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    Entries in Paris (10)

    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.


    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)

    Frederick Thomas Enters the Historical Record

    Frederick Thomas applied for his first passport in Paris on March 17, 1896.  The one-page application, which is preserved in the National Archives in Washington, D. C., required that three dozen blanks be filled in to identify the applicant; and these brief entries by a secretary, like quick brush strokes by an artist in a hurry, sketch the first glimpse of Frederick that we have as he begins to emerge from the mists and generalizations of the historical past. 

    The man who walks off the page is somewhat taller than average at 5 feet, 9 inches, has a complexion described as “colored,” a high forehead, a large nose, and black eyes and hair.  His face and chin are “square,” and his mouth is “large.”  All of this suggests a manly face, but the terse notations are too abstract to capture the handsome black man we can see in an early photograph, which can be dated from around the same time. 


    Frederick Bruce Thomas, Paris, c. 1896


    Among other matters, the form inquires how soon the applicant will return to the United States “with the purpose of residing and performing the duties of citizenship therein.”  Frederick’s response is “two years,” but it is not at all certain if he really meant this or if he simply said whatever he thought would help him keep his options open.  It would not have been in his interest to make the embassy staff suspect that he might have left the United States for good.  Having a valid American passport was advantageous because it would provide him with protection in case he got into any kind of trouble, and it could be renewed abroad repeatedly with minimal explanations. 

    Moreover, the second secretary of the legation who filled out the application for Frederick and who personally confirmed his identity was Newton B. Eustis, the Ambassador’s son.  This may have affected what Frederick chose to say.  On the one hand, the secretary was merely a government employee fulfilling his duties vis-à-vis an American citizen and collecting the mandated $1.00 fee for the passport and 50 cents for administering the oath of allegiance that the document required.  But on the other, this official encounter was not likely to be color blind, given that the second secretary was his father’s son. 

    Ambassador Eustis was a “Southern gentleman” of the old school.  He came from New Orleans, had been a staff officer in the Confederate Army, fought with distinction at the Battle of Galveston, and served as a Louisiana senator for fourteen years before being appointed to his diplomatic post.  The Democratic Party of which he was a member had been a major force in American political life after the Civil War and did much to dismantle Reconstruction and to install repressive Jim Crow laws throughout the South.  One wonders, as result, how Frederick would have reacted to the encounter with this man’s son, whom he would have been able to size up quickly and accurately.  Americans from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line traveled widely in Europe in those years and Frederick could have met them often in both London and Paris.  In turn, one also wonders how the young official’s Southern white background would have made him view a black man who, judging by his accent, had escaped from his natural and proper American setting to the racially permissive French capital. 

    France Loves Russia, or the Most Photographed Bridge in Paris

    In Paris on October 6, 1896, between four and five million people, including many from the provinces, started gathering at daybreak to see the new Russian emperor, Nicholas II, and Empress Alexandra.  Russian and French flags festooned the city, bare tree branches were decorated with artificial leaves and flowers, and countless lanterns swayed and sparkled everywhere.  Busts of Nicholas II outsold all others, even Napoleon’s.  A series of ceremonies lasted several days and included dinners, meetings, speeches, theater performances, a 101 gun “imperial salute” by an artillery battery, and the Tsar’s review of 70,000 troops. 

    Nicholas and Alexandra also laid the cornerstone of a new bridge across the Seine while forty maidens chanted in a flower-decorated boat nearby.  Named after Nicholas’ father, Alexander III, this is probably the most photographed bridge in Paris today, if one judges by the number of fashion shoots that use it as a backdrop (and by the number of tourist photos—as in my case several days ago when I was in Paris:  please see below). 

    Despite the elation of the crowds and the efforts of the French officials to keep the ceremonies at a dignified fever pitch, dark shadows also crept in.  People in the crowds could not forget the bitterness of the French loss to the Germans twenty-five years ago and the renewed threat of war that the alliance with Russia implied.  Nicholas and Alexandra often seemed to be ill at ease or frightened.  The couple was guarded very closely, which reminded observers that revolutionaries had not only killed the tsar’s grandfather, but were actively hunting him, members of his family, and other Russian notables. 

    Other memories of tragic bloodshed were also fresh because Nicholas’ reign began just four months earlier with what many contemporaries saw as an ominous sign.  Several days after his coronation, a mass celebration for the common folk of Moscow that had been planned on Khodynka Field on the city’s outskirts turned into a tragedy (some years later, Frederick would wind up living virtually across the street from the field).  Rumors that there would not be enough food, drink, and gifts, such as commemorative enameled cups with the royal couple’s initials, caused the enormous mass of people to rush the stands, resulting in more than 1,300 being trampled to death and many others injured.  That evening, Nicholas heeded bad advice, as he would often do later as well in far more perilous times, and did not cancel a diplomatic ball, thus earning a reputation for being distant, uncaring, and inept. 

