In his exquisitely written biography of Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad details the poet’s wanderlust, from his travels with his father to Mexico to his hopscotching across the globe on the S. S. Malone and McKeesport freighters, visiting African and European port cities in between 1923 and 1924. Initially, regaled by stories of Paris from a Frenchman during a port visit to Rotterdam, Hughes fell hard for the city he imagined, seduced by tales of its grand boulevards and architecture, cultivated charms, and spirit of elegance.
He was not the first, and would certainly not be last to be taken in by Paris, for as Joan DeJean writes in The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour:
Louis the XIV, a handsome and charismatic young king with a great sense of style and an even greater sense of history, decided to make both himself and his country legendary. In the sixteenth century, the French were not thought of as the most elegant or the most sophisticated European nation. By the early nineteenth century . . . France had acquired a sort of monopoly on culture, style, luxury living, a position it has occupied ever since. At the same time, Paris had won out over all its obvious contemporary rivals—Venice, London, Amsterdam—and had become universally recognized as the place to find elegance, glamour, and even romance. Beginning in the seventeenth century, travelers were saying what novelists and filmmakers are still repeating: travel to Paris was guaranteed to add a touch of magic to every life.1
So when the McKeesport docked in Rotterdam, and after a row over chicken with the freighter’s surly chef, Hughes jumped shipped with “less than nine dollars”2 in his pocket and took the night train to Paris. He arrived in Paris’s Gare du Nord in the early morning. He wandered the sights, from the celebrated bookstalls along the Seine and near the Notre Dame Church to the Louvre. His life eventually took on a ‘stuff that writerly dreams are made of’ quality—a cozy room of his own for poetry writing perched high up in a Paris garret and champagne for breakfast, a habit he’d acquired from working countless nights to the early dawn at the Grand Duc cabaret set on the hill of Paris’s Montmartre district.
The thrill was dampened only by his need of funds. And once the thrill was gone and the day-to-day nuances of workaday Paris set in, Hughes wrote grumpily to friends, cautioning them to stay home. “Dear Countée,” he began his missive to his friend after a month in Paris:
I am in Paris. I had a disagreement[sp] on the ship, left and came to Paris purely on my nerve, as I knew no one here and I had less than nine dollars in my pocket when I arrived. For a week I came as near starvation as I ever want to be, but I got know Paris, as I tramped from one end to the other looking for a job. And at last I found one and then another one and yet another!
I have fallen into the very whirling heart of Parisian night-life—Montmartre where topsy-turvy no one gets up before seven or eight in the evening, breakfast at nine and nothing starts before midnight. Montmartre of the Moulin Rouge, Le Rat Mort and the famous night clubs and cabarets! I’ve just had tea over in the Latin Quarter with three of the most charming English colored girls! Claude McKay just left here for the South. Smith is in Brussels and Roland Hayes is coming.
I myself go to work at eleven pm and finish at nine in the morning. I’m working at the “Grand Duc” where the culinary staff and the entertainers are American Negroes. One of the owners is colored too. The jazz-band starts playing at one and we’re still serving champagne long after day-light. I’m vastly amused.
But about France! Kid, stay in Harlem! The French are the most franc-loving, sou-clutching, hard-faced, hard worked, cold and half-starved set of people I’ve ever seen in life. Heat-unknown. Hot water—water—what is it? You can pay for a smile here. Nothing, absolutely nothing is given away. You even pay for water in a restaurant on the use of the toilette. And do they like Americans of any color? They do not!! Paris—old and ugly and dirty. Style, class? You see more well-dressed people in a New York subway station in five seconds than I’ve seen in all my three weeks in Paris. Little old New York for me! But the colored people here are fine. There are lots of us.3
And by May 1924, Hughes was still sounding the ‘stay in America’ alarm. This time to Harold Jackman:
Stay home! Europe is the last place in the world to come looking for a job, and unless you’ve got a dollar for every day you expect to stay here, don’t come. Jobs in Paris are like needles in hay-stacks for everybody, and especially English-speaking foreigners. The city is over-run with Spaniards and Italians who work for nothing, literally nothing. And all French wages are low enough anyway. I’ve never in my life seen so many English and Americans, colored and white, male and female, broke and without a place to sleep as I have seen here. Yet if you’d give them a ticket home tomorrow, I doubt if ten would leave Paris. Not even hunger drives them away. The colored jazz bands and performers are about the only ones doing really well here. The rest of us, with a dozen or so exceptions, merely get along.4
While one of Hughes’s correspondents, writer and Crisis editor Jessie Fauset, was highly attuned to the toll the Great War had taken on France and its citizens, psychologically as well as in terms of the sheer number of war casualties,5 Hughes appears largely unable to connect that recent past and its devastation with the present miserliness he finds in abundance. He does, however, note that the chronic unemployment, onerous work permit restrictions, a readily available cheap immigrant labor source, and virtual poverty on display everywhere were not enough to make Americans, colored and white, flee Paris. Despite his own dire straits, Paris was still a cultural haven, an incomparable brew of cosmopolitanism and freedom that America, at least for those expatriates he’d observed, couldn’t match on any day.
