It’s been over a month since we began telling the story of Louis Armstrong’s final weeks in great detail (see all posts here) and after last week’s look at his funeral, one would think that we had reached the conclusion. But no, there’s one more component we’d like to examine in a series of posts in the coming weeks: condolence letters received by Lucille Armstrong.
In an interview in August 1971, Lucille thanked the fans from around the world, saying she had received 39,000 letters of sympathy since Louis passed on July 6. We haven’t counted but our Archives currently has what appears to be close to 10,000 letters, cards, telegrams, mass cards, donations, notes, flower cards and more. In a beautiful gesture, Lucille–with the aid of the indefatigable Phoebe Jacobs–made sure everyone got a response, though it took them two years to complete the task.
As mentioned last week, one of Jacobs’s tasks when the dust settled was to make scrapbooks of news clippings covering Armstrong’s death; she also filled up SEVEN scrapbooks with condolences. Jacobs didn’t seem to have a theme but some scrapbooks lean towards celebrities, one is made up mostly of telegrams, one seems to be almost exclusively from international fans, some have pages of the little cards that accompanied flowers delivered to the funeral and to the Park Avenue armory, etc. And some major names and friends didn’t even make it into the scrapbooks, but we fortunately have their correspondence safely catalogued–and digitized–elsewhere in our Archives.
Because of the scattered nature of the letters, it’s almost impossible to keep to a theme with these posts but in some way, that is appropriate as to Louis Armstrong, a housewife in the midwest or a child in France meant just as much to him as an elected official or some Hollywood star. In preparing for this series, I have read nearly every condolence we have, which has proved to be an overwhelming experience of illustrating just how much Armstrong was loved by so many different kinds of people on every corner of the planet. It doesn’t make sense to post 10,000 condolence letters online (though all are scanned and searchable on our Digital Collections site) so we hope you enjoy this curated Virtual Exhibit that will hopefully give a strong taste of the love sent to Lucille in her time of grief.
One scrapbook has the bulk of letters from celebrities so this post will begin there, opening, as the scrapbook does, with a handwritten letter from Bing Crosby:
That one might a little hard to read to here is a transcription:
July 10, ’71
I send you my heartfelt condolences on the passing of Louis last week. The too infrequent times I spent in his company were joyous experiences, and I know of no man for whom I had more admiration and respect. He was a true genius, but more than that, he was a warm and genuinely sympathetic human being I will always be proud of the fact that I had a chance to work with him.
Always your friend,
A beautiful letter from someone who had to deal with her own sense of profound loss a few years earlier, Coretta Scott King:
President Richard Nixon sent his letter from San Clemente on July 7:
Lauren Bacall, who was the subject of some of Louis’s final collages:
Diahann Carroll, who appeared in Paris Blues with Louis, in addition to TV appearances on Crescendo in 1957 and The Hollywood Palace in 1965:
A reminiscence by Johnny Mercer:
Sympathy cards from Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra:
More sympathy cards from B. B. King, Gary Crosby, Kay Starr, Marie Cole Devore (Nat King Cole’s widow), Johnny Mercer and Peg Leg Bates:
A third page of Sympathy Cards, including President Nixon, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and one from “All the People of New Orleans”:
A letter from Governor Rockefeller:
John Lindsay, the Mayor of New York City:
Sticking with politicians for a moment, here’s then-California Governor Ronald Reagan (who starred in Going Places alongside Louis):
Former Vice President and then Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey:
Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris:
Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, including a handwritten note that he saw Louis in 1958 and was “inspired by his warmth”:
New York Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz:
A telegram from Secretary of State John Irwin:
A touching note from legendary African American attorney and Alabama Representative Fred D. Gray, letting Lucille know that he had introduced a Resolution for Louis as “appreciation for the work done by your late husband,” adding, “It is one of the few times that the Alabama State Legislature has passed a resolution memorializing a Black.”
In the handwritten note at the bottom, McGovern writes, “The enclosed files which I put in the Congressional Record of July 8, 1970 may interest you.” Sure enough, on that date the previous year, McGovern noted that July 4 was Louis’s 70th birthday and asked to enter a Saturday Review article, “The Man Who Revolutionized Jazz,” into the Congressional Record. Here is the first page from 1970, as kept in this same scrapbook:
We’re going to close this entry, though, with the Congressional Record from July 7, 1971, as sent to Lucille by Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, along with this letter:
Here’s the page of the Congressional Record with Pell’s tribute:
If you can’t read it, here’s a transcription:
Mr. President, in the last week we have seen the demise of both a legendary figure and of a historic event in the annals of jazz. A year ago at this time, I had the distinct pleasure of introducing two thousands of Rhode Islanders and to many more visitors to Rhode Island that great jazz king, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, at the annual Newport Jazz Festival. Now jazz has lost both Louis Armstrong, who fought a losing battle for his life in a Manhattan hospital and the Newport Jazz Festival which, under the direction of George Wein, lost another kind of battle. Bunk Jones, Kid Ory, King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson were the legendary jazz figures of the past who influenced the great Louis Armstrong. Through his trumpet which echoed around the world, as he toured country after country as Americas “Mr. Ambassador of Jazz,” millions came to love and respect this master of the trumpet. His career in music dated back to Chicago in 1917, but as recently as 1964, is superb rendition of “Hello, Dolly” reached the top of the charts. The Newport Jazz Festival was in the midst of presenting one of his greatest renditions of American jazz when disorders broke out among thousands of young people who evidently came to Newport, not to listen to the music, but rather to participate in youthful disturbances so symptomatic of our times. There may never be another Newport Jazz Festival, although I firmly hope there will be. But even if there is another Newport Jazz Festival, there will be an empty space on the stage. Missing will be the gravelly voice, the high-pitched staccato trumpet, and the hand with a flowing handkerchief, wiping a perspiring brow. Future generations of Americans will never know the warrant, the humanity, or the greatness of Louis Armstrong as those of us who knew him and saw him smile and heard him play. He addressed kings and princesses as their equal for surely he was- the King of American Jazz.