    With Russia so much in the news, it would have been difficult for anyone in Paris during early October 1896 to think of Russia in the way they had before, or not to think of Russia at all.  Frederick would tie his fate to Russia’s only a few years later.


    Views of the Alexander III Bridge, Paris, June 2013









    A Black American in Paris in the 1890s, or the Freedom “To Be Merely a Man”

    France, like England, was vastly more accepting of black people than the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.  In fact, the attitude toward blacks in Paris at this time was even more liberal than in London.  An American reporter compared the two countries and had difficulty containing himself because of how shocking he found French tolerance:

    "This extraordinary spectacle of the negro in society one sees also in France and throughout the continent, but it does not appear so strange as in England, the most socially conservative country on the face of the earth.  In Paris, for example, one may frequently drive through the Bois de Boulogne behind African women handsomely gowned, lounging back gracefully in their elegant carriages.  It is no uncommon sight to see a colored child carried in the arms of a white nurse.  White women have married black men and forfeited no social standing in Paris, as, for instance, the white wife of the negro artist, Tanner [Henry Ossawa Tanner of Pennsylvania who moved to France in 1894].

    She is received not only in bohemian Paris, but in social Paris as well.  But most extraordinary of all, she has an entree, as the wife of her husband, which she would not have without him.  Tanner is feted and sought for just like any other genius:  one hears remarks now and then that he is a negro, but much the same as if the speaker had designated him as an Italian or a Russian."

    This attitude of a white American had its natural complement in the exhilarating feeling of liberation that American blacks experienced when they arrived in the country.  As James Weldon Johnson, a black American composer and intellectual who first arrived in Paris in 1905, put it, he felt “suddenly free . . . free to be merely a man.”

    Frederick Thomas would also have found working in Paris more congenial than in London because the French were far less conscious of class differences than their staid English neighbors.  In the streets and in shops in Paris, servants were greeted politely as “Mademoiselle” or “Monsieur” even by strangers who knew their actual status. 

    And finally, for a handsome young man like Frederick (see his photograph below), Paris would also have been a wide-open field for romantic adventures.  A white American who knew the city well, commented--with a hint of envy--that “Frenchmen do not connect the negro as we do, with plantation days.  Fair women look upon him with love and admiration, as Desdemona looked upon Othello”; even more specifically relevant to Frederick was that “everywhere you find the same thing.  Colored valets traveling with Americans are raved over by pretty French maids.”


    Frederick Thomas’s Address in Paris, or How to Fill Gaps in One’s Research

    After staying in London for less than a year, where he worked as a waiter after failing to gain admission to a musical conservatory and to start his own business, Frederick traveled to Paris around the beginning of July, 1895. To live and work in France, or anywhere else on the Continent, Frederick would have to learn French (which was the second language throughout the world at the time, much as English is today).  His need was especially urgent because his first job was as a valet, which would require him to communicate quickly and easily with his employers, or, if these were English-speaking, with people outside the household, such as shopkeepers and tradesmen.  Judging by the addresses Frederick gave in several documents, which are all for elegant buildings that have survived to this day and are located in fashionable districts of Paris, his employers were well off.   

    It was very important for me to know his specific addresses when I was researching his life in Paris because one of them led to information that shed a valuable, if oblique, light on the kind of world in which he lived and worked.  This, in turn, partially filled a gap in the documentary record I was compiling from archival sources.  In 1896, Frederick gave his address as 23 Avenue Niel, which is a short walk north on one of the grand and broad boulevards radiating like spokes from the Arch of Triumph.  It is a large and imposing seven-story apartment building with decorative ironwork on the façade, and has preserved its upscale appearance to this day.

    As I found out from contemporary newspaper articles, a very rich young American woman, Della Rogers, lived at 23 Avenue Niel with her mother at about the same time as Frederick.  She was an opera singer, heir to her Denver grandfather’s millions, and had come to Europe in 1894 to begin what proved to be a highly successful career, including a debut at the world-famous La Scala opera house in Milan and performances in Paris and St. Petersburg.  Her wealth and talent were enhanced by her beauty, which made her a favorite in Parisian society and even attracted a marriage proposal from an impoverished Rumanian nobleman of ancient lineage, a certain Prince Ghika, who, as a newspaper wryly put it, “was fascinated by Miss Rogers’ brilliancy or her wealth.”  Miss Rogers was not interested, however, and rejected the prince “in the most emphatic way.” 

