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The Black Russianby Vladimir Alexandrov
Synopses & Reviews
The Black Russian is the incredible true story of Frederick Bruce Thomas, born in 1872 to former slaves who became prosperous farmers in Mississippi. After his father was brutally murdered, Frederick left the South and worked as a waiter in Chicago and Brooklyn. Seeking greater freedom, he traveled to London, then crisscrossed Europe, and—in a highly unusual choice for a black American at the time—went to Russia.
Because he found no color line there, Frederick settled in Moscow, becoming a rich and famous owner of variety theaters and restaurants. When the Bolshevik Revolution ruined him, he barely escaped to Constantinople, where he made another fortune by opening celebrated nightclubs as the "Sultan of Jazz." However, the long arm of American racism, the xenophobia of the new Turkish Republic, and Fredericks own extravagance landed him in debtors prison. He died in Constantinople in 1928.
"Alexandrov (Nabokov's Otherworld) exports the American dream to the cold climes of Russia in this promising but plodding tale of reinvention. Growing up on the family farm in Mississippi in the late 19th century, Frederick Bruce Thomas learned valuable lessons about business and manners, but as the child of prosperous free blacks, he also learned how to successfully negotiate social and racial boundaries. In flat-as-concrete prose, Alexandrov, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Yale, chronicles the dogged rise and inglorious fall of Thomas as he traverses the globe in search of success. After his father is murdered by envious whites, Thomas moves from city to city, eventually shipping off from New York City for London and then Paris. There, he becomes fluent in French and serves as the personal valet to a wealthy American on the Riviera before making his way to his adopted home: Moscow. Smitten with the Russian way of life and flush with cash from various business ventures, Thomas changes his name to Fyodor Fyodorovich Thomas and petitions to become a subject of the czar. But even so deft a self-fashioner as Thomas can't escape the cataclysms of the 1910s. Though Thomas's is a fascinating and unique story, Alexandrov's tedious and lackluster telling saps the tale of life. Agent: Michael Carlisle, Inkwell Management." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Notes from the Author
In the summer of 2006, while preparing to teach a graduate seminar at Yale on Russian émigré culture between the world wars, I was reading the charmingly breezy memoirs of Aleksandr Vertinsky, a singer who was very popular in Russia before the Revolution. Vertinsky described how he landed in Constantinople in 1920, which was the first stage on the bitter road to exile for many White Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks, and then mentioned that he performed in a garden called "Stella" that belonged "to the famous Russian Negro Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the former owner of Moscow's 'Maxim'." I had never heard of this "Tomas," and the idea that a black man with a Russian first name and patronymic had been famous for owning an entertainment venue in prerevolutionary Moscow seemed wildly improbable.
Who was this "Fyodor Tomas" and where did he come from? Why did he go to Russia? How did he prosper there to the extent of owning a theater? How did Russians react to his being black? How did he wind up in Constantinople? And why, if Vertinsky said that he was "famous," had he been forgotten?
* * * *
Frederick Bruce Thomas was born in Mississippi in 1872 to Hannah and Lewis Thomas, who had been slaves until the end of the Civil War. In 1869, theyd bought—for ten cents per acre—a 200-acre farm in the Mississippi Delta. Within the first year, the value of their crops earned many-hundred times more than their investment, making them the most successful sharecropper black family in the region. When Hannah died, Lewis married India, whom Frederick thought of as his mother. Lewis and India employed other freedmen to work their land. By 1886, their farm totaled 625 acres. Dickerson, a wealthy white landowner whose relatives had owned Lewis as a slave, claimed that the Thomases owed him a large sum and seized their property to satisfy the supposed debt. When they found theyd been robbed by Dickerson, Lewis and India fought back in court and won the first round before the case went to the state Supreme Court, but the case dragged on for many years. Eventually they deeded half the farm to their white lawyer to pay his fees and, to escape the increasing danger of lynching in Mississippi, moved to Memphis. There, Lewis was brutally murdered by a disgruntled boarder. Traumatized, Frederick left home and the south for good.
At 18, Frederick moved to Chicago, where he spent months working in top restaurants learning how to be a first-class waiter. He moved to New York in 1893, worked as head bell boy at the Clarendon Hotel in Brooklyn, then as personal valet to a prominent local businessman who encouraged Fredericks desire to study music. His music professor suggested he pursue further studies in Europe. One year later, Frederick left New York for London, where he auditioned for enrollment in a music conservatory (he was not accepted) and made a failed attempt to start a boarding house. He went to Paris in 1895, and from there spent the following 3 years traveling in Europe, where his talent and skill as a waiter always landed him a job. Working as a waiter in some of the very best restaurants, he learned how to be the perfect host, anticipating guests every need, always charming and welcoming. He became headwaiter at a top hotel in Cannes, the Hotel des Anglais. In 1897, he traveled to Nice and Monte Carlo and other European cities, heading toward Russia. In St. Petersburg and Odessa, he again found work in hotels and restaurants before settling in Moscow in 1899. He married a German woman in 1901; they had three children. (She died from pneumonia in 1910.)
