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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 THE BLACK RUSSIAN (9)

    THE BLACK RUSSIAN A Brief Video Interview

     

     

    The MacMillan Report is a series of short video interviews with people at Yale about their work.  Here is one with me that was uploaded today in which I talk about writing the book and about its possible afterlives. (To see the video, please click on the screenshot above.)

     

    My Late Father and THE BLACK RUSSIAN

    My father, Eugene A. Alexandrov, died last week, on September 16, 2014, at the age of 98 and five days.  He was born on September 11, 1916, in the small city Cherkassy, which was then in the Kiev Governorate (Guberniia) of the Russian Empire.  His parents taught in local gymnasiums, which are types of schools in parts of Europe that provide advanced secondary educations, roughly comparable to American high schools and the beginnings of college.  My paternal grandfather taught history; my grandmother—French.

     

    One of my favorite photographs of my late father and my late mother, Natalia, at a ball in New York City in 1966.

     

    My father became a geologist and got his Ph. D. at Columbia in 1965.  He taught his special field, economic geology (as well as other subjects), in Queens College of CUNY for many years.  He loved field work and became famous for the summer excursions he organized for his students to visit working mines in the United States, Canada, and even Europe.  I have been touched by the number of his former students and colleagues who wrote to me about their fond recollections of these trips, how much they learned from him, and what a caring mentor he was.

     

    My late father with two students examining a specimen during a visit to a working mine in 1971.

     

    My late father with a group of students on a field trip in the early 1970s.

     

    But my father’s interests were much broader than geology, or even natural history (a love for which he instilled in me at an early age via numerous walks through forests and fields in the New York area, as well as elsewhere in the US and abroad).  He knew well six languages, had a smattering of many others, was interested in archeology, anthropology, ethnology, cosmology, history, literature, and many other aspects of culture. 

    He also helped me in two important ways when I was working on The Black Russian.

    When I did research on Frederick Thomas’s family in the Chancery Court of Coahoma County in Clarksdale, Mississippi, I found documents in which Frederick was listed as having a half-sister named Ophelia.  I researched this name in studies of black American naming patterns and discovered that it was very rare.  So why was she given it?  The first source that came to mind was of course Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it didn’t make sense to have a girl child named after a tragic suicide.  Perhaps, I thought, the name was chosen simply because it was euphonius.  But then I thought of my subject’s first and middle names—Frederick and Bruce—and decided that there might be a more complicated reason. 

    “Frederick” was very likely inspired by Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a celebrated abolitionist, author, and statesman.  He was widely known throughout the United States starting in the 1850s, and his name carried impressive associations that would have appealed to black people like the Thomases, who had also transcended the legacy of their enslaved past.  A possible source for Frederick’s middle name—and one that was quite near at hand—was Blanche K. Bruce.  He was a former slave who became a rich landowner in Bolivar County, Mississippi, during the late 1860s, and a politician both there and in Tallahatchie County, before being elected to the United States Senate in 1874 (where he was the first black man to serve a full term).  Because Coahoma County shares borders with both Bolivar and Tallahatchie—and the latter was very near the Thomas farm—it is possible that the Thomases knew Bruce personally.  They could have been moved to give his surname to their son as a middle name.

    I told my father about my research, and asked him what he thought of Ophelia’s name.  It didn't take him very long to come up with what strikes me as a plausible explanation. He suggested that the source may have been Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which Miss Ophelia St. Clare is an admirable secondary character who overcomes her northern prejudice against blacks.  This could have made her into a suitable namesake for the child of ambitious black parents like the Thomases.  And because the novel had been published in 1852 and was the second biggest best-seller in the United States in the nineteenth century (after the Bible), where it was celebrated in the North and reviled by whites in the South, it is quite possible that Ophelia’s mother, who was literate, knew it.  I had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in high school and forgotten.  My father read the novel much longer ago and remembered.

