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, andin a highly unusual choice for a black American at the timewent 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.
One of San Francisco Chronicle's Top Ten Nonfiction Books of 2013
"Magnetizing and unforgettable . . . In his assiduously researched, prodigiously descriptive, fluently analytical, and altogether astonishing work of resurrection, Alexandrov provides uniquely focused accounts of racial struggles in America and decadence and bloodshed in Europe and Russia while insightfully and dynamically portraying a singular man." Booklist (starred review)
"A wild life of intrigue, deception and beating the odds . . . [Frederick] Thomas story is certainly interesting, particularly since he was able to thrive in Europe in a way most African-American men of his generation couldnt dream of. . . . [The Black Russian is] a good choice for those who enjoy reading about lifes underdogs." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] gracefully written feat of historical sleuthing. . . . Through prodigious archival research, historical scholarship and painstaking reconstruction of secondhand accounts, [Alexandrov] has drawn a moving and vivid portrait of a remarkable American life." San Francisco Chronicle
"With so much focus on the black experience in America in the 19th century, we might never consider the black experience in Europe at the same time. Vladimir Alexandrov's The Black Russian rectifies this oversight, and does so with panache. His tale is the biography of an individual who is wholly remarkable, regardless of race, and whose vitality, guile, and charm led him from Mississippi to Moscow, with plenty of adventures along the way. . . . Alexandrov transports the reader to an exotic era. Some of the most memorable parts of Thomas's life story lie in the incidental grace notes that add color to the lands through which he traveled." The Daily Beast
"It is a testament to Thomass unlikely success in Moscow, but also to Alexandrovs frisson-inducing account of myriad adventures along the way, that The Black Russian emerges as deeply satisfying despite its subjects woebegone end. . . . By its very nature, the victory of an underdog has a restorative effect on flagging enthusiasm in lifes opportunities. And what triumph against the odds could prove more rousing than that of Frederick Bruce Thomas . . . [who] becomes the king of nightlife?" Brooklyn Rail
"A compelling narrative of [a] powerful and complex man." Shelf Awareness
"Although Alexandrov constructed this vessel with sturdy timbers of historical research, it sails lightly on a swift narrative current that transports us from Reconstruction Mississippi to Memphis, New York City, London, Paris, Moscow and, finally, Constantinople. . . . Alexandrov excels at recreating the various worlds Thomas inhabitedfrom his restricted existence during Reconstruction to his glittering fast-lane life on the Continent. . . . What [Thomass] life illustrates, as Alexandrov skillfully and gracefully shows, is that when people are unshackled from slaveriesof whatever sortfreedom's buoyancy can lift them to surprising heights, can offer miraculous views." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"A remarkable story about a formidable man. A story Alexandrov has uncovered, and masterfully told." Winnipeg Free Press
"This well-written book is about one of the most fascinating black men of modern times. Like Jack Johnson, Frederick Thomas was a brilliant, proud and ambitious black man who experienced the heights of success and the depths of failurein a foreign land. Don't miss this masterful work!" Cornel West, author of Race Matters
"In The Black Russian, Vladimir Alexandrov provides a powerful counter-narrative to the conventional Great Migration story of southern blacks migrating North en masse in the decades after the Civil War. He tells instead the tale of Frederick Bruce Thomas, son of a slave, who left the United States to hopscotch through Europe, proceeding from London south to the Riviera and then east to Moscow, before ending his days in Constantinople. Armed with a single but formidable skillthat of southern hospitalityThomas progressed from waiting tables to serving as maitre d'hotel in fancy restaurants, to opening his own glitzy night clubs. In assembling the facts of Thomas's story, Alexandrov relates in vivid detail the political, financial, and emotional highs and lows of this man's incredible life." Carla L. Peterson, author of Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City
"As a reader, I found myself fascinated by this well-written story. As a writer, I found myself envious of Vladimir Alexandrov for having discovered such a remarkable man whose life, both triumphant and tragic, spans continents, wars and a revolutionand whom no one seems to have noticed before. An extraordinary and gripping book." Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
"A spirited tale of bucking the tides of history, every bit as colorful as it seems improbable." Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra: A Life, a New York Times Book Review Top 10 Books of the Year
"A fascinating tale of culture clash and historical change, researched with energy and written with verve." Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the international best-seller, Gulag: A History
"In The Black Russian, Vladimir Alexandrov tells the keenly researched and vividly written story of one of the more extraordinary characters in African-American history. Alexandrov deftly brings to life the succession of complex milieus in the United States, France, Russia, and Turkey in which Frederick Bruce Thomas achieved both his improbable successes and his haunting defeats. This is a tale to remember." Arnold Rampersad, author of Ralph Ellison: A Biography
"As the granddaughter of a family that escaped from Russia because of the Bolshevik Revolution, I read The Black Russian in one sitting. Vladimir Alexandrov has done more than tell the story of a forgotten man, he has woven a fascinating tapestry of Moscow life before the October Revolution. The reader is offered a unique front-row seat to Moscow's Pre-Revolutionary beau monde and a hair-raising escape days before the Bolshevik takeover. Frederick Thomass unlikely ascent from Mississippi farmboy to Moscow impresario is a surprising tale with those most American of themes: tenacity and self-invention." Olga Andreyev Carlisle, author of Solzhenitsyn and the Secret Circle
"That truth is ever stranger than fiction is underscored by the story of Frederick Bruce Thomas. The highs and lows of Thomas's unlikely life journey are skillfully unfurled by Vladimir Alexandrov." Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, author of A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons
"Hang on for the ride of a lifetime. With the verve of a novelist, historian Alexandrov takes one on an adventure through pre-war Mississippi, London, Paris, Tsarist Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution, ending up in decadent Constantinople." John Bailey, author of The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans
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 boughtfor ten cents per acrea 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 ownerfrightened by the Revolution and facing bankruptcystole 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 growthsomething 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 Bolsheviksthey had troops and ships in the harborwent 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 policeif 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 thereto 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.