One of the most legendary and enduring figures of the 20th century, Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith was an American dancer, singer, and nightclub owner. Smith was better known as “Bricktop” for her bright red hair and freckles inherited from her father.
Smith was born in Alderson, West Virginia, on August 14, 1894. She was the youngest of four children to an Irish father and black mother. After the death of her father, the family moved to Chicago. By the age of 16, she was performing and touring with the Theaters Owners Booking Association. It was the age of Scott Joplin, and young Smith was carried away by the singers, saloonkeepers, and the ragtime world.
At the age of 20, her performance tours took her to New York City. It wasn’t long before Smith was performing at boxer Jack Johnson’s Café Champ, side-by-side with “Blackbird” singer Florence Mills. However, it was Connie Immerman, eponymous owner of Connie’s Inn in Harlem, who gave her the name “Bricktop,” on account of her red hair.
In 1924, she went to Paris and began operating the clubs in which she performed. Smith became known for her signature cigars, the “doyenne of café society” which drew the attention of many celebrities to her clubs. She later married singer Peter DuConge in 1929, but they separated after a few years.
Smith retired from operating clubs in the 1960s. However, Smith performed well into her eighties as a cabaret entertainer. She made a brief cameo appearance as herself in Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary film, “Zelig.” She died in 1984 at 89.