Child of Slaves Made Name around World, Died Poor

Article excerpt

BIOGRAPHY best captivates when, as here, it emphasizes personality.

It also doesn't hurt that its subject, turn-of-the-century African American Frederick Thomas, was witness to, and even a minor player in, some of the most dramatic events of early 20th-century history, including the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution.

Yale professor of Slavic languages and literature Vladimir Alexandrov, author of previous books on Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Nabokov, repeatedly underlines Thomas's singular asset, his Southern charm.

Thomas could turn it on at will, and it served him well as he charted a course that saw him move from waiter, to head waiter, to maÆtre d'hotel, and finally proprietor of ritzy foreign establishments.

His vocational progression paralleled his geographic peregrinations.

Born in 1872 to former slaves, he started his career in New York City, moved to London, and then ventured south to the French Riviera.

He subsequently surfaced in each of Milan, Venice, Trieste, Vienna and Budapest, but finally went east to Moscow, in the heart of then still Czarist Russia.

His story could serve as an MBA-program case study of against-all-odds entrepreneurial success.

Not once, but twice, and in two different countries, neither of whose language he spoke, he leveraged small savings from his earnings as a waiter into large loans, and used them to launch successful restaurants and glitzy clubs.

His successes were astonishing.

In Moscow, in 1912, Alexandrov writes, he earned an estimated 150,000 rubles net profit, or the equivalent of about $1 million in today's money. Later, in Constantinople (now Istanbul), after many setbacks he also netted big dollars, until geopolitical events once again torpedoed his business.

All this accomplished by a semi-literate African-American man from the Mississippi Delta, who floundered in segregated America, but who flourished in the white world beyond the continental United States. …