On February 16, 1917, a man by the name of Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas signed the documents that made him owner of a block of apartment buildings on one of Moscow’s major thoroughfares. Tomas, who was among the Russian capital’s best-known (and richest) theatrical entrepreneurs, paid 425,000 rubles for the properties, which, in today’s terms, amounts to more than $7 million.
That’s a princely sum to have on hand anywhere, anytime. But this was Russia on the brink of revolution, and by March 1918, Tomas was forced to abandon those properties by order of the Bolshevik regime, which was nationalizing private property throughout the country.
By the summer of that year, Tomas, with his wife and children, abandoned Moscow altogether. They fled south to Odessa (where years earlier Tomas had bought a villa for $3 million), and when the Bolsheviks overran that city, Tomas and his family managed, just barely, to escape Russia for good. After crossing the Black Sea, they landed in Constantinople, and for the next several years, Tomas tried to resurrect his career as a successful nightclub owner. But Constantinople is where he died, in debt, in 1928.
This is hardly the whole story, though — and not by a long shot — because Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas was not the man’s given name, nor was he Russian. He was born Frederick Bruce Thomas, an African-American, the son of former slaves. He grew up in Coahoma County in northwest Mississippi. And his fascinating, long-overlooked story is the subject of The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov.
As the book’s opening pages illustrate and as reported by Andrew Ross in the accompanying feature (see page 61), the “keys to truly unlocking his story” are indeed Thomas’ remarkable father and stepmother, who both showed, through example, an extraordinary determination not only to survive but to succeed as black landowners in the post-Civil War South. It was outside the South, however, that Thomas made his fortune and his name. The inspiration for Thomas’ lifelong wanderlust, as he himself would say: the family home near the railway junctions in the Fort Pickering neighborhood of South Memphis.
His rootlessness began in 1890, following the murder of his father. That is when Thomas, age 18, traveled to Arkansas, where he spent only two months, and then to St. Louis, which gave the young man a taste of cosmopolitan, big-city life. His sights, however, were already set on bigger city life, Chicago, where Thomas worked first for a flower and fruit vendor. But he soon moved into a profession, one Alexandrov writes, “that would be his mainstay for the next twenty years as well as his springboard to wealth.”
Thomas became a waiter but a waiter in not just any restaurant. He served in the elegant dining rooms of Chicago’s Auditorium Hotel, and it proved to be, for Thomas, a pivotal move. Again in the words of Alexandrov: “If the first job one has in a given profession acts as a tuning fork for the career that follows, Frederick started at a pitch of the highest quality.”
When Thomas reached Russia in 1899, he welcomed the sight of the ethnically diverse population on Moscow’s streets, and he was prepared to take his training and experience, his eye for opportunities and head for business, to new heights.
It also put him in quality company: wealthy white Americans who appreciated Thomas’ self-assurance, tact, and eagerness to see to his customers’ every whim. No wonder, then, that by 1893, Thomas moved to the big time: New York City, where he became a Brooklyn hotel’s head “bell boy” (a position that called for good management skills) and, shortly after, a personal valet to a leading local businessman.
Thomas’ ambitions continued to rise, and then they took him across the Atlantic — to London (on the advice of his German voice teacher), where Thomas hoped to study music. Turned down by a conservatory there, he traveled to Paris, and for the next several years, he crisscrossed Europe and its capitals. He may not have escaped his roles as waiter or valet just yet, but he’d permanently left behind the limitations society placed on his skin color.
When Thomas reached Russia in 1899, he welcomed the sight of the ethnically diverse population on Moscow’s streets, and he was prepared to take his training and experience, his eye for opportunities and head for business, to new heights. He was also on his way to relinquishing his American citizenship. Frederick Bruce Thomas became Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas — first as maitre d’hotel at a celebrated restaurant in Moscow named Yar; then as co-owner of the city’s leading nighttime destination, Aquarium (a complex of gardens, outdoor amusements, stages, and restaurants); then as owner and manager of Maxim, where he introduced Russians to the novelty of mixed drinks served at a counter and to variety acts (including jazz bands) that Thomas had toured Europe to find. By 1912, he was, for the first and not the last time, rich. He was also, over the next several years, married three times and the father of a number of children.
The chapters in The Black Russian on Moscow’s frenzied nightlife are especially valuable in rounding out our understanding of the social circles Thomas moved in — circles that are likely to be news to general readers. Russian and world history are never far from these pages, though, and it’s a testament to Alexandrov’s narrative skills that he seamlessly pairs enormous events with lesser but memorable details.
The economic disparities in Moscow in 1911, for example? The poor may have suffered under the czar, but a patron at Yar one night made a game of football using a cartload of pineapples, each pineapple costing $22 (or $1,000 in today’s terms). That customer’s bill for the evening, including smashed china, overturned tables, and spilled bottles of imported Champagne: a jaw-dropping $750,000, according to Alexandrov’s calculations, an amount the patron willingly paid.
Thomas paid dearly when he tried to regain his American citizenship and free himself and his family from the newly minted Turkish nationalists assuming control of Constantinople in the mid-1920s. But as The Black Russian shows, Thomas didn’t escape. His requests to the U.S. state department for repatriation were repeatedly denied.
Nor did his wives and children live to see success comparable to Thomas’ in Moscow. Some of their fates are unknown. But we do know that one son ended up a cook in Los Angeles. A daughter committed suicide in Luxembourg. Another son, named Mikhail, acted on French TV and in films and sang in a Russian emigre nightclub in Paris. But Mikhail’s daughter-in-law is doing well to this day as a designer of upscale women’s lingerie. If you’re walking the fashionable Rue Saint-Honore in Paris, look for the flagship store that carries her name, modified for French pronunciation: Chantal Thomass.
But there is no name to mark the grave of Frederick Bruce Thomas. When he died, there was no money for a headstone. Even the grave’s location in the “Catholic Latin” Cemetery of today’s Istanbul remains a mystery — unlike the man whose life and career have been brought to light in this excellent book.