And in spite of his unhappiness, or perhaps because of it—Hughes claimed to be at his most prolific when discontented, he composed —“To A Negro Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret,” which gave his readers insight into life in Montmartre for black jazzmen and the populace’s, tourist and resident, enduring infatuation with jazz:
Play it for the lords and ladies,
For the dukes and counts,
For the whores and gigolos,
For the American millionaires,
And the school teachers
Out for a spree.
It was also in a Paris cabaret, the Grand Duc, where Hughes made the acquaintance of Ada “Bricktop” Smith, who, with the assistance of Hughes’s pen, become known as the Queen of Nightclubs in Jazz-Age Paris. Perhaps no other chronicler of black life in the Jazz Age as it was lived has done more to help reconstruct what expatriate life was like in Paris for African American women than Langston Hughes.
Hughes returned to the United States in November 1924; he wouldn’t return to Paris again until the Second International Writers Conference in July 1937. A good deal had changed in Paris in his near fourteen-year absence. The collapse of Wall Street in 1929, which had upended the good fortunes of countless Americans abroad, ushering a mass exodus home and sending the US economy into the free fall of the Great Depression, had reached Europe in 1931. Adolf Hitler had consolidated his power as leader of the Nazi Party and the Chancellor of Germany; by fall 1937, he held his Führer conference, which outlined the strategies of his war of aggression in Europe. Old Europe, though, turned a blind eye to Germany’s machinations, attempting to patch up their own ailing national economies. While France was never so bad off as Germany, which assisted in Hitler’s rise, France’s local economy was routed enough to have led to the riots of 1934 and the simultaneous rise of their own versions of ultranationalist political groups.
And yet, for African American women, as Hughes details, Paris still held out hope, particularly in the tumbledown entertainment district of Montmartre. In an unpublished essay related to his 1937 Paris sojourn, he writes:
In Paris, within the last decade, one after another three colored women have risen to reign for a time as the bright particular stars of the nightlife of Montmartre. Princes, dukes, great artists, and kings of finance have all paid them homage (plus a very expensive cover charge) in brimming glasses of sparkling champagne lifted high in the wee hours of the morning.7
It is from Hughes that we learn of Bricktop’s reversal of fortunes. By 1937, she had closed Chez Bricktop at 66 Rue Pigalle and become an itinerant club hostess; Hughes reminds his imagined readers: “She made several fortunes, so they say, and lost them, or spent them. Or maybe gave them away, the godness [sic] of her heart being almost a legend in Montmartre.”8
The other two colored women, Florence Embry Jones and Adelaide Hall, had either preceded Bricktop to Paris, or replaced her as the toast of Paris nightlife, much in the same way Bricktop had gradually eclipsed Embry Jones’s star in 1925. Embry Jones was the wife of the philandering jazzman, Palmer Jones, whose voice and sophisticated style made her a popular figure in Montmartre’s nightlife just after the Great War. As Hughes remembers her in 1924 during his time at the Grand Duc:
[P]etite Florence Embry, lovely vision in brown, was the reigning queen of Montmartre after midnight. Today, even after her death, “Chez Florence” is still a fashionable club. And the memory of the very pretty, very reserved little brownskin woman who paid attention only to royalty or to people with a great deal of money, still lingers in the minds of international nightlifers.9
A native of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Florence Embry was born in 1892. She left Le Grand Duc to perform at a club/restaurant owned by Louis Mitchell. Embry Jones was known to be difficult but nonetheless riveting in her performances. And so much so that Mitchell renamed the club Chez Florence instead of Mitchell’s.
