Running Down the Rabbit Hole at the Louis Armstrong Archive

Years ago, watching a clip of bungee jumpers, I thought, It's just like writing a biography—the long drop into the abyss, then the sudden jerk of salvation. Later I realized that was wishful thinking. There is no jerk, except yourself, plunging into the depthless mire of research, until finally you are obliged to concede, "Hold, enough!" However many bones you unearth, you know there are more, buried a little deeper. And when the boneyard is truly bare, bones already baking in the sun will be endlessly re-excavated. Otherwise there wouldn't be hundreds of biographies of Alexander, Napoleon, and Lincoln, each presuming to varnish or grind into dust its predecessors. I have never attempted a full-dress biography of Louis Armstrong, but I have written a short life and several essays, enough to have felt some confidence in understanding him, his genius, and his times. Yet seconds after curator Michael Cogswell ushered me into the Louis Armstrong House & Archives for a recent visit, I felt I was plunging down the rabbit hole.

In the short time I spent there, examining maybe .05 percent of the holdings, I found no new information. But facts and factoids have limited appeal. What you really hope for is a better purchase on the man, a jarring of the imagination that enables you to see what you already know in a clearer light. A few steps into the archive I was stopped dead by a pasteboard blowup of a photograph that had never been published, showing Armstrong and his adopted son, "Clarence Hatfield." I had never given Clarence much thought, having heard he was mentally retarded and died a long time ago, hidden away.

But here he was: beaming backstage at the Band Box, a club in Chicago, in the 1940s, nattily dressed in a double-breasted suit not unlike the pinstripe tailored for Armstrong, who also beams, with unmistakable paternal pride. Clarence and their relationship sprang to life, sending me back to Armstrong's account in Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, to appreciate for the first time its affectionate candor regarding his only venture into paternity. Clarence was born in 1915 to Louis's teenage cousin, Flora, apparently after she was molested by an old white man her father felt powerless to challenge. Louis's first sight of the baby washed "all the gloom out of me." He took it upon himself, at 14, to get a job hauling coal (immortalized in the 1925 "Coal Cart Blues") to support the baby and the ailing mother, and assumed full responsibility after Flora's death, marrying his first wife and adopting the three-year-old at 17. In that period, Clarence fell off a porch and landed on his head; doctors judged him to be mentally impaired. When Louis married Lil Hardin in Chicago, Clarence joined them, and Louis never forgave Lil—who claimed that Clarence was never legally adopted—for her impatience with him. When he left Lil for Alpha, he brought Clarence along.

His only venture into paternity
photo: Louis Armstrong House and Archives at Queens College/CUNY
His only venture into paternity

Eventually, Clarence was set up in the Bronx, where he was married in an arrangement of convenience financed by Louis. Clarence's surname is something of a mystery. According to Armstrong's friend, photographer Jack Bradley, he was listed in the phone book as Clarence Hatfield—but this may have been an expediency to keep nosy fans and biographers at a distance. Before Flora died, she evidently anticipated Louis's involvement and renamed her son Clarence Armstrong. He lived a full life, dying in August 1998, and endures in Armstrong's memoir as the happy athletic boy everyone called, much to Louis's pleasure, "Little Louis Armstrong." You feel his attachment in the photograph; had I seen it 15 years ago, I would have made every attempt to find and interview "Hatfield."

Other photos are no less revealing. Apocryphal stories concerning Armstrong's meeting with Pope Paul VI (in one, the pope holds out his hand, and Pops slips him some skin) are belied by a sequence of six or seven snapshots. They offer no proof as to what exactly took place, but suggest the utter absence of levity; indeed, I have never seen Armstrong look as stricken by the solemnity of an event. Everyone in the photos, including the pope, looks relaxed and unaffected—except Louis, whose downcast eyes seem to glisten with gravity.

Documents also fill out the portrait. Armstrong's private journals and letters (he was an amazingly prolific writer) are prizes of the archive that are already well-known to researchers. But there is more. A letter to E.A. Fearn of OKeh-Odeon Records testifies to the popularity of his records in Italy; he is featured on the cover of a Fonotopia-Odeon catalog dominated by Rossini, Puccini, and Verdi. What makes this intriguing is the date: September 1926, at which time Louis had been recording as a leader for 10 months. Armstrong's scrapbooks preserve writings about himself in black newspapers of the '20s and '30s. Another document, recently found, is Armstrong's book-length collection of jokes and sayings, most of which were unprintable at the time he collated them.

But the most fascinating treasure is in the 650 reels of tape Armstrong made over a period of some 15 years, each housed in a box lovingly designed with a collage—a medium he explored contemporaneously with Romare Bearden, who first signed a collage in 1961. In 1991, when Cogswell was hired to oversee the Armstrong collection, there was some question as to whether the tapes—recorded on four tracks at slow speed and kept in a heated room—were salvageable. The Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation gave the collection to Queens College with the provision that it be preserved and made available to the public; it has continued to provide annual grants that have enabled Cogswell and his staff to scrupulously document and enlarge its holdings. Much of their effort has been devoted to transferring the tapes (two-thirds are done and relatively little proved unrecoverable) and creating archival reconstructions of the boxes. The Louis Armstrong House in Corona, which the foundation gave to New York, will finally open this fall after a $1.6 million restoration; at the same time Collectors Press will publish Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story (with royalties assigned to the archives), which reproduces many pictures and documents for the first time.

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