II: Big Sea


Relations between the management of the Grand Duc and Florence were never any too cordial, and after the fight, they were worse. Some evenings she would not sing a single song for the customers. Often, long before dawn, she would wrap her evening cloak about her and depart.

Shortly, she quit to join forces with Louis Mitchell and open the famous Chez Florence that became, and remained, the place in Montmartre for a number of years, blessed by theatrical celebrities, millionaires, and the Prince of Wales.

Florence’s departure left the Grand Duc with no drawing card—with summer and the tourist season approaching. The manager tried Jarahal, a female impersonator with a double voice. He tried tap dancers. He tried a Charleston expert. No crowds. Finally, they sent to New York posthaste for a new girl to feature—any new girl. New York sent Bricktop Ada Smith of Connie’s Inn.

The evening that Bricktop arrived, Gene Bullard, the manager, went to Le Havre to meet her. Returning, he reached Paris about midnight, bringing Bricktop directly to the Grand Duc to look the place over. It was empty. But the band had a habit of playing every time the door opened, thinking customers might be arriving, so the musicians burst into a popular tune, the hired dancers got up and twirled about the floor, the waiters rushed forward—but it was nobody but Gene Bullard and a plain little mulatto girl with freckles. So the music stopped, and the danseuses sat down, and everybody gazed at Bricktop.

She was short and freckled and slightly lighter than mustard. She was plainly dressed. She had reddish hair and was not very pretty. But she went around and met everybody in the place and shook hands with each one, and smiled.

And you liked her right away.

Then she began to ask if that one little room was all there was to the Grand Duc. (French night clubs, as a rule, are small and intimate, not acres of tables with a stage, and spotlights, like New York.) So Bricktop was surprised at the tiny little room she was expected to work in, with its small tables very close together, its eight-foot bar, and a dance floor for only a dozen couples. Bricktop said it was about the size of a lunch room in Harlem.

“Just a three-piece orchestra?” she asked.

“That’s all,” said the manager.

She looked sad. Bricktop had been used to big bands, like Leroy Smith’s, to back her up, and amber spotlights, and feathered costumes, and all the build-up a New York club gives even to its chorus girls. Here she found a small room, a small band, no light effects, no chorus, and not even a dressing room to make a change. She was expected simply to stand up and sing in an evening gown under the house lights.

“I don’t know!” said Brick. “It looks funny to me.”

They opened a bottle of champagne to cheer her up, and she sat down at a table. One o’clock came. Two o’clock. Three. Nobody. House empty.

“Where are all the people?” said Bricktop.

“Well, you see, this is a late place,” the manager explained.

Four o’clock. Five. Almost dawn. But nobody at all.

Finally Brick got up and went out in the kitchen, where Bruce and I were.

“I want to see what you all got back here,” she said to us.

I offered her our only chair, and Bruce invited her to eat some corn bread and a piece of chicken.

Bricktop said she wasn’t hungry, that she felt bad, that what kind of a joint was this she had come all the way across the Atlantic to work in and there was no customers to work to. Where in the world were all the people?

Bruce told her frankly what had happened—that everybody had followed Florence to her new place, all the customers, and that was why they had sent for her, to build up a new crowd for the Grand Duc.

Bricktop said, well, she would try, but she sure would be starting from scratch—no customers and no money—because in the excitement of landing at Le Havre, she had lost her pocketbook, with every penny she had in the world in it. So she was starting out in Paris with nothing, in a club that had nothing, and she felt bad, way over here by herself in a foreign country with no friends and no money. She began to cry, leaning on the table in the kitchen.

I told her not to worry about losing her money. I said I had only seven dollars myself when I got to Paris—and I was still living.

But she sobbed and sobbed.

Bruce said: “Life’s a bitch, but you can beat it if you try.”

Bricktop sobbed: “I’m gonna try.”

And Bruce said: “Here, have a piece of corn bread.”

Ten years later, Florence was dying on Welfare Island in New York, and Bricktop was the toast of Montmartre, with dukes and princes at her tables.


Icon for the Public Domain license

This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.