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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 Maxim (6)

    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, 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).

    Downton Abbey and The Black Russian

     

    Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson

     

    Because the new season of Downton Abbey began recently and a fascinating new character was introduced in the last episode, I’m going to jump out of the chronological narrative about Frederick Thomas that I’ve been pursuing, at least for one post. 

    I’m a big fan of the series and can’t resist commenting about Jack Ross, the handsome, charismatic, black American singer and band leader who saves Lady Rose from an embarrassing companion at a nightclub and makes a strong impression on her.  Like legions of others, I look forward to what will develop between them.

     

    "Jack Ross" played by Gary Carr in Downton Abbey

    Jack Ross is of course invented, but as news media have pointed out, Julian Fellowes, the series creator and writer, modeled Jack to some extent on Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, the enormously popular cabaret star in 1920s and 1930s London who was also notorious for his numerous affairs, including one with Lady Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the Prince of Wales’ cousin.

    What’s fascinating for me is that before going to London and launching his career there, Hutch performed for Frederick Thomas in Constantinople! 

    Hutch arrived during the summer of 1925 as the headliner for a black jazz band called the “Palm Beach 7” and enjoyed a successful run in Frederick’s famous nightclub Maxim.  But he also advertised that he was available for private piano lessons in Pera, the European quarter of the city (now called Beyoğlu), which means that despite Frederick’s generous fees, Hutch was eager to earn more money.  He would soon get what he wanted, and more, in London, where he lived the life of an aristocrat, wearing Saville Row suits and being driven around in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce. 

    But despite Frederick's own talents and connections with successful stars like Hutch, Frederick would never be able to leave Constantinople.

     

    Here’s a terrific clip of Hutch performing in 1933 at the Café Malmaison in London 

    “Mulat Tomas,” or Food & Sex in Moscow (and more pictures)

    Frederick Thomas is virtually forgotten in Russia today (except that information from my book about him has been popping up in the Russian press and on Russian websites, some of which have copied all my images).  It’s therefore especially interesting that for some six years, from 2006 to 2011 or so, there was a restaurant named after him in the center of the city.  It was located in a ground-floor space of the “Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater” at 17 Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street, which is where Frederick’s celebrated  theater and nightclub “Maxim” was located before the Revolution.

    I visited the place a couple of times when I was in Moscow in 2007 to do research.  I was very interested in finding out what the people who had opened it (a company named Dolce Vita Group) knew about Frederick and, of course, I wanted to see what the place looked like.  I discovered very quickly that the owners knew virtually nothing about Frederick, except that he was a black man and that he had had a property there prior to 1917.  They called him “mulat” (Russian for “mulatto”) for no better reason than to evoke exotic associations.

    Frederick’s pre-Revolutionary “Maxim” was designed to appeal to moneyed Muscovites and was decorated luxuriously in accordance with the tastes of the time—high ceilings, gilt, chandeliers, plush carpets, glass, polished wood and metal.  It was a venue for different kinds of popular entertainment, especially variety shows, which frequently included attractive female singers and dancers.  Abundant food and drink were also part of the draw.  Although very tame by today’s standards, some of the acts on Maxim’s stage, such as “can-can” dancers from the Moulin Rouge in Paris--with their kick line, flaunted pantaloons and yelps, were seen by contemporary journalists as daringly risqué.

    Mulat Tomas did not resemble the original Maxim physically at all.  But either wittingly or unwittingly, the owners had succeeded in creating a playfully eroticized décor that was a plausible translation of Maxim’s risqué reputation into modern terms, as the photographs below show.

     

     

    View of the main façade of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater on Bolshaya Dmitrovka.

     

     

    Alley to the left of the Theater’s main façade, with the entrance to the Mulat Tomas Café (as the owners called their restaurant) which served a pricy international cuisine.

     

    Close-up of the sign outside the restaurant giving its name “Café Mulat Tomas” and indicating that it was open 24 hours a day.

     

    The low, barrel-vaulted ceiling of the restaurant’s main dining area, showing its dark-toned décor, unusual fabrics and textures, and inventive furniture.