    The second way in which my father helped me reflects his command of languages.  In the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, I found several letters that Frederick’s ex-wife, Valli, wrote in German to American diplomats in Constantinople in the early 1920s.  I can read modern German, and, with some difficulty, the old-style, printed Gothic German.  But Valli’s letters were in handwritten Gothic German that I had never seen before and could scarcely make out.  I feared that I was facing a long struggle to learn how to decipher this script.  And then I remembered that my father went to a German-language high school in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  I gave him copies I had made of the letters, and he was able to read and translate them for me without any special effort, commenting only that the woman’s handwriting wasn’t very clear.  This was many decades after he had had any significant exposure to handwritten Gothic German. 

    He read my book before he died, and was pleased that he could be helpful.

    My family and I miss him.

    Вечная Память.  Eternal Memory.

    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.

     

    THE BLACK RUSSIAN Paperback Trailer 2.0

    Once again, I pause my narrative about Frederick Thomas's escape from Russia to Constantinople in 1919 to release the new and (I hope) improved trailer for the paperback edition of THE BLACK RUSSIAN--one I have designated "Version 2.0."  By now I've either exhausted Movie Maker's potentials for making a film, or at least my own abilities using this very simple program.

    My aim was for something more striking in all respects.

    I welcome comments and especially . . . REPOSTS!

    To see the trailer, please click on the image below:

     

     

    THE BLACK RUSSIAN—A New Book Trailer for the Paperback Edition

    I’m interrupting the story of Frederick Thomas’s escape from Bolshevik Russia to share a new book trailer I made that I've just posted on YouTube.  I never used Movie Maker before—or any other type of film-making software for that matter—but found it an enjoyable project (I know, I know—I should have been on Facebook instead). 

    I decided to try my hand at a new trailer because The Black Russian was recently published in paperback by Grove Press. 

     

    Frederick Bruce Thomas in Moscow, 1912

     

    The old trailer for my book, kindly made by Yelena Demikovsky, the documentary filmmaker working on “Black Russians – The Red Experience,” has been on YouTube for a while and it was time for a change (or addition).

    I’d be happy to hear what you think of the new trailer via my website or email.

    It’s not too late to tweak or modify  . . .

    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 

    THE BLACK RUSSIAN at the Movies?

    What is it that makes people say a story is “cinematic,” or that a book should be made into a movie?  Is it something specific about the characters, settings, or plot?  Is it primarily a form of praise?  Or is it that our culture has become so visual that the translation of words onto the screen is necessary for a given work to exist fully?

    Before following my hero, Frederick Thomas, to Russia, which is the next chronological step in my blog, I’d like to pause briefly on The Black Russian and a movie version.  This has been on my mind, on and off, for a half dozen years, ever since I began the research that led to the book. 

    It all began in Memphis, Tennessee, at the “Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange,” of all places.  I’d gone to Memphis to do research in the city’s main public library (where I found a cache of newspapers from 1890 that allowed me to reconstruct the grisly murder of Frederick’s father), and in Coahoma County—Frederick’s birthplace—which was only a couple of hours away by car.  During my one day off, I visited the main sights in Memphis, including the National Civil Rights Museum, Graceland, Beale Street, and the duck procession at the Peabody Hotel; I also went for a short paddle-boat steamer cruise on the Mississippi (actually, a diesel engine, with fake paddle wheel and smokestacks).  Then, still having an hour to fill, I stopped by the Cotton Museum, which is in the center of town.  And I’m glad I went because of what I learned about the buying and selling of the crop that was the “king” of the local economy in the nineteenth century.

    The day that I went, the Museum wasn’t very popular with visitors.  In fact, I was the only one there, and the bored ticket seller/curator on duty, who seemed eager for some human contact, struck up a conversation with me.

    “Where are you from?” she asked.  When I answered “Connecticut,” her surprised response was—“What are you doing here!?”    So, I told her as much as I could about my subject, which was relatively little at the time because I was at an early stage of my research. 

    Nevertheless, her response was:  “I have only one question for you:  who is going to play Frederick Thomas in the movie!?”

    Where this came from, I have no idea; and I don’t recall what I answered (probably “Denzel”).  At the time, I was still trying to learn what I could about Frederick, and I wasn’t even sure that I would find enough to write a book.

