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Black musicians, White Russian princesses, Turkish flappers… During the Jazz Age, Beyoğlu was a ferment of modernity and decadence.
Writing in 1922 for the Toronto Star, the young Ernest Hemingway, yet to make his name as one of the 20th century’s most consummate prose stylists and infamous drinkers, mixing his metaphors somewhat, compared nightlife in Europe to “a sort of strange disease” that had always existed but had been “fanned into flame” since the war and burned an entire generation.
The 23-year-old reporter admired the civilised and amusing Paris scene. Berlin was “sordid, desperate and vicious”, while Madrid was merely dull. Nothing, for him, compared for excitement to the nightlife of Constantinople. Hemingway was in his element in the cut and thrust of old “Constan”. He evokes a society of insomniacs, wakeful for most of the day and all through the night. “No one who has any pretentions of conforming to custom dines before nine o’clock at night. The theatres open at ten – the night clubs open at two… the disreputable night clubs at four…”
The Jazz Age was in full swing, and Constantinople was “doing a sort of dance of death”. Jazz, like its sisters from the bustling urban streets of the early 20th century, the tango, flamenco and the Greek rembetika, boiled up and spilled over from Paris to Berlin, from Cairo to Bombay and Shanghai. In the fecund breeding ground of Pera (today’s Beyoğlu), in a city whose imperial purpose was gradually slipping away, the sounds of George Gershwin’s ‘Swanee’ echoed through the nightclubs; dancers adorned themselves with peacock feathers and learnt to Charleston; noble Russian refugees waited on tables; and opium and cocaine fed the fervid imaginations of the city’s chancers and arrivistes. Jazz, which terrified the Establishment across the Western world, titillated the international avant-garde and gave voice to the mood of the “Lost Generation” across Europe.
Turkey, born out of the maelstrom of the Great War and poised to embark on a dramatic period of modernisation, couldn’t quite decide what to make of it. Following its occupation in 1918, the imperial city had been inundated with foreigners. Occupying Italian, French, British and American troops patrolled the streets. Refugees from Odessa – White Russians fleeing the Bolshevik revolution – peopled the restaurants and cafés, or begged and loitered on corners. The bars filled with journalists, chancers and writers, the flotsam of the war cast up on the strand of Pera. Mufty-zade Kemal Ziya Bey, a Turk who had lived in America for a decade, put it succinctly: “Pera shelters all the foreigners in Constantinople, from the high commissioners of different nations and their immediate retinues down to the worst kind of adventurers. And of course there are many more adventurers than high commissioners.”
The arrival of General Wrangel’s fleet from Odessa in 1920 dramatically changed the face of Constantinople. Until its eventual closure in 2011, the tenacity and resilience of the famous restaurant Rejans gave the false sense that the city’s Russian colonisation had happened only recently – not almost a century ago. People who remember Istanbul in the 1960s repeat the familiar lore of ballerinas, concert musicians and Tolstoyan princesses working behind the tills at Rejans. The story of the Western sophisticate, passing through Constantinople, who is moved to tears when he recognises his waitress as a grande dame of St Petersburg society he had known in Paris before the war is a staple of Beyoğlu mythology.
The reality of the Russian exodus was far grimmer than such fairy tales. Of the 150,000 émigrés who made their way through the city, 30,000 were still there in 1922. Half were destitute, fed by relief agencies; the other half found jobs however and wherever possible. Constantinople Today, a book published in 1921, related: “Russian refugees are everywhere, selling flowers, kewpie dolls, oil paintings of Constantinople, cakes and trinkets, books and newspapers printed in Russian. They sleep in the open streets and on the steps of the mosques.
For help in writing this article Thomas Roueché would like to thank Carole Woodall of Colorado University, author of a forthcoming book, ‘The Decadent Modern: Cocaine, Jazz, and the Charleston in 1920s Istanbul’. Thomas Roueché: email@example.com
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