clean the city’s streets.

    Hundreds of people were also tortured and executed, including women and children.  The nine-year old heir of the famous Polish noble family the Radziwills was killed, purportedly to stop the family’s succession.  Small boats tried to escape from Odessa at night to reach Greek and French ships at sea. 

    Had he stayed in Odessa, Frederick would also very likely have been killed.  The Bolsheviks did not care that he had been an oppressed black man in the United States.  The only thing that mattered to them was that he had become a rich bourgeois in Russia—and thus a “class enemy” who had to be destroyed. 

    Frederick could no more have shed his class "stigma" in Bolshevik Russia than his skin color in the Jim Crow American South.