‘Unabashed luxury, elaborate displays of rich fabrics, gilt, soaring ceilings, glittering chandeliers…’ Thus does Vladimir Alexandrov describe what Moscow’s elite demanded of Maxim, the 1912 nightclub helmed by The Black Russian’s unlikely subject, the American Frederick Bruce Thomas. He was ‘the black man with a broad Russian nature’ who reinvented himself as celebrity nightclub impresario Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas. Alexandrov’s sense of spectacle is no less keen. The Black Russian vaults breathlessly from set-piece to set-piece as it traces the journey of its hero from rural Mississippi to the opulent cabarets of Moscow, to Bolshevik-occupied Odessa and, finally, to a debtors’ prison in postwar Constantinople.
For Alexandrov, Thomas is a combination of Horatio Alger and Peter String-fellow: a master of illusion, whether creating lavish fantasies for his night-time clientele or presenting himself as Constantinople’s legendary ‘sultan of jazz’.
Grand tableaux of 19th-century America and late-tsarist Russia are rendered in crisp, compelling prose. From the ‘upscale dining rooms’ of Chicago, where black waiters were expected to ‘simulate the enforced obsequiousness and racial subordination that had been the norm for all blacks in the south’ to the pageantry of patriotic parades in Moscow during the first world war, Alexandrov treats his settings as stages: each new city provides an opportunity for Thomas to transcend American’s racial limitations, and re-invent himself.
Most evocative of all is an account of 1920s Constantinople, which Alexandrov describes with dizzying relish as
an ethnic kaleidoscope…[where] one could see a Circassian from the Caucasus in a tunic with rows of cartridge pockets and a sheathed dagger in his belt, a French Catholic Sister of Charity in her billowing black robes, or an old Turk with a bit of green on his turban to show that he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Here, where Thomas makes and loses his final fortune attempting to bring jazz to the Bosphorus, the narrative teems with wonderfully unsalubrious characters. There are the Russian emigrées capitalising on their romantic origins as dames serveuses in nightclubs (a rival nightclub to Thomas’s advertises women who ‘whisper to the clients the poems of Baudelaire between the courses’); and there is the ‘top limey spy’ Bertha Proctor, Thomas’s onetime business partner, ‘a barkeeper…who specialised in men in uniform’, pairing pneumatic barmaids with well-heeled soldiers while eaves-dropping for British Intelligence.
At times, Thomas’s world threatens to overwhelm its subject. The major events of his life are broadly sketched — we learn about his marriages, mistresses and mounting debts — without much insight into the man himself. This may be partly due to relatively scant documentary evidence, and Thomas’s capacity for self-invention presents further difficulties.
But what it lacks in depth, this book makes up for in panache and engaging detail. Like Thomas’s midnight cabarets, it provides a thoroughly enjoyable display.