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Frederick Bruce Thomas, c. 1896, Paris

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Old Jail and Courthouse, Friars Point, Mississippi, where Frederick Thomas' father bought a farm at auction


                      Auditorium Hotel, Chicago

Built on South Michigan Avenue in preparation for the 1893 World's Fair, one of the grandest hotels in the United States at the time, and the place where Frederick Thomas began his career as a waiter--a profession that would lead him to wealth and fame in Russia.  In 1975, the building was declared a National Historic Landmark and is now home to Roosevelt University.  Several areas in it have been restored to their former grandeur, including the main entrance lobby and the long, light-filled dining room, which now serves as a library (see next image).

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           Auditorium Hotel Dining Room

The elegant dining room on the top floor of the Auditorium Hotel (located there with the express purpose of allowing cooking smells to escape upwards and thus not annoy patrons with such aromas as “vapor of roast mutton bath"--as promotional literature put it), where Frederick Thomas got his start.  Now the library of Roosevelt University.

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         New Clarendon Hotel, Brooklyn, ca. 1890

After Chicago, Frederick Thomas moved to Brooklyn, where he worked “as head bell boy at the Clarendon Hotel.”  This was a new, large, prominent, and strategically located establishment in its day.  Opened during the summer of 1890 two blocks north of City Hall and opposite the Central Post Office, it was also just a few steps away from Fulton Street with its elevated railroad that ran to the Brooklyn Bridge a dozen blocks away.  A cable car service took passengers across the bridge to lower Manhattan and dropped them off within easy reach of New York’s City Hall, thus putting the Clarendon at one end of a transportation system that linked the two municipalities’ administrative centers.  Six stories tall, built in a heavy style that a local newspaper called “Romanesque,” richly decorated, with 160 rooms and an octagonal turret atop prominent corner bay windows, the Clarendon was the site of many meetings and banquets organized by locally important organizations and individuals.  A contemporary publication described it as a “first-class hotel, on the European plan,” and underscored its “special feature”—a “fire escape through the centre of the house,” which implied the architect’s concern with both safety and aesthetics.  The building no longer exists and the entire neighborhood has been reconfigured by new construction and access roads leading to the Brooklyn Bridge.

             Hôtel de Paris, Monte Carlo, Monaco

Where Frederick Thomas worked in 1898.  Monaco was a one-business city-state at the time because everything revolved around, and was paid for, by the rich profits from the city's Casino, including the income of the reigning princely family, the Grimaldi.  The Hôtel de Paris also belonged to the Casino Company and was, as a visiting American described it, “by many degrees the largest and finest and most expensive in the place.”  It stood on the same square as the Casino and faced it, as it does to this day.


Moscow, c. 1900


The city as it looked when Frederick Thomas arrived.  The first sight that struck many visitors to Moscow was the golden domes of its numerous Russian Orthodox churches.  Most of the buildings in the city were only two or three stories high at the turn of the twentieth century, and the few taller ones in the center did not rise above six or seven, so churches and their towers were visible above the rooftops from far away.    For natives and visitors alike the intricate patterns of ringing church bells that marked the daily cycle of services were an indelible part of the city’s “soundscape” and an aural equivalent to the gaudy splendor and ubiquity of the churches themselves.

In the photograph above, the Kremlin and Saint Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square--the city's most famous landmarks--are visible at the top center. 

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Tverskaya Street

On a map, Moscow looks like a giant wheel.  From the Kremlin at the hub, the main boulevards radiate like mile-long spokes toward the Sadovoye Koltso (Garden Ring), a continuous band of broad boulevards that encircles the core of the city.  This is a photograph of Tverskaya Street--one of the spokes--much as Frederick Thomas saw it c. 1899.  Motor cars were just beginning to appear, but Moscow still ran mostly on horsepower.  Tverskaya Street was renamed Gorky Street under the Soviets, but its old name was restored after the collapse of the USSR.  It runs northwest from the Kremlin and leads to Triumphal Square, which was, and still is, a major intersection with the Sadovoye Koltso.  The Aquarium Garden, which Thomas would direct and own (see next image), was (and is) near this intersection. 


