The Black Russian
The Black Russian is the incredible story of black American Frederick Bruce Thomas, born in 1872 to former slaves who became prosperous farmers in Mississippi. Alexandrov, the author of the book and a scholar of Slavic languages and literature at Yale, begins the story on the river delta of Coahoma County, Miss. Frederick’s parents, Lewis and Hannah attended an auction of a 200-acre farm occupying some of the richest soil in the South. Lewis with a great stroke of luck won with a top bid of $20. Four years after the Civil War and emancipation they farmed the land for a full year which earned the family more than $5,000 (roughly $80,000 today) during its first year alone.
Vladimir Alexandrov author of The Black Russian
Being born into a very atypical black family of the time gave him his first taste of his future life. The author with great understanding points out that “that just having a basic awareness of his parents’ financial plans and deals would have given him a sense of a broader life unlike his counterparts having a endless cycle of labor, food, and sleep – Fredrick was blessed with a life very few other blacks in the Delta would ever get.”
Mississippi in 1886
Yet the Thomas family’s stunning success could not last in Mississippi. It all came to a grinding halt in 1886 when a landowning white neighbor whom Lewis had trusted and done business with for years made a grab for the Farm. This happened for no apparent reason other than he knew no one would stop him. Through an act of underhandedness the family was led to believe they owed a staggering debt. This kept keep them running, tied up in litigation and off their land for the rest of their lives. Hannah died in her mid-30s, and Lewis moved with his second wife, India, to a house in Memphis, where they rented out rooms to make ends meet.
Frederick’s forays around the Globe
Being caught in the family tragedy, Frederick, now 18, set off on his own path. “He left the South and lived only in big cities,” Alexandrov writes. “It would be here that he would master urban skills that allowed him to move in worlds that became progressively more white.” He had a brief stint in Arkansas, St. Louis and Chicago, Brooklyn, London, and then Paris. Once in Paris, he revealed two character traits that would come to define him as a person: uncanny resilience coupled with a formidable capacity for language acquisition.
Hotel des Anglais in Cannes
From Paris he traveled and worked in a dizzying array of restaurants and hotels all over Europe. His good looks, experience and polish, along with his distinctive racial exoticism, functioned in Europe as powerful assets. In the fall of 1896, he was appointed headwaiter for the summer at the Hotel des Anglais in Cannes.
Hotel “Aquarium” in Moscow
Several years later, after stints in Germany and Nice, he made his way to Italy were he secured employment under a rich Russian tourist. It was from this experience that he headed to Moscow, where he became the maitre d’hotel at “Aquarium”, one of the city’s most frequented “pleasure gardens” – outdoor event spaces that combined fine dining, dancing and variety shows with private rooms and the whiff of drugs and sex.
Advertisement for Maxim, 1915
Frederick had learned enough Russian by the time Aquarium closed in 1907 that he was able to land an extremely prestigious position of maitre d’hotel at Yar, which drew a rarefied clientele (including members of the royal family and Rasputin), and where lavish tips could transform waiters into millionaires. By 1911, with the help of two Russian partners, Frederick had earned enough to buy Aquarium and a similar venue, Maxim.
Bolsheviks seizing Power
His swiftly built a small fortune and fame followed but what amounts to a paradox for the ages, soon he would be run out of Russia not on account of his race but rather his class. It was 1917 and the Bolsheviks seized power, Frederick being a exceedingly wealthy man would be forced, along with hundreds of thousands of other Russian emigres were forced to flee to Constantinople and other part of the earth and start over.
Constantinople at the turn of the Century
Incredibility , even though the situation was quite tenuous, again he made himself a millionaire , this time with a Turkish version of Maxim. He also had become instrumental in introducing Jazz to Constantinople. But again Frederick found himself on the wrong side of history. Just as in Russia, there was a revolution stirring in Turkey, and wealthy Western businessmen wouldn’t be a part of it.
Interview with Vladimir Alexandrov
After decades of living stateless, grandly and free, Frederick attempted to secure his passport at the American Embassy in Constantinople, possibly in order to re-establish himself in Paris. It is here that his race finally caught up to him – and ultimately doomed him.
A century later, we have Vladimir Alexandrov to thank for resurrecting Thomas’ story. Through prodigious archival research, historical scholarship and painstaking reconstruction of secondhand accounts, he has drawn a moving and vivid portrait of a remarkable American life.
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