Louis Armstrong had four wives, but it was his last and longest wife, Lucille, that bought the house in Corona and brought him to the community the Louis Armstrong House Museum still calls home.
Born in the Bronx, Lucille Wilson Armstrong started working in show business in the 1930s during the Great Depression to help out her family. She was the oldest of four and her mother was her only stable parent. In the article below, Lucille says “my mother objected to my career at first, but a cousin had gone into show business and I wanted to give it a try. … Mother was still upset but I told her, ‘You raised me and if you’ve done a good job, you shouldn’t be afraid.’”
Lucille was quite successful as a dancer, both in NYC and abroad. She spent three years dancing at the Alhambra in Harlem before she started working at the Cotton Club when it was at its original Harlem location at 142nd St and Lenox Ave. She was the only dark-skinned dancer at the Cotton Club, as Louis takes care to mention in his 1954 Ebony article Why I Like Dark Women: “Lucille was the first girl to crack the high yellow color standard used to pick girls for the famous Cotton Club chorus line. I think she was a distinguished pioneer.” Lucille also received high praise from a local critic who wrote that “the most important contribution to the city’s ha-cha-cha is in the person of an obscure youngster in the chorus by the name of Lucille Wilson.”
In 1936, Lucille left the Cotton Club and travelled to England with Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds. Leslie decided to take a chance on the young dancer and added her to the chorus. In “From Chorus to Star,” the author writes that during the dress rehearsal Leslie was so impressed by Lucille that he made her a principal and gave her “one of the big songs of the show, a ‘swing’ number called ‘Swing is the Thing.’”
After a year in Europe, Lucille went back to the Cotton Club, now at its new downtown location, Broadway and 48th St. Louis and Lucille met in late 1939 when he was sharing billing with Bill Robinson at the Cotton Club. In this audio clip from an interview with the BBC, Lucille tells us how she was wooed by Louis.
Louis also writes about their courtship in the manuscript pages below. His story picks up one night in Louis’s dressing room after Lucille delivered him cookies–something she sold to the dancers and band members at the Cotton Club to make some extra money to help support her family.
Not only were they happier than two peas in a pod, but Lucille’s mother also loved Louis. She raised Lucille on Armstrong and Caruso records, as Lucille mentions in this 1963 article about their relationship.
Louis still had one final concern–could she cook red beans and rice?
Louis and Lucille were married on October 12, 1942 (10 days after his divorce to Alpha was finalized) at Velma Middleton’s family home in St. Louis.
Their honeymoon was spent on the road touring with Armstrong’s band. In the Armstrong collection, LAHM has some snapshots of Lucille on the road with Louis and the band.
Lucille quickly tired of life on the road, however, and wanted to return home. Unfortunately, she and Louis didn’t have a stable home to return to that wasn’t her mother’s apartment or a hotel in Harlem. Lucille tried to talk Louis into buying a house, but after he turned her down a few times she decided to buy one herself. In March 1943, Lucille put a down payment on the house in Corona, Queens. In our virtual exhibit about Corona you can hear Lucille tell the story of how she bought house and in the clip below listen to her continue with Louis’s first time seeing his new home.
After moving in, Lucille cut down her time on the road significantly. She never travelled with Louis during his long string of one-nighters (one concert, one location, on repeat) but frequently joined him for his longer bookings and always joined when he toured abroad, where she was often a comfort and stabilizing force despite his hectic schedule. In 1965, she noted that she and Louis had only spent Christmas in Corona 4 or 5 times since moving to the neighborhood 22 years earlier, but she “[sets up] a table tree and holiday fixings in whatever hotel in whatever country we happen to be in. There are always friends we’ve made from previous trips to help us have a really homey Christmas.”
Lucille was with Louis during his 1956 tour that was filmed for the Edward R. Murrow program, Satchmo the Great. During her time in Ghana, she was by Louis’s side during many political events and below you can see her dancing along with Ghanaians and playing table soccer with Louis and Kwame Nkrumah.
