At Her Globe-Spanning Nightclubs, This Black Entertainer Hosted a ‘Who’s Who’ of the 20th Century

Ada “Bricktop” Smith, who operated venues in Rome, Paris and Mexico City, brushed shoulders with the likes of Langston Hughes, Salvador Dalí and Gertrude Stein

Ada "Bricktop" Smith poses in Paris
Ada "Bricktop" Smith's clubs attracted high-profile visitors, including Cole Porter, the future Edward VIII and Elizabeth Taylor. Carl Van Vechten Collection / Getty Images

To visit Rome is to regularly come face to face with the past. Most visitors are aware of the towering figures of the Colosseum and the Pantheon, both troves of ancient history. But scattered throughout the city are also smaller-scale monuments to more recent times—if you happen to know where to look.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Cinecittà Studios’ revival of the postwar film industry earned Rome the moniker “Hollywood on the Tiber.” The Italian city hosted productions like Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur and Federico Fellini’s iconic La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life), which both captured the spirit of the era and gave it an enduring name.

Nowhere was the “sweet life” on fuller display than along the three blocks of Via Veneto that stretched south from the Porta Pinciana gate of the Aurelian Walls to the United States Embassy. The street’s tree-lined sidewalks were filled with an array of upscale hotels, restaurants and nightclubs, where glamorous screen idols held court in their off hours.

A photo collage outside of Café de Paris in Rome
A photo collage outside of Café de Paris in Rome Tamara J. Walker

Today, the menu case on the patio outside of Harry’s Bar, opened in 1918, features a digital slideshow of black-and-white photos that entice guests to sit in the same spots where Audrey Hepburn and Frank Sinatra once dined al fresco. Just over a block away is the now-closed Café de Paris; even with graffiti-covered security grates blocking its windows and door, the space elicits a tangible sense of nostalgia. Its old menu case is still affixed to the wall, with a photo collage depicting an assortment of boldface names from yesteryear above a sign that says it all: “È qui la dolce vita,” or “The sweet life is here.”

To a casual visitor, all of this makes for a satisfyingly evocative stroll. But missing from these tributes to Via Veneto’s dolce vita era is any reference to its true center of gravity: Bricktop’s, a club owned by an African American nightlife empress who escaped Jim Crow to become a celebrity in her own right and drew adoring crowds from around the world.

Ada “Bricktop” Smith was born in Alderson, West Virginia, in August 1894. She began her entertainment career in local saloons before joining the vaudeville circuit as a teenager. Her work took her around the U.S. and Canada; somewhere along the way, she picked up the nickname “Bricktop,” which referred to her mane of fiery red hair.

Musicians and entertainers at the Cadillac Club in Los Angeles, circa 1917
Musicians and entertainers at the Cadillac Club in Los Angeles, circa 1917. Bricktop appears third from right. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

By the early 1920s, Bricktop was based in New York City. She had made enough of a name for herself as a dancer and jazz singer to land an invitation to headline at a nightclub in Paris. The club, Le Grand Duc, was owned by Eugene Bullard, a World War I pilot who formed part of a small but growing community of African Americans who were beginning to leave their mark on the City of Light.

Bricktop quickly joined and dominated their ranks. After the stint at Le Grand Duc came an opportunity to open her own 14-table nightclub on Rue Pigalle in Montmartre. The Paris-based Bricktop’s was an instant, unqualified success. Night after night, during seasons stretching from fall to spring, the hostess presided over a buzzy atmosphere. She’d sing, strut and top up champagne glasses at tables filled with a veritable “who’s who” of literary and cultural elites.

The guest list included actress Tallulah Bankhead, poet Langston Hughes, entertainer and activist Paul Robeson, writers Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten, and the future Edward VIII of England (then Prince of Wales), all of whom put on their finest to dine and dance in an integrated atmosphere that could never have existed in the U.S. at the time.

Bricktop shared credit for her club’s popularity with a dear friend and frequent fixture at the piano: “In a way,” she wrote in her 1983 autobiography, “Bricktop’s was Cole Porter’s club. … My small place was filled every night with Cole Porter and his friends, or Cole Porter’s friends, or friends of Cole Porter’s friends.”

World War II brought Bricktop’s party to an untimely end, so she accepted an invitation to open a new outpost in Mexico City. From a perch in a luxury apartment building, she soon amassed a set of loyalists from the local expat community, befriended hometown superstar Cantinflas and embraced Catholicism. In 1949, a visa issue sent her back to New York for what should have been a temporary stay before returning south of the border. But it wasn’t long before she decided, once again, to try her luck in Paris.

The brief comeback got off to a promising start. Opening night on Rue Fontaine in Montmartre in May 1950 was so full of old and new friends—fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and Surrealist Salvador Dalí among them—that some had to sit on the floor in their evening gowns and tuxes. Bricktop serenaded them with special lyrics she’d written for the occasion:

Thanks for the memories, of Paris in the spring,

The Cole Porter songs we’d sing,

Of the old Grand Duc and onion soup,

And other priceless things.

I thank you so much.

Bricktop with unidentified friends in a nightclub
Bricktop with unidentified friends in a nightclub New York Public Library

The song proved to be a symbolic choice, as the new Bricktop’s seemed more nostalgic than au courant. Paris had changed too much since the war. It was more downtrodden, less festive and noticeably unwelcoming to the expats and tourists who formed Bricktop’s customer base. The “Yankee Go Home” signs were the most obvious in a mounting slew of indicators that the time had come to move on. “It was Christmas 1950,” Bricktop wrote in her autobiography. “I was 56 years old and making another new start.”