Aquarium Garden and Theater

The first establishment in Moscow that Frederick Thomas directed and owned.  Urban entertainment gardens such as this are rare now, but were very much in vogue throughout Russia and Europe at the turn of the previous century.  Occupying a park-like territory of several acres on the edge of Moscow’s center, just west of Triumphal Square at what is now 16 Bolshaya Sadovaya Street, Aquarium was a major focal point of the city’s lively nightlife, especially during the warmer months from late spring to early fall.  It retained its aquatic name even after the fountains, grottos, and artificial streams flowing into a pond with goldfish that had existed there in 1898 were long forgotten. A remnant of the Aquarium still exists today and is a welcome, small oasis of lawns, shade trees, and quiet just off a broad thoroughfare filled with six lanes of roaring traffic; a popular theater is also located on its territory.


Images for The Black Russian

Frederick Thomas (front row, second from right) and a troupe of actors in Moscow's Aquarium Garden, 1912.



                 Maxim Theater and Nightclub

Impression of “A night café . . . luxurious like Maxim,” by Mikhail P. Bobyshev, showing a stylish clientele being entertained by Spanish dancers while a red clad orchestra plays and champagne chills in ice buckets on the tables.  Frederick Thomas opened his Maxim Theater at 17 Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street in the center of Moscow in 1912.  It contained various spaces, both large and small, and remained very popular until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

       Frederick Thomas, Moscow, 1912

Publicity photograph, giving his name in Old Orthography Russian, as "F. F. Tomas"; published on the eve of his opening Maxim.

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Frederick Thomas and Family

Photographed shortly after his marriage on January 5, 1913, to his second wife “Valli,” together with his children by his first wife—Irma, 4 years old, Olga, 11, and Mikhail, 6 ½.  The men with Frederick are unidentified; on the left may be a relative of Valli’s; on the right, Frederick’s business partner, M. P. Tsarev.


                                                         Advertisement for Maxim, 1915

Frederick Thomas is identified by his Russian name, “Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas."  The program lists twenty-five variety acts, including “The Original American Negro Trio Philadephy [sic],” among other foreign and domestic performers.


Caricature by “Mak," 1912, "A Little Singer from the Veranda," underscoring the risque nature of some forms of popular theatrical entertainment in pre-Revolutionary Moscow; something that Frederick Thomas exploited fully in Aquarium and Maxim.

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A young German singer and dancer with whom Frederick Thomas had an affair during his second marriage, and who would become his faithful companion for the rest of his life.  Elvira Jungmann enjoyed a degree of success on the variety stages of Western Europe before she came to Russia around 1911.  She was popular enough to have appeared on several postcards published by the Georg Gerlach Company in Berlin, which was well known for producing reams of images of personalities from the world of entertainment for fans who coveted and collected them.  Elvira also appeared in outfits (and acts) that were more chaste (see next images).


Is it possible that a German variety performer could reinvent herself as an American cowgirl on a Russian stage?  Indeed, it is:  by the early twentieth century, cowboys, as well as Indians, were already very popular in Europe.  Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West shows had toured England and the Continent with great success at the end of the nineteenth century.  A German writer, Karl May, had begun to churn out best-selling novels about the American West in the 1890s even before he had ever set foot in the United States (and when he finally did, he never got farther west than Buffalo in upstate New York).  Elvira's "American Cowboy" act was advertised in a Russian theatrical journal in 1912 (see below).


Advertisement for the cowboy troupe of which Elvira Jungmann was a member (in the drawing, she's wearing the same outfit as in the preceding publicity photograph).  The Russian caption reads:  "Youngman Trio, American Cowboys, 'Maxim,' Moscow."

