II: Big Sea

Late Place

That spring and early summer, practically nobody came to the Grand Duc except the colored entertainers when they got off from work in the wee hours of the morning—Olley Cooper of the golden voice, and Louis Douglas, the great dancer and pantomimist, Cricket Smith, Sammy Richardson, Buddy Gilmore of the magic drums, and Crutcher and Evans, two singing colored boys that everybody liked and who died tragically, one shot by his French mistress, the other of a quick disease.

These Negro entertainers liked Bricktop and they rallied around her. Late, any morning, the Grand Duc was almost like a Harlem night club, except for the French boss, and Luigi and Romeo.

Luigi was the barman, and Romeo the only waiter left since business had fallen off—that is, the only waiter except myself, for I had now become a waiter. Because they could no longer afford to keep me in the kitchen, Bruce held the culinary fort alone, and I had been moved out in front as a helper to Romeo. Louis Douglas gave me one of his old stage tuxedos to work in, a funny, comedian’s tuxedo with wide lapels, but it served as a waiter’s uniform, and Romeo taught me how to wait table.

Luigi and Romeo were Italians, youths, in their twenties who had come to Paris to make a livelihood. They were pleasant, jolly fellows, who taught me all I know about waiting table and serving drinks. It was fun working in the Grand Duc that spring, with practically nothing to do all night except sit around and listen to the musicians and Bricktop talking about when they first started in the show business, and telling marvelous stories of Florence Mills and Bojangles and Bert Williams and others they had worked with in their travels.

Then about four in the morning, more and more dusky tale-tellers and singers and dancers would come in, and drinks would be ordered (at professional rates) and from then on until seven or eight, the gaiety of professional merrymakers no longer being professionally merry—but just themselves—would obtain.

The Charleston had but recently come to Europe. It hadn’t yet caught Paris by storm, as it would a year later with the arrival of the lanky Josephine Baker, but Negro dancers had brought it over with them, and were now busy demonstrating it to the old timers who hadn’t been home in years. For a while, the Grand Duc was a colored Charleston school.

Gradually people began to hear about the gay doings at our club in the early morning, and a clientele began to form around that group of Negroes who came there to clown the dawn away amusing themselves. This new clientele liked Bricktop, too, and so customers finally began to come earlier, just to hear her sing—as early as one or two o’clock.

Bricktop sang in a cute little voice, with nice, wistful notes. She danced a few cute little steps, tossed her head and smiled, and went around to all the tables and was pleasant to everybody—from guests who could afford only one quart of champagne to those who bought a dozen bottles. French, or American, tourist or diplomat, white or colored, were all the same to Brick—and really all the same. She liked everybody and made everybody like her. Her professional manner was simply her own manner, in the club or out. And her attraction was just the opposite of Florence’s. Bricktop was simply a good old girl of the kind folks called “regular.” But Florence was a brownskin princess, remote as a million dollars.

Chez Florence, however, made a great deal of money that spring and the Grand Duc didn’t—for our new customers were not really big-monied ones, nor très chic. At our place there was a definite air of uncertainty about the future. So I began to save my francs—just in case a rainy day came.


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