II: Big Sea

Le Grand Duc

The cook at the Grand Duc’s name was Bruce. He was an enormous brownskin fellow, with one eye, stout, and nearing fifty. He wore a white apron, a white cap, and a very fierce frown. He could look at you so fiercely out of his one eye that you would quake in your shoes. His other eye was closed tight. But the one he had looked like three.

Bruce was boss in his own domain, the kitchen. During his hours there, from 11 P.M. to 7 A.M., he would let no one else come in the kitchen, not even the boss or the manager. Only his helper, myself, was permitted. The others called for what they wished at the service window, and woe to the impatient waiter who set foot inside the door. Bruce had once hung a pan of pancake batter over such a waiter’s head, and several others had often seen the threat of a raised knife. Bruce was highly respected by the employees of the Grand Duc, and addressed with great gentility.

Because he could fry the best chicken à la Maryland in Paris, with corn fritters and gravy, because he could bake beans the way Boston bakes them, and make a golden brown Virginia corn bread that would melt in your mouth, Bruce had a public all his own, was a distinct asset to the place, and his little vagaries were permitted.

They had to be permitted or he would quit.

It was good, working with Bruce, because he would let no one else give you any orders of any kind, neither the French owners nor the Negro manager. And if any waiter said to me: “Hurry up, boy, and hand me some butter,” Bruce would bellow: “If you’re in such a rush, why don’t you tell me to hurry up? I’m in charge of this kitchen.”

Not another peep out of the waiter, for Bruce’s one big eye would petrify him.

Bruce was no respecter of persons, from the star entertainer, Florence, to the star patrons, such as Belle Livingston and Fannie Ward. If something about his food displeased a customer and it was sent back to the kitchen, Bruce would sometimes leave the kitchen himself, stick his head through the pantry curtains opening on the main room of the club, and glare down with his Cyclops eye on whatever unsuspecting patron had dared return a dish of his. If the patron’s reasons were satisfactory, however, Bruce would go back to the kitchen and send out as tempting a new plate as mortal ever prepared. But if the patron was rude or drunk, he would get nothing from the hand of Bruce. Then Bruce would turn the order over to me, the dishwasher, without even the benefit of his advice on how to cook what was wanted. In my early days there, I turned out many strange concoctions—so strange that they embarrassed even the waiters.

Bruce did not like Fannie Ward and would never prepare an order for her table if he knew where the order originated—so I usually did the cooking for Miss Ward. I hope she never suffered indigestion.

A great many celebrities and millionaires came to the Grand Duc in those days, drawn by the fame of Florence Embry—known simply as Florence—the beautiful brownskin girl from Harlem who sang there. Anita Loos and John Emerson, young William Leeds, the Dolly Sisters, Lady Nancy Cunard, various of the McCormicks, the writer, Robert McAlmon, and Belle Livingston with her son and daughter, Fannie Ward, looking not so very young, Prince Tuvalou of Dahomey, Sparrow Robertson of the Paris Herald’s sport page, Joe Alix, who became Josephine Baker’s dancing partner, the surrealist poet, Louis Aragon, all came—and Florence would notice none of them unless they were very celebrated or very rich.

Part of Florence’s reputation was based on snobbishness, no doubt, a professional snobbishness which she deliberately cultivated, because outside the club she was as kind and sociable a person as you would ever wish to find. And those who worked with her, from musicians to waiters, loved her. But to the patrons, she adopted an air of unattainable aloofness. She would sing a requested song with only the most casual glance at the table she was singing for—unless a duke, or a steel magnate, or a world celebrity sat there.

Rich, but lowly, patrons could tip Florence ever so heavily, and she would not even condescend to accept a glass of champagne with them. But the amazing thing was that they would come back and tip her even better for her songs the next time. In the snob world of de luxe boîte de nuit society it was considered a mark of distinction for Florence to sit for a moment at your table.

Most of the time when Florence was not singing she would remain at her own table by the orchestra saying: “Tell them, ‘No, thank you!’ ” to the waiters who came with offers of champagne from guests who admired her looks or her singing. These frequent “No, thank you’s” greatly infuriated the management, who were too short-sighted to see that that was, no doubt, a part of Florence’s spell over her following—because she was by no means a great singer of popular songs. She was no Raquel Meller or Yvette Guilbert. But she was very pretty and brown, and could wear the gowns of the great Paris couturières as few other women could. At that time she went home every morning and got plenty of sleep, and would come to work every night looking as fresh and lovely as a black-eyed susan from some unheard-of Alabama jardin de luxe, where sophisticated darkies grow.

In the early part of the evening Florence would often laugh and talk with the waiters and the musicians, or with Bruce and me—but an hour later be as remote as you please to a party of well-to-do tourists from Wisconsin, spending a thousand francs at the front table. It was the first time I had ever seen a colored person deliberately and openly snubbing white people, so it always amused me no end to watch Florence move away from a table of money-spending Americans, who wanted nothing in the world so much as to have her sit down with them.

Her full name was Florence Embry Jones and her husband’s name was Palmer Jones. Palmer was a fine piano player, and they frequently sang together. But Palmer at that time was working at the Ambassadeurs, and didn’t arrive at the Grand Duc until about three in the morning so, until he came, Florence sang with the orchestra—perhaps a couple of songs an hour between dances, the popular American tunes of the day. Then when Palmer arrived, she would do a group of special numbers with him at the piano, if they felt like it.

Palmer himself knew a great many old blues and folk-songs, like “Frankie and Johnnie” and “Henrico.” He would occasionally sing one or two of those songs for the guests, inserting off-color lyrics if the crowd was that kind of crowd.

Then when all the other clubs were closed, the best of the musicians and entertainers from various other smart places would often drop into the Grand Duc, and there’d be a jam session until seven or eight in the morning—only in 1924 they had no such name for it. They’d just get together and the music would be on. The cream of the Negro musicians then in France, like Cricket Smith on the trumpet, Louis Jones on the violin, Palmer Jones at the piano, Frank Withers on the clarinet, and Buddy Gilmore at the drums, would weave out music that would almost make your heart stand still at dawn in a Paris night club in the rue Pigalle, when most of the guests were gone and you were washing the last pots and pans in a two-by-four kitchen, with the fire in the range dying and the one high window letting the soft dawn in.

Blues in the rue Pigalle. Black and laughing, heartbreaking blues in the Paris dawn, pounding like a pulse-beat, moving like the Mississippi!

Lawd, I looked and saw a spider
Goin’ up de wall.
I say, I looked and saw a spider
Goin’ up de wall.
I said where you goin’, Mister Spider?
I’m goin’ to get my ashes hauled!

Through the mist of smoke and champagne, you laughed at the loneliness of a tiny little spider, going up a great big wall to get his ashes hauled. And the blues went on:

I did more for my good gal
Than de good Lawd ever done.
Did more for my good gal
Than de good Lawd ever done.
I bought her some hair—
Cause de Lawd ain’t give her none.

Play it, Mister Palmer Jones! Lawd! Lawd! Lawd! Play it, Buddy Gilmore! What you doin’ to them drums? Man, you gonna bust your diamond studs in a minute!

Is you ever seen a
One-eyed woman cry?
I say, is you ever seen a
One-eyed woman cry?
Jack, she can cry so good
Just out of that one old eye!


Icon for the Public Domain license

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