Rome was the logical next stop. Its movie industry was beginning to attract Hollywood’s attention, and Bricktop—ever the canny location scout—understood that a nightclub near the U.S. Embassy on Via Veneto would be a big draw. She secured a room across the street on the lower level of the Ambassador Hotel. The space was bigger than she was used to, as were the crowds that soon spilled in from outside.

First came the movie stars. Ava Gardner and her husband Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, and Anna Magnani were all among the luminaries who crossed Bricktop’s threshold. While access to customers like these would have represented a coup to any other nightclub owner, Bricktop was more circumspect. The crème de la crème of writers, intellectuals and artists who’d given Bricktop’s its exclusive reputation in the first half of the century had largely faded away, replaced by a new, thoroughly modern brand of celebrity. Screen idols were the exact sorts who had never stood a chance of getting past the ropes at her old outposts. Still, she later recalled, “I was a businesswoman … and running a club was the only business I knew, so I was willing for Bricktop’s to go with the times.”

Bricktop with Fats Waller and other friends in 1932
Bricktop with Fats Waller and other friends in 1932 New York Public Library

The gamble paid off. Along with the celebrities came a mix of old friends, diplomats, royals, expats and a growing number of well-heeled locals who were benefiting from Italy’s export-led “economic miracle.” Jessica L. Harris, a historian at St. John’s University who has written about postwar Italian consumers and is currently working on a book about African American female entertainers in the post-Fascist era, says, “Italy’s recovery from the devastation of war meant rising incomes and more prosperity for Italians to enjoy the dolce vita.”

Then came the tourists. American visitors looking to recreate their favorite films became ubiquitous sights in Rome, zipping around on Vespas, dining in piazzas, tossing coins into the Trevi Fountain and making pilgrimages to Via Veneto, where they threatened to take over. Columnist Art Buchwald, writing in the Los Angeles Times in 1960, reported that he talked to a waiter whose “one ambition in life … is to meet someone who speaks Italian.”

Bricktop’s stood at the center of it all. The Afro-American called the venue “the most highbrow nightclub in Rome,” noting that it was “THE place for poets, artists and millionaires.” But even amid all her success, Bricktop gave off a sense that her best times were behind her. When New York Times reporter Gay Talese visited Via Veneto in 1959, he described an unexpected scene at Bricktop’s, where “a spry 64-year-old named Ada Smith sings nostalgic songs about romance in the Twenties, when her hair was brick-colored and she opened her first bar in Paris.”

A 1934 photograph of Bricktop in Paris
A 1934 photograph of Bricktop in Paris Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Part of the issue was the fact that Bricktop’s patrons were no longer her contemporaries. That Bricktop was now old enough to be her customers’ mother was bound to stir up emotions about the good old days. Also complicating matters was her devout Catholicism. Perhaps these circumstances explain Bricktop’s displeasure when reports began to circulate in 1962 that Cleopatra co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, both still married to other people, had “stayed out until 3 a.m. at Bricktop’s nightclub on the gay Via [Veneto].” Bricktop, according to the Afro-American, “blew her top.”

The paper caught up with Bricktop as word started to spread that her club was a rendezvous spot for the couple, reporting that she “threatened to file libel suits against several newspapers, wire services and magazines which carried stories she described as being damaging to her business.”

While no lawsuits ever materialized, the episode marked the beginning of the end for Bricktop’s. The party came to an official close in 1964. The New York Daily News announced the club’s closing with the headline “Bricktop, Queen of Exiles, Abdicates” and a line from Bricktop herself: “I’m tired, honey. Tired of staying up until dawn every day.”

Bricktop poses in a feather boa in New York City in 1971.
Bricktop, clad in a feather boa, poses for a portrait in New York City in 1971. Jack Robinson / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Still, she stayed on in Rome a bit longer. “I love the city,” Bricktop wrote, “a place where history walks beside you, whether you’re wandering down a side alley, crossing a big boulevard or crossing over the Tiber.”

Indeed, the Italian capital was a hospitable city for many Black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. Writer Ralph Ellison and artist Barbara Chase-Riboud were both visiting fellows at the American Academy in Rome. Former football player Harold Bradley Jr. moved to Italy in 1959, opening the Folkstudio, a music space, art studio and community magnet that attracted the likes of Bob Dylan and Ravi Shankar, in Rome two years later.

In the fall of 1964, Bricktop met Martin Luther King Jr., who’d visited Europe to collect his Nobel Peace Prize. But she left Rome for good in 1970. “I didn’t want to just live there,” she wrote. “If I was going to just live and not run a business anywhere, I figured I might as well return to the United States.”

Ada 'Bricktop' Smith -St Louis Blues (1970)

With that, Bricktop brought her decades-long exile to its natural conclusion. Before settling down in New York in 1972, she accepted invitations to dinners and parties around the country, and even threw several of her own in a small-scale version of a comeback. At nearly every gathering before her death at age 89 in 1984, reminiscing about Bricktop’s was at the top of the agenda.

Today, no signs point to where the Roman outpost of Bricktop’s once stood, and no photographs in the menu cases outside the restaurants along Via Veneto depict its redoubtable owner among the faces of her contemporaries. But if you stroll beneath the street’s lush canopy of trees, tracing the same steps that Bricktop did night after night for more than 15 years, it might still be possible to feel her history walking beside you.

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