Lucille also occasionally appeared on TV with Louis. Here we’d like to share with you two of my favorite Lucille segments, cooking red beans and rice in May 26, 1970 and being serenaded by Louis from the same episode.
While she was at home, Lucille was active in the Corona community, attending Catholic mass at the neighborhood Our Lady of Sorrows church and spending time with her family and friends. The Armstrong Collection has scrapbooks from Lucille’s sister Janet that offer a small peak into Lucille’s time at home, including several parties! Sometimes her neighbor (and dear friend of LAHM until her passing in 2011), Selma Heraldo, came along for the fun!
When Louis was hospitalized at Beth Israel for heart and kidney issues in September 1968 and then again from February to April, 1969, Lucille remodeled the den to its present condition. Louis was thrilled.
Lucille was Louis’s rock during this extended period at home. She even supported him as his manager after Joe Glaser passed. In the segment below from the Mike Douglas show on May 29, 1970, Louis mentions her as one of his five most admired people.
After Louis passed, Lucille dedicated her widowhood to her husband’s legacy, beginning with answering, individually, the thousands of condolences letters she received, both from old friends and fans.
In 1974, Lucille embarked on a Goodwill tour, sponsored by the United States Information Services, through Eastern Europe and France, visiting several countries Louis was unable to tour during his lifetime. She travelled through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Hungary giving lectures about her husband’s work and life, before closing the tour at Nice festival in France. She discusses with Sy Oliver, in an interview that aired as “Louis’s Lady Lucille” in 1974, her role as an extension of Louis abroad and the love he inspired.
Besides traveling the world speaking about her husband’s legacy, Lucille wanted to find a way to honor him in his beloved neighborhood of Corona. So, she began lobbying to have the Singer Bowl, originally built for the 1964 World’s Fair, renamed after Louis. On July 4, 1973, the Louis Armstrong Memorial Stadium was opened.
Unfortunately, the Stadium didn’t last very long; it was denied its occupancy certificate due to structural issues and set to close in August, 1974. Fortunately, the United States Tennis Association President W. E. “Slew” Hester got wind of the site, loved it, and pledged to keep the Louis Armstrong name when it reopened in 1978. Lucille went to the groundbreaking and opening night ceremonies and the stadium is still the Louis Armstrong Stadium today even after another reconstruction project which concluded in 2018.
Lucille also set out to get her home established as a National Historic Landmark. In the letter below from Congressman Benjamin Rosenthal it seems that her request was approved in 1976 but it took another year for everything to be completed and the plaque to be added to the house.
Throughout Lucille’s widowhood she invested a great deal in the community of Corona, establishing the Louis Armstrong Memorial Project with ELMCOR, a non profit philanthropic organization in Elmhurst and Corona, and solidifying the relationship that the Louis Armstrong House Museum continues to this day.
In fact, the staff at LAHM point to Lucille as the reason we exist today. In the clip below you can hear her describe the collection left behind and her desire to open a memorial museum:
Lucille received a lot of help during her widowhood from her dear friend Phoebe Jacobs who went on to become Vice President of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation after Lucille’s passing. Phoebe was on hand to help Lucille answer the condolence letters, travel through Europe on the Goodwill tour, and organize many Armstrong memorial events, including several not mentioned in this exhibit. Phoebe Jacobs, until she passed in 2012, and LAEF continued to help LAHM through the 1994 opening of the Archives and the 2003 opening of the house and continues to support us as we work on opening the new Armstrong Center in the near future!
On October 3, 1983, Lucille Wilson Armstrong passed from a heart attack while in Boston attending Louis Armstrong memorial events at Brandeis University.
In closing, I’d like to invite you to watch this brief interview with Lucille from before her death in 1983. In it she discusses her widowhood and her life with Louis, saying “Now I was in the background but I have to say that I was full force back there, you know? Louie needed that stability, he needed somebody to stabilize him and fortunately, I happened to be it.” Most importantly, she reminds us that he is “not a would have been, he is a now!”