Besides investigating pastry and candy shops, we have other interests which occupy our time in Paris. My husband is juggling three different subjects right now concerning Dewey, Camus, and food. Part of what I’m working on has to do with famous Americans who have lived in Paris in the past. Sure, I’ve looked at those big names featured in Woody Allen’s movie from a few years ago, Midnight in Paris: the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Stein, and company. Today I thought I’d discuss a couple of personalities worthy of note who are new to me anyway.
One person, whose club was actually mentioned by the Zelda Fitzgerald character in Allen’s film, is Ada “Bricktop” Smith. Acquiring her nickname because of the red hair inherited from her Irish father’s side, Bricktop was a popular African-American entertainer in Chicago and Harlem before being recruited in 1924 by a tiny Parisian club with a big name, Le Grand Duc. The busboy, who happened to be the future poet Langston Hughes, consoled her for having given up big clubs in the U. S. for such a small venue. Branching out on her own a few years later, she opened a nightspot called Bricktop’s on Montmartre which became renowned throughout the capital. Band members performing there sometimes included Duke Ellington and Sidney Bechet. The cigar-smoking Smith taught many club patrons, including the Duke of Windsor, to do trendy dances like the Black Bottom. Another visitor to her club, fellow expatriate Cole Porter, invited her to perform at lavish parties in his ten-room mansion. Porter even composed a tune for Bricktop, Miss Otis Regrets (notably performed by Ella Fitzgerald), which would become Smith's theme song.
Prior to Bricktop, there was Loie Fuller, a Chicago-born dancer, who came to perform with the Folies-Bergère in Paris in 1892. Having already achieved fame in New York with her Serpentine Dance, La Loïe became the hit of the French capital as well. The acts she choreographed consisted of swirling long drapes of material around her while being illuminated in various ways that she would design herself. Author Jean Cocteau praised Fuller’s dancing and she posed for famous artists such as sculptor Auguste Rodin and painter Toulouse-Lautrec. Her face is even engraved in the façade of a building in the 3rd arrondissement. Fuller had her own dance school in Paris and a troop of dancers, including Isadora Duncan, who toured Europe.
Research of this kind is both fun and frustrating. In what seems like a never-ending number of people, I’ve discovered authors, politicians, artists, entertainers, and others who have spent time in Paris. Starting with Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth century and stretching to Susan Sontag who died in 2004, the list is long and varied, at least seventy-five at last count. So, that should keep me out of trouble for a while.