Pell wasn’t the only elected official to speak about Armstrong on July 7. Multiple people sent Lucille a copy of the full Congressional Record of July 7, 1971; here’s a page of one of her copies:
Here is a transcription of this entire tribute:
A TRIBUTE TO LOUIS ARMSTRONG
(Mr. ROSENTHAL asked and was given permission to address the House for 1 minute and to revise and extend his remarks.)
Mr. ROSENTHAL. Mr. Speaker, Louis Armstrong–one of the world’s greatest jazz musicians-died this past Tuesday morning at his home in Corona, Queens, N.Y. While Mr. Armstrong was a constituent of mine, he was really a citizen of the world and one of this Nation’s greatest natural resources.
“Satchmo” was not only a great performing jazz artist. He was more importantly, an inspiration and teacher to his fellow musicians and the major driving force behind 20th century jazz. Most importantly, he provided countless millions of people in many countries with hours of exciting music.
With the possible exception of musical comedy in the legitimate theater, jazz music is probably the only art form whose origins are exclusively American.
And because jazz, as an art form, is basically improvisational in character, it took a man with great individuality and depth to create and nurture that art form. Louis Armstrong was that man.
From the streets of New Orleans to the jazz halls of America and the palaces of Europe, he expressed his incredible love of life with his trumpet and his songs.
Louis Armstrong was an American “original.” He was one of that rare breed of persons who is instantly loved, even by those who are not his friends or acquaintances
He will be missed. But, above all, he will be remembered.
I know that all my colleagues in the Congress join with me in our deep sorrow
at his passing and in our expression of condolences to his family.
(Mr. HEBERT asked and was given permission to address the House for 1 minute and to revise and extend his remarks.)
Mr. HEBERT. Mr. Speaker and Members of the House, I thank my colleague, the gentleman from New York, for his tribute to the great Louis Armstrong.
Louis was a constituent of my colleague, the gentleman from New York but
he was my constituent when he was born. He was ·born on July 4, 1900, in the
city of New Orleans in the district I have the honor to represent.
It was one of my privileges to have known Louis Armstrong throughout his
entire career. I consider him as one of the finest musicians in the country, and
coming from a city which has given the world the greatest musicians.
It was my pleasure to have had a chat with Louis, the old Satchmo, at the National
Press. Club when another distinguished citizen of New Orleans, Vernon Louviere, was inaugurated its president.
I agree with the gentleman that the world has lost not only a great musician but a great person, and who was a credit to the race he represented.
Mr. GERALD R. FORD. Mr. Speaker, will the gentleman yield?
Mr. HEBERT. I yield to the gentleman.
Mr. GERALD R. FORD. Mr. Speaker, it was my privilege to become acquainted
with Louis Armstrong one time when he came to my part of the State of Michigan,
in my district, and performed as he always did with great skill. He was a tremendous hit with people of all races and all ages and it goes without saying that not only has the United States lost but the world has lost a most talented musician and a great citizen.
Mr. HEBERT. I yield to the gentleman.
Mr. MONAGAN. Mr. Speaker, will the gentleman yield?
Mr. HEBERT. I yield to the gentleman from Connecticut.
Mr. MONAGAN. Mr. Speaker, I was saddened to read of the death of Louis Armstrong and I join with the gentleman from Louisiana, Mr. HEBERT, in paying tribute to the memory of this great American.
I well remember the first records of Louis Armstrong that I heard· in the
early thirties. Recording on the old Okeh label, he sang such numbers as “Chinatown,
My Chinatown,” “Star Dust,” “Sleepy Time Down South,” “Just a Gigolo,” and many others. With the ebullient power of his trumpet rising above the sometimes uninspired accompaniment and with his raspy, but warm and rhythmic voice and above all with the power of his enthusiasm and his phenomenal energy, he made an impression that was instantaneous and lasting.
Although unschooled and brought up in poverty, he retained throughout his life his pleasant disposition and his willingness always to look upon the constructive and progressive side of life. He kept to the end his innate simplicity, and in the midst of tawdriness, degradation, and artificiality, he found human goodness, sacrifice, and charity.
Louis Armstrong rose from the role of playing the trumpet in the red light district of New Orleans to that of unofficial ambassador of good will throughout the world on behalf of the United States. In Europe, in Africa, and behind the Iron Curtain, he did more for the image of our country than a thousand official members of the Foreign Service.
Although music was Armstrong’s