The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov is a very interesting biography of Frederick Bruce Thomas (1872 to 1928) who went from being the son of slaves in Mississippi to being the owner of the most famous and highest regarded restaurant, with a clientele that included the cream of Russian nobility, in Moscow. When the Russian revolution forced him to flee the country to Istanbul, starting all over with almost nothing he started what became the most fashionable restaurant in that city. In Moscow a restaurant had to offer much more than good food to attract top crowds. They had to be also theaters with stages shows interesting enough to attract people away from their competitors. Restaurants also had private rooms where assignations often took place and many of the actresses in the theatrical professions were in the demimonde mode.
There is a tremedous amount to be learned from this wonderful book. Thomas left Mississippi barely out of his teens. His family was so hard working and intelligent that they managed to go from sharecroppers, after being freed from slavery, to owners of a very large landholding. They lost it all in a terrible swindle. Thomas went first to Chicago where he got a job as a waiter at a very fancy place. His manners were ingratiating, for better or worse he knew what the clientele wanted and he presented the image of the smiling black servant to perfection. He began to earn relatively large sums of money. Thomas had a restless spirit and he moved from Chicago to New York City where he also worked as a waiter. From there, more or less just to do it, he moved to Paris where he taught himself French and once again began to work as a waiter at a very high tone establishment. In Paris he felt almost none of the racial disdain he had learned to live with in America. He found himself earning very large tips. From Paris he moved to Moscow (there is so much in this book some details will have to be left out) where he learned Russian, married a German woman, became a Russian citizen and started the most famous restaurant in all of Russia. Imagine a place out of the Greta Garbo movie of Anna Karenina with Grand Dukes dining with their opera singer mistresses and Rasputin entertaining in a private room while tables order multiple bottles of champagne with a cost of ten years earnings for one of their peasants and you get the idea. Thomas began to make huge sums of money, millions of dollars a year. He petitioned for and was given Russian citizenship for himself and his family. Thomas, as portrayed, was a master at seeing what rich people wanted and giving it to them. He was also a very shrewd business man, had a great sense of theater and treated his employees well. He felt little prejudice in Moscow. The author does a wonderful job of letting us see what life was like in Russian in the first 15 or so years of the last century. When the revolution occurred Thomas was very much on the wrong side of history, marked out by his own high level of wealth and his total identification with the elite of the old regime. I really enjoyed seeing how Moscow might have been perceived by Thomas. One can only imagine the cultural differences between the backwoods of Mississippi to that of ultra-cosmopolitan multi-cultural Moscow. From Moscow he flees to Odessa but that is only a short stop as the revolution spreads.
In a graphically described horrible passage he and his family end up in Istanbul where, in partnership with a very famous bar owner, he starts another restaurant and from nothing he built the most famous restaurant in the city.
This is a richly detailed biography with enough historical background to allow is to understand the milieu in which Thomas lived without overwhelming us. I have done a bit of reading about Russia in the early years of the 20th century and I learned a lot from this book. Thomas felt little prejudice from Europeans in his travels but he did feel it from American consular officials when he tried to get an American passport. At the time the law seemed to be that if one left the USA and seemed not to intend to return at a certain point in time, this was up to the discretion of state department officials, then you could be denied a passport to return to the USA.
I was fascinated by the author's depiction of life in Istanbul. His restaurant was known for having beautiful Russian waitresses all of whom claimed to have been a countess, and some really were, in the old days. It was the practice for many Russian expatriates to elevate themselves to the status of ex-nobility. The restaurant somehow made me think of Rick's in Casablanca but it was more exciting and decadent. We see him run afoul of Muslim laws and see how he dealt with his many problems.
There is lots of drama in The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov. We meet a lot of fascinating people, some wonderful some terrible and most in between somewhere.
The sad thing Thomas probably would not have been allowed to develop these business in his home country in the period in which he lived. He had to leave America to realize his dreams. He was a very strong man, very intelligent. Some now might fault him for "sucking up to the rich" but he had no real alternative if he wanted anything for himself and his family.
I really liked this book and think most people will be fascinated by it. There is so much wonderful detail and many fascinating people. The standard cliche on a life like this would be "stranger and more wonderful than any novel" but here it is true. The author is a renowned scholar and it shows in the details of the book. It was really interesting to learn how the restaurant/theater business worked in Moscow. If you are at all into early 20th century Russian history, one of my interests, then you need to read this book.
I grew up in New York City in a Russian emigre family and wanted to be a scientist from an early age. However, after getting Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Geology from Queens College and The City College of New York, I decided that I'd learned enough about the natural world but didn't understand myself or other people. My solution was to switch to studying literature and the humanities, which resulted in my getting a Ph. D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton. This helped, and the quest continues. After teaching in the Slavic Department at Harvard, I moved to Yale University in 1986, where I continue to teach courses on Russian literature and culture. I live in Hamden, Connecticut, with my wife, who teaches Spanish at Yale, and have a son who is in graduate school in Washington, D. C., and a daughter who finished college in 2011 and is working in NYC. (from the webpage of author)
My thanks to the publisher Atlantic Monthly Press for providing me with an advance copy of this book.