She also merited a short article, “Chez Florence,” in Time magazine in 1927, where she is described as
Ivory-white [teeth], lipstick-red, and a suave, tawny brown are the colors of Florence Jones. These were colors good enough for smart, expatriate Americans of both hemispheres . . . The fact that this handsome Negress . . . keeps the smartest boîte de nuit in Paris, was evident again last week, when His Royal Highness, 27-year-old Prince Henry of Britain, strolled into Chez Florence, atop Montmartre, at 3 a. m., with a highly unofficial entourage.10
Through the connivances of a few white Americans abroad intent on putting Embry Jones in her place for her uppity airs, the only “Negress” in Montmartre with the “smartest” nightclub in Paris would slowly lose ground to the slightly younger, affable Bricktop. Jones left Paris to Bricktop in 1927, returning to the United States; and by 1932, she had died—hence Hughes’s mention of her death in his 1937 reportage.
Hughes tells us of the third player in this feminized retelling of the twentieth-century Black Expatriate Paris narrative: Adelaide Hall. Indeed, his piece is entitled, “Adelaide Hall New Star of Paris Night Life: Her 'Big Apple' Glows Over Rue Pigalle.” Hall’s rise came at Bricktop’s and, Paris’s perennial favorite, Josephine Baker’s, expenses. “Florence is gone,” he announces, “Bricktop is with the British. A new colorful girl swings out from Montmartre’s midnight throne! Everybody Suzy-Q in homage to Miss Adelaide Hall!”
Bricktop had decamped to London with the opening of the Hall’s Big Apple nightclub in Montmartre, while Baker continued her fledgling stint with the Folies Bergères; upon Hall’s debut in Blackbirds 1929 at the Moulin Rouge, Baker too had found it convenient to take cover, hoping to ride out France’s fascination with this newest American cultural sensation/invasion that oddly represented more of the same in terms of French Black Venus/exoticist’s fantasies. But this mattered not a whit to these women who found in the City of Light the luxury of freedom, even if its cost was a sort of “Negro under glass” dynamic. It was a very small price to pay when cast side by side with the catch-as-catch-can murderous American racism.
As the scholarly work of recovery and re-envisioning the American expatriate narrative continues to take shape and form, what Langston Hughes’s wonderment via his wanderings offers is a critical archive for the recuperation of another expatriate “lost generation” that was neither white or male.
About the Author: T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies and French at Vanderbilt University. Her latest book, Bricktop’s Paris: African American Women in Paris Between the Two World Wars (SUNY Press 2015), was a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2015 and a Long-List finalist of the American Library in Paris Book Award.
- 1. Joan DeJean, The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour (New York: Free Press, 2005), 2-5.
- 2. Langston Hughes to Countée Cullen, March 11, 1924, Countée Cullen Papers, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University.
- 3. Hughes to Countée Cullen, March 11, 1924, CCP, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University.
- 4. Langston Hughes to Harold Jackman, May 25, 1924, Box 1, Folder 9, Langston Hughes Papers, James Weldon Johnson Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
- 5. Fauset notes the “war has spoiled them poor things” in a letter written to Hughes during her stay shortly after Hughes’s departure. Fauset to Hughes, January 6, 1925, Langston Hughes Papers, JWJ Collection, Beinecke, Yale University.
- 6. Hughes, Crisis 31 (1925): p. 67
- 7. Langston Hughes, “Adelaide Hall New Star of Paris Night Life: Her 'Big Apple' Glows Over Rue Pigalle,” 1937, 1, unpublished essay in LHP, JWJ Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke, Yale University.
- 8. Hughes, “Adelaide Hall,” 2.
- 9. Hughes, “Adelaide Hall,” 1
- 10. "Foreign News: Chez Florence," Time, Monday, June 20, 1927, n.p.