Thursday, December 4, 2014

Adelaide Hall's Paris Years

I recently had the occasion to review some notes on performer Adelaide Hall's Paris years that I had taken from the biography called Underneath a Harlem Moon by Iain Cameron Williams. To remind myself of the details behind these notes, I took up the book and re-read several passages. The energy and passion with which Williams recounts Hall's life story are infectious and I was once again quickly swept up in the story of the time Adelaide spent in Paris.

Book jacket for Underneath a Harlem Moon

Underneath a Harlem Moon vividly describes the summer of 1929, when Adelaide and the troupe of Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1928 took Paris by storm. Beginning with the splendor of the ocean liner SS Ile de France that transported the cast from New York to Le Havre, Williams paints a vibrant picture of Montmartre, the performance run at the Moulin Rouge, and the accolades from the press and the public that gave Adelaide a new and broadened view of what her ideal lifestyle could be. She vowed to return to Paris to live and a few years later, she did just that.

Adelaide Hall in her "Diga Diga Do" costume
Image by Waléry Paris (public domain)

Williams presents intricate details of Hall's return to the City of Light with her husband, Bert Hicks, in 1936 and recounts how the couple came to dominate the nightclub scene during the year 1938. After a couple of false starts, including a short-lived upscale club on the Champs Elysées, they settled on a location at 73, rue Pigalle. They opened the doors of La Grosse Pomme (The Big Apple) on December 9, 1937 and weathered a slow start to become the toast of Paris. Joseph, their Senegalese doorman, was the man to impress if you wanted to gain entry. Within a short period of time, Adelaide became known as the "Queen of Montmartre" and the club was dubbed the most fashionable of the city.

During its heyday, La Grosse Pomme employed almost 40 persons. Even the great Bricktop worked their briefly, just a few yards from the club that she had to close for lack of business.

The loom of war and the September 28th announcement by the U. S. government that American citizens without a compelling reason to remain in Paris should plan to return home prompted Bert's decision to sell the club. It closed on December 10, 1938.

Williams punctuates the narrative in these sections of the book with information about the activities of Josephine Baker, Mistinguett, Maurice Chevalier, and other stars of the French stage. He pays particular attention to the relationship forged between Adelaide and Maurice Chevalier. He also provides a compelling back story by highlighting the feud between Josephine and Mistinguett and reveals the influence that Adelaide's success in Paris had on it.

Williams knew Adelaide and Josephine personally. Both he and Adelaide anticipated that she would be alive when the book was published, but she died nine years before it went to press.

Underneath a Harlem Moon is a fun and fantastic read. I recommend it!


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