    The coincidence that Frederick and Della Rogers and her mother had the same nationality and address is of course not enough to suggest that there was any additional connection between them.  But the fact that a woman of her wealth and standing would have chosen to live at the same address where Frederick worked clearly implies that his employers belonged to her social class and also had money.  In turn, this leads to the conclusion that Frederick had successfully transplanted himself to yet another European city and culture, that he continued to work in the upper reaches of his profession, and that, therefore, he was very good at it.  There is abundant additional evidence supporting this conclusion, as well as the fact that he quickly became fluent in French.

    The Detective, or How I Researched THE BLACK RUSSIAN (Part 5)

    In my last “Detective” post I described how I succeeded in contacting Frederick Thomas’s grandson in Paris, and how I received messages from him expressing his interest in meeting me.  He gave me his telephone number and I called him to set up a meeting.

    Monsieur Thomass lives in one of the best districts of Paris, in an elegant, high-ceilinged apartment decorated with elaborate white molding.  When he opened the door, I saw a casually dressed, good-looking man with a charming manner who was about the same age as I am.  I would have found it difficult to say where he was from—Southern France, Italy, somewhere else on the Mediterranean?  He spoke only French.  Over the course of the next several hours and a lunch in a nearby restaurant, he told me the story of his grandfather, as it had been handed down orally in his family.  He kindly allowed me to use a voice recorder and generously gave me photocopies of several documents pertaining to his grandfather that happened to survive the great upheavals the family had endured during the past eighty years. 

    And the story he told me was absolutely incredible:  he said that the man I was pursuing actually came from New Mexico; that he was a member of the native American “Tomac” tribe, and also had African-American and white ancestry; that he had gone to sea in Vera Cruz, Mexico; become a commercial seaman in Rotterdam, then a smuggler in the South China Sea; and that he got to Russia after he saved the life of a rich Russian in a bar in Shanghai! 

    This is the story--and there were other episodes and details that were equally fantastic--that Bruce had heard repeatedly as a child from his father, Frederick’s son, Mikhail, when he was growing up in Paris.

    It was a bright and unseasonably warm day in early November 2006 when I left Mr. Thomass’s apartment.  The low angle of the afternoon sun seemed to make the misty air glow above the Paris rooftops and softened the lines of distant vistas.  I had so much new information to digest that I felt rather dazed as I walked down the sidewalk, past a series of elegant shop windows with expensively garbed mannequins.  It had also been a strain to speak nothing but French for hours.  A café appeared before me and I took refuge in it so that I could savor what I had just learned.  “My” Thomas was beginning to take on flesh, and his life to emerge out of nonbeing. 

    But about which Thomas had I heard?  At that time in Paris, I did not know what "my" Thomas's first and middle names actually were.  And the fascinating story that Mr. Thomass had told me about his grandfather’s early life pointed in entirely different directions from what I was beginning to discover and subsequently was able to confirm.

    (To be continued!)

    The Detective, or How I Researched THE BLACK RUSSIAN (Part 4)

    In my last post, I described how in 2006 I found a lead to Frederick Thomas's descendants, who appeared to be living in France.  The key detail I had learned from my informant in Paris was that Frederick had a grandson who had been married to a woman named Chantal Thomass, a designer of women's clothing. 

    I again began to scour the internet.  Chantal Thomass proved to be very prominent, and famous especially for her pricey line of playful women’s lingerie--a kind of upscale Victoria’s Secret.  She has a flagship store on Rue Saint-Honoré, one of the most famous shopping streets in Paris, as well as boutiques in many other fashionable locations and cities around the world.  The signature look for which she is famous is called “dessous dessus” in French, which is the reverse of the usual expression for “upside down” and means something like “what is beneath is on top.”  It refers to wearing what might look like undergarments as (provocative) outer clothing. 

    There were several biographical sketches of Madame Thomass on the internet from which I learned that after her divorce she kept the surname of her ex-husband, Bruce.  This, I realized, must have been the man my Paris informant had in mind:  I had actually found Frederick Thomas's grandson!  I also realized that Bruce spelled his surname with two letters “s” because of French pronunciation rules:  with only one “s” the name would be pronounced “Thoma.”  The Thomas family surname had thus made an elaborate journey from the American Deep South, to Russia, and then to Turkey before finally settling in France.  I imagined that this would have pleased Frederick himself very much. 