In 1903, Frederick found a lucrative job as maitre dhotel at the posh outdoor nightclub Aquarium. The First Russian Revolution erupted in 1905. The Aquarium was at the center of violent protests and rallies. The Aquariums owner—frightened by the Revolution and facing bankruptcy—stole his employees money and escaped to France in 1907. Frederick found employment at a very upscale, popular restaurant called Yar. With tips he saved from Yar, he reopened Aquarium in 1911 with two Russian business partners. He recruited entertainers from abroad. The place quickly became the most popular nightclub in Moscow and Frederick a millionaire. In 1912, he renovated a failing nightclub and reopened it as Maxim, a luxurious variety theater and cabaret.
He married his childrens nurse, Valli, in early 1913. Shortly thereafter he began an affair with a German cabaret performer named Elvira, who gave birth to two sons. When World War I began, he petitioned the Minister of Internal Affairs for Russian citizenship, to protect his family from deportation and his property from confiscation. The request was approved in 1915.
Frederick never felt discrimination in Moscow. While the Muscovites were vehemently anti-Semitic, they were however color blind. Only when an American visited his restaurants did he feel any condescension, but he deflected it so the slight was on the other. He organized several benefits at his properties raising money for the Russian troops fighting in World War I. His establishments continued to flourish despite prohibition laws in Moscow. Fredericks success was based on growth—something he learned early in life from his parents who kept enlarging their holdings in the Delta. Now even wealthier, he leased Aquarium to local entrepreneurs and bought a home in Odessa in 1916. One year later, he purchased a block of six buildings on one of Moscows main streets. The timing was unfortunate; one week later, the Bolshevik Revolution began. Violence was so rampant that businesses closed and civilians stayed inside their homes. He tried to adapt to the political climate by establishing a "soldiers theater" which staged famous classic dramas such as Chekhov plays, classical music, and opera, in an attempt to democratize access to high culture. In August of 1918, he learned of a warrant for his arrest. Leaving the country involved several obstacles; special permits were required and the trains were overcrowded. Fredericks request for this permit was denied, but he bought train tickets for himself, Elvira, and his four children. They fled Moscow illegally, on a slow and extremely dangerous journey by train to Odessa.
By the spring of 1919, the Bolsheviks were defeating the Allies and moving closer to Odessa. The French who promised the White Russians and Europeans they would push back the Bolsheviks—they had troops and ships in the harbor—went back on their word and suddenly withdrew. Chaos followed. With his southern accent, Frederick was able to convince American authorities that he was an American citizen, earning himself, Elvira, and his children passage aboard a ship destined for Constantinople. The Thomases arrived in Pera, a European section of Constantinople, with no money but his fluent French, the language of business, allowed him to borrow money, and with a business partner, he opened the Stella Club where he introduced patrons to American jazz.
In 1921, Frederick opened a new nightclub in Pera named Maxim, after its successful Moscow counterpart. It was especially popular with European and American tourists. In 1922, the threat of war made his desire to obtain an American passport more urgent. In 1923, Turkish authorities announced that foreigners in Constantinople needed to register with the police—if Frederick couldnt obtain proof that he was a foreign national, he faced deportation and loss of his property. The State Department granted him and his children an emergency certificate of registration, which required that they return to America by May 1924. Dreading a return to discrimination in America, when the Allied forces left Turkey, he remained in Constantinople, evading the law, and opened a new restaurant/theater on the Bosporus shore. It closed after an unusually wet summer season. In 1926, he opened another entertainment garden, Villa Tom, on the outskirts of Constantinople, but it too was problematic. By the end of that year, his income was depleted, he could not pay his expenses, and the opening of a government-sponsored casino nearby crippled his businesses. He fled to Angora in 1927 to dodge his creditors, and to try and find new investors to open a nightclub there—to no avail. Working as an assistant waiter, his creditors found him and he was sent to prison in Constantinople. He fell ill and died in a hospital in Pera on June 12, 1928, age 55.
About the Author
Vladimir Alexandrov received a Ph. D. in comparative literature from Princeton. He taught Russian literature and culture at Harvard before moving to Yale, where he is B.E. Bensinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures. He is the author of books on Bely, Nabokov, and Tolstoy, and has published numerous articles on various other Russian writers and topics.
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