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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 Thomas, who was always alert to novelty, decided to capitalize on it by refurbishing large spaces in Aquarium and Maxim and naming them after the dance. Legend above: "Moscow 'Aquarium', 'Tango' Hall"

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During the Great War, the tango’s popularity increased on stage and off, with some professional dancers and singers adding macabre overtones to its elegant, stylized eroticism.  One couple became famous for their “Tango of Death,” in which the man, who was otherwise impeccably dressed in evening clothes, had his face made up to look like a skull.  The pair’s dramatic performance—during which she wilted, then rallied, and finally surrendered in his arms—was meant to symbolize how the abandonment of self through sensual excess links love and death.  It was also a melodramatic, if sham, reminder of the lurid news arriving from the front lines, as were such other catchy tunes as “Wilhelm’s Bloody Tango” (named after the German Kaiser).


Despite widespread opposition from racist white fighters, the Black American boxer Jack Johnson became heavyweight champion of the world in 1910.  Frederick Thomas invited Johnson to Moscow in 1912, when Johnson was being hounded in Chicago on trumped up legal charges.  Johnson arrived in Russia in July of 1914, and quickly became friends with Frederick.  But the beginning of the Great War on August 1 forced Johnson to leave Russia before he could fight his first exhibition match. 

This advertisement for Johnson’s fights in Moscow reads: “'Aquarium'” Directors F. F. Tomas and M. P. Tsarev, Appearances Starting July 15, The World’s Invincible Boxer, JOHNSON”


Frederick Thomas participated in a number of large patriotic, charitable events in Moscow during the Great War, including donating the use of his facilities.  Here, children with Russian and Allied flags, and wearing sashes with the name of the citywide campaign, “Tobacco for the Soldier,” gathered on June 1, 1915, in the Aquarium Garden, in preparation for a parade to Red Square that included thousands of other participants.  It is possible that his oldest daughter, Olga, is in the middle of the line.


Vera Kholodnaya, Russia’s first female star of the silent silver screen.  A talented and lovely actress with luminous, sad eyes, she captivated audiences in 1915 when she appeared in her first films.  During the Great War, she also performed in many charitable events around the country, including Frederick Thomas's Aquarium theater in 1916, where, reflecting her earlier training as a ballerina, she danced on stage for the benefit of front line troops.  Her fame was such that Frederick Thomas would certainly have gone to see her; perhaps they even met. 


Aleksandr Vertinsky--a singer and actor who emerged in Moscow at the end of 1915, and became wildly popular for his songs of resignation in the face of life’s sadness and pain, as well as for their complement—escapist longing for exotic locales.  He performed widely in Petrograd and Moscow before the Russian Revolution of 1917, including Frederick’s Maxim, and afterwards became a celebrity around the world, beginning with Constantinople, where Frederick hired him to sing in 1921.  Vertinsky embodied the world about which he sang in his mannered stage persona.  As if to underscore his alienation from mundane values and interests, at the beginnning of his career he dressed as Pierrot, the sad and naïve clown of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte whose heart is always broken by Columbine.  His face powdered a deathly white, his eyes and eyebrows exaggeratedly made up with tragic black, and wearing crimson lipstick, Vertinsky looked like a haunted character from another world.  Here is a link to one of his most famous songs, "Lilovy Negr" (The Lilac Negro)--dedicated to Vera Kholodnaya (see preceding image); it is a fantasy about a long lost love and may allude, obliquely, to Frederick Thomas. 


The ship on which Frederick Thomas and part of his family escaped from Odessa to Constantinople in April 1919, just ahead of the approaching Bolsheviks.


View of Stambul, the historic Byzantine and Muslim section of the city, much as Frederick Thomas saw it when he arrived in 1919.