    But as time went on, I kept getting the same kind of response from people from the most varied backgrounds and countries—Russia, Japan, Turkey, China, France, Argentina, England, etc., etc.

    When the book was published, some reviewers also began to refer to a movie version:   “[The Black Russian] cries out to be a Russian Moulin Rouge; it will only be a matter of time before we see Thomas on the big screen. His life was certainly large enough to fill one"; “Thomas's life is one of cinematic proportions”; “Not many people have heard of Frederick Thomas yet, but his story is surely destined for the big screen.” There were similar comments from quite a few readers.

    So, why do people say a book should be made into a movie? 

    My impression is that all three reasons I mentioned above have been at play with regard to The Black Russian.  And any way you cut the comments—or any way I turn them—they are all very flattering, appealing, and tantalizing.  The remarkable changes in Frederick’s fortunes, the exotic settings in which he lived and worked, and, of course, his exceptional personality—all seem to demand visualization on a big screen.

    This is not to say that any book’s path to a movie is simple.  Anyone who knows anything about the process also knows how low the chances are:  very few books are “optioned”; and of the few that are, fewer still make it to production.  In the end, the odds are a small fraction of one percent.

    So who knows what will happen. 

    I have gotten a nibble or two.  But I’ve also done enough real fishing to know that it would be foolish to think that all one has to do is pull up the rod and try to set the hook as soon as the float does a small bob in the water.

    On the other hand, the climate may be especially congenial now for a film about The Black Russian.  On June 2, when I was at JFK waiting for a flight to London (where I went in part for the publication of the UK edition of my book), I read a front-page article in the New York Times entitled “Coming Soon: A Breakout Year for Black Films.” It described how an “extraordinary cluster” of at least ten films about black Americans was about to be released during the second half of 2013, something that has never been seen before: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/02/movies/coming-soon-a-breakout-for-black-filmmakers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    A Digression from History to Today--My Book Tour in the South

    I spent a week promoting THE BLACK RUSSIAN in Mississippi last week, with seven appearances in different venues, including the Live@9 TV program in Memphis (I posted a link to the video clip on my FB profile a few days ago), as well as book signings, and the great Festival for the Book in Oxford (all of the appearances are on my web page under "Events").  All of the talks and presentations were very enjoyable, and it was very gratifying to see how many different people took to the story of Frederick Thomas. 

    Here's a link to the video of the talk I gave last Friday about THE BLACK RUSSIAN in Clarksdale, Mississippi, near which Frederick Thomas was born in 1872.  The venue was the beautifully restored "Cutrer Mansion," built by the successful and flamboyant lawyer, John "Jack" Cutrer, who defended the Thomas family interests in a trial in the local chancery court (and who, with his wife, Blanche, was a model for some of the characters in Tennessee Williams' plays).

    Back to the Life of the Thomas Family

    After my description of some of the unlikely twists and turns that I experienced when researching THE BLACK RUSSIAN, I return to the life of Frederick's parents before he was born.

    They were highly unusual people in Coahoma County in terms of what they were able to achieve.  What did they face, and how did they overcome the obstacles that confronted newly freed blacks in Mississippi?

    One example of the general attitude of whites toward blacks scarcely eight months after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox was the notorious “Black Code” passed by the Mississippi legislature in November of 1865, which restricted blacks almost as much as the state’s old slave code had done.  It proclaimed that all former laws regarding “crimes and misdemeanors committed by slaves, free negroes or mulattoes” were again “in full force and effect.”  Freedmen were also severely limited in their ability to lease land, carry weapons, participate in legal proceedings, drink and sell alcohol, or engage in religious preaching. 

    Under pressure from the federal government, the worst provisions of this Code were repealed two years later.  Nevertheless, it remains a vivid early example of white efforts to restore control over the black population and an ominous harbinger of measures that would succeed in future decades. 

    In fact, whites would prove very inventive in devising ways to control freed black people.

    (To be continued.)