    At this point, my own confusion over dealing with foreign online sources almost ruined the rest of my search.  I misunderstood the address I found for a Bruce Thomass in the Paris directory because I thought that it was for a drugstore, which seemed a very improbable occupation for the man I was trying to find (it proved to be for a minor business sideline of his).  I concluded that I found the wrong man and so again reverted to paper and the mails.  I wrote in French to Mme Thomass at the two addresses that I had found for her—one was her business office in Paris and the other the flagship store—as well as to a grown daughter, who lived in the French countryside and whom I also found in the online directory.  By this point, my trip to Paris was only two weeks away and I asked both women, if they would be so kind, to pass on my request for a meeting to Bruce, assuming that he was the right man and that they were in touch with him.

    I had not gotten a response from either of the women when I left for the airport, and was prepared for the worst.  I could easily imagine that my letters might have seemed too eccentric to warrant a response, especially from a prominent businesswoman who probably got lots of crank mail.  I also had no backup plan except to go to what I thought was the drugstore in Paris and that might have some sort of connection to the man I was looking for.  But luck intervened once again.  As soon as my plane landed and I was able to check my email and voicemails in the United States, I found several messages from Bruce Thomass himself expressing his eagerness to meet me.  All my letters had been passed on to him.  I imagine that he must have been as curious about me and my unlikely quest for information about his grandfather, as I was about him.

    (To be continued!)

    The Detective (continued), or How I Researched THE BLACK RUSSIAN (Part 3)

    In my last “Detective” post--in which I began to describe the unlikely chain of coincidences that led to my finding Frederick Thomas’s grandson--I ended with my decision to contact Konstantin Kazansky in Paris, a man who had known Frederick’s son, Mikhail, and who had written about Frederick in a book about Russian cabarets.

    Here I paused.  I did not want to risk calling Kazansky without warning because I had no idea what kind of person he was or how he would respond to my inquiry.  And since I had failed to find an email address for him, I decided to write to him in the old-fashioned way, on paper.  To be safe, I sent letters to both addresses that I found in an online French telephone directory and wrote them in Russian because I assumed that since he had described Russian émigré milieus in his book, he could at least read the language; it was also easier for me to write in Russian than in French.  I explained who I was and asked if he had any additional information about Mikhail, Michel, or Mike Thomas (he used all these forms of his name), or about his father, Frederick, beyond what he had mentioned in his informative book.  I also said that I was going to be in Paris in another month and a half and would be very grateful if he would agree to meet with me.

    Several weeks passed without reply.  I was getting increasingly apprehensive about losing the only lead to Mikhail that I had found, so I decided to call Kazansky.  Cold calling a stranger in the United States can be unpleasant enough; doing so long distance to France is even more unnerving.  I was running through what I was going to say when on the third ring a cultivated woman’s voice answered in French; I gave my name and asked if I might speak with Monsieur Kazansky.  When he came to the phone, I began to explain that I had written to him several weeks ago and that I hoped that he did not mind my calling.  To my relief, he proved to be a friendly and easy-going man who apologized and explained that he had not yet had a chance to reply but was happy to speak with me even though he had little to say about the Thomases beyond what he had written about them.  At that point, we switched to Russian, which he spoke fluently (my French is functional but not fluent).  We agreed that I would call him when I got to Paris so that we could arrange a meeting. 

    And then he mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that Mikhail Thomas, who had died in the 1980s, had a son in Paris who had been married to the famous French lingerie designer Chantal Thomass. 

    This casual remark was the link to all that followed.   (To be continued!)

    The Detective, or How I Researched THE BLACK RUSSIAN (Part 1)

    When I first came across a reference to a “Russian” black man named “Tomas” [“Томас” in Cyrillic] who owned a nightclub in Constantinople (about which more later), this was such a surprise and seemed so unlikely that I immediately wanted to know more.  Like anyone who needs a quick answer to a new question, I started by Googling.  But what little popped up mostly repeated what my original source had said.  Then, a keyword search of library collections turned up Allison Blakely’s pioneering book, Russia and the Negro, which had two paragraphs on “Thomas,” as I discovered his surname was spelled in English, and cited several other sources that eventually, after various twists and turns, proved invaluable.  From these I learned that Thomas may actually have been an American, and that his first name was “George” (which was incorrect, as I discovered only later).  But by this point, I was hooked; I had become obsessed with discovering the truth about a man long dead and largely forgotten. 

    No detail was too small to pursue because I never knew where a particular strand might lead.  This is how I found one of Frederick Thomas’s grandchildren in Paris.  I never expected anything like this, and my discovery showed me that without chance and luck even the most diligent researcher could fail to get very far.  When I look back on the chain of unlikely coincidences that led to my meeting Frederick’s grandson, I still feel surprised and incredulous. (To be continued, of course!)