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The bridge across the Golden Horn linking Stambul to Galata and Pera, the two European quarters of Constantinople, at the beginnning of the twentieth century.  Frederick Thomas lived and worked in Pera (on the heights, now called "Beyoğlu") from 1919 to 1928.  The Galata Tower is visible at the top and is still a landmark.  The bridge was world famous for the parade of peoples making their way across.


An image of what Frederick Thomas's first venture in Constantinople in 1919 probably looked like, with a dancer in a skimpy outfit on stage, a band to the left, and civilian and Allied military customers at tables.

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Caricature of the famous Russian singer Iza Kremer who performed in Frederick Thomas's Stella Garden to such great acclaim in 1920 that the local British military newspaper dubbed her a "diva."  Here is a recording of one of her most popular songs, "Gori, gori, moia zvezda" ("Burn, burn, my star")--about the poignancy of loss.

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Maxim was Frederick Thomas's most famous nightclub in Constantinople and made him rich again.

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Elvira Jungmann, Frederick Thomas's loyal third wife and mother of his two youngest sons, at the time he applied for an American passport in Constantinople in 1920.

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Frederick Thomas's youngest sons, Frederick Jr. (L) and Bruce, born in Moscow in 1913 and 1914, respectively; photographed around the time of their father's application for an American passport in Constantinople in 1920.


Frederick Thomas's oldest son, Mikhail, born in Moscow in 1906 to Hedwig, Frederick's first wife; around the time of Frederick's application for a passport in 1920.


Frederick Thomas regularly advertised his nightclubs in Orient News, the British military newspaper published in Constantinople during the Allied occupation of the city.  In this ad from 1922, he features an American jazz band and the special status that Maxim--named after its famous predecessor in Moscow--had been granted by the British.  Frederick temporarily included the name of his old entertainment garden Stella to make sure that his former clients would make the connection with the new venture.


Present-day appearance of the "Catholic Latin" Cemetery in the Ferikoy district of Istanbul where Frederick Bruce Thomas was buried on June 13, 1928, the day after his death in the French Hospital Pasteur near Taxim Square.  There was no money for a permanent headstone, and the exact location of his grave is unknown.

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Appearance in 2010 of what was left of Frederick Bruce Thomas's famous nighclub Maxim in Istanbul, which he opened in 1921 and lost to creditors in 1927. Maxim was located just off Taxim Square on Sira Selvi Street. The space was actually the basement of a building that housed the “Magic Cinema,” one of the largest and most luxurious movie houses in the city (it still stands, although it is very run down).  From the theater’s elegant, colonnaded main entrance a broad and bright staircase of twenty steps led to a large, well lit, high-ceilinged hall that could accommodate several hundred people at a time.  The far wall had windows and doors that opened onto a broad terrace with wonderful views of the Bosporus (a bonus provided by the steeply sloping terrain on which the building stood, which is what also made it possible to enter the hall from the lower level).  Frederick spared no expense in having the space renovated in a luxurious style, with ornate plaster ceilings, richly decorated columns, and polished metal and wood.  When the weather warmed up, the terrace would become a spacious garden with gravel paths and cypresses framing the distant views of Asia.  After his creditors seized the nighclub, they renamed it "Yeni Maxim," or "New Maxim," and it continued to be central to Istanbul nightlife for decades afterwards.  When I visited the place, I found that its outside wall had been torn out and that it had been converted into a squalid parking garage, with only a few traces of its decorations remaining.  Now a new hotel has been built on the site and none of Maxim has been preserved, although part of the facade of the Magic Cinema has been.

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The old facade of the Magic Cinema through which one could enter and go down steps to Maxim on the lower level.  Now part of the facade of a new Sofitel Hotel which towers above it.

After THE BLACK RUSSIAN was published, several people in Russia got in touch with me and sent me copies of wonderful photographs they had of Frederick Bruce Thomas, which they had inherited from ancestors who had business connections with him in Moscow a century earlier.  The last one below shows him with his two partners in the Aquarium Garden shortly before they opened for the first season.

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