Throughout much of the twentieth century, Bricktop, otherwise known as Ada Smith Ducongé, was a popular and renowned performer and hostess. In the early 1920s while performing in a Harlem nightclub, Ducongé became known as Bricktop because of her bright red hair; she was to become so well known by this nickname that during her lifetime she owned and ran no fewer than three nightclubs known simply as “Bricktop’s.” Her Paris nightclubs were famous for their fine entertainment; on any given night one might hear Ethel Waters, Noel Coward, Helen Morgan, or Cole Porter. Her clubs were equally well known for their rich and glamorous clientele, including royals from across Europe, expatriate writers such as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and famous artists and performers—from Pablo Picasso to Tallulah Bankhead.
Bricktop was born in West Virginia, and given the elaborate name Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louisa Virginia Smith. Her father died when she was a child and her mother, a former slave, moved the family north to Chicago. It was in Chicago that Ada Smith would make her stage debut in Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Haymarket Theater. She was five years old. After traveling with a vaudeville troupe in the earliest days of her career, Bricktop performed in the most popular clubs in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and of course, New York where she was the headliner at the fashionable Harlem club, Connie’s Inn.
Bricktop moved to Paris in 1924, where she performed at Le Grand Duc. On her first night at the club Bricktop met the poet Langston Hughes who, then just twenty-two years old, was working in the club as a busboy. “You liked her right away,” Hughes wrote of meeting Bricktop.1 “She liked everybody and made everybody like her. . . . Bricktop was simply a good old girl of the kind folks call ‘regular.’”2 Before long, “Bricktop was the toast of Montmartre, with dukes and princes at her tables.”3
Hughes’s remark recalls Bricktop’s friendship with the Prince of Wales, who held a party in her first club on its opening night. The Prince, who knew Bricktop as the woman who had introduced Paris to the Charleston, asked her if she would teach him the latest dance, the Black Bottom. “The Prince and I went out onto the floor,” Bricktop wrote, “and I showed him some of the steps. It didn’t take him long to catch on. He was a very good dancer.”4
Carl Van Vechten met Bricktop in her club in Montmartre in the late 1920s. Of their first meeting, Van Vechten wrote:
I became interested in her when it was reported to me that she had journeyed to Le Harve to meet the Negro Gold Star Mothers, after the Great War, when they were given the opportunity to visit the spots where their sons fought and died and were buried. Accompanying them to Paris, she spoke French for them and found them places to sleep. This story endeared her to me so that when Fania and I were in Paris . . . we sought her out.5
Many years later, after seeing Bricktop in New York, Van Vechten wrote in a letter, “Brick was here for dinner last night in her most reserved and ladylike mood. But she was grand.”6
Van Vechten photographed Bricktop on the streets of Paris, her adopted home. “We wandered pretty much all over Montmartre to discover appropriate locations,” Van Vechten wrote.7 He included images of Bricktop in one of his earliest photography exhibitions.