     

    This is a suggestive sculptural ensemble that gave the place its eroticized ambience.  A nearly life-sized, chocolate-colored, embracing nude couple is partially concealed by a lamp-shade-like curtain.  This was intended as a model for what clients could do with one of the special tables in the restaurant:  the cylindrical curtain above them could be dropped entirely to conceal them from the view of the other restaurant patrons.  Of course, dropping the curtain also underscored that the clients were up to something that they didn’t want others to see (or pretending that they were up to something).

     

    A table that could be enclosed by dropping a curtain that would conceal it, and those sitting at it, from view.

     

    A better-lit corner with a period poster (unrelated to Frederick).

    The Tango, or Sex, Death, and the Black Russian 

    On the eve of the Great War, a new dance craze emerged from Argentina, leapt to Paris, and swept around the world—the tango.  Its popularity in Moscow was so immediate and so great that Frederick, who was always very alert to novelty, decided to capitalize on it by refurbishing large spaces in his Aquarium (see image here) and Maxim and naming them after the dance. 

    The tango’s origins lay in the rough neighborhoods and brothels of Buenos Aires, and although its moves had been sanitized by the time it caught on with the upper classes in the world’s great cities, it never lost its seductive aura or allure.  It is an emotional dance in which the man often embraces the woman closely and her body clings to his; their steps to the pulsing music can be slow or quick, depending on what the man feels and communicates to his partner as he leads her; when he pauses, she can improvise as her mood suggests. It is a dance of passion and surrender.

    This possibility of engaging in a public display of elegant, stylized eroticism is what enthralled dancers from New York to Shanghai.  But this understated sexuality was also what alarmed moral watchdogs and prudes around the world who were shocked that couples on brightly-lit dance floors would express feelings that belonged in a darkened bedroom.  Just before the war began, French bishops condemned the dance; the German Kaiser Wilhelm II forbad it at his court; and the English King George V expressed his disapproval.  The Imperial Ministry of Education prohibited any mention of the tango in Russian schools.  In the town of Yalta in the south of Russia a tango dancer was accused of indecent behavior in 1914 and further performances were stopped; the same happened in distant Milwaukee.  The great ballerina Anna Pavlova said that the tango was an erotic dance and would repulse anyone with a genuine sense of beauty.  The commander of an elite guards’ regiment in Petrograd stopped short of forbidding the dance, but suggested that it would be unseemly for his officers to perform it; his counterparts in the Austro-Hungarian army felt the same and announced that “officers in uniform are not allowed to dance the tango.”  (The tango was thus reliving the common fate of most new dances:  even the waltz had been roundly attacked for indecency when it first appeared in Europe around the turnof the nineteenth century.)

    The countless aficionados of the tango were hardly deterred of course; if anything, accusations that the dance was immoral added to its appeal.  By Christmas of 1913, or soon after the tango first reached Russia, a journalist proclaimed that Frederick’s Maxim theater had become Moscow’s “kingdom of the tango”; it has “gone to everyone’s heads,” he continued, and expressed amazement at the variety of styles that had sprung up—Brazilian, Mexican, Spanish, even German and Russian (but oddly enough, not Argentinean).  This connection became fixed in the public’s imagination so rapidly that a popular film from 1914 referred to Maxim as the place to tango in the city. (To be continued)

    Black Man, White Woman in the Russian “Night Café”

    The contrast between black and white that figures in descriptions of interracial romance, as portrayed in the songs by Vertinsky and Kremer (see my two previous posts), also appeared in Russian illustrative art of the time. 

    As if echoing the concluding lines of Vertinsky’s “The Purple Negro,” Israel Meskin, who was well known before the 1917 Russian Revolution for his caricatures and sketches published in theatrical magazines, created a graphic, black and white image in his “Night Café” of an elegantly dressed black man admiring a white woman in a low cut dress.  The woman’s dress, which suggests that she may be an entertainer who has just stepped off the stage, the agitated background with dancing figures, and the black man’s broad smile, which was one of Frederick’s professional trademarks, could easily have been captured at his Aquarium Garden or Maxim Theater.  There is no evidence they actually were, but it seems unlikely that a contemporary Muscovite familiar with the city’s nightlife might also not have wondered about the possibility.  The scene is a festive one, and there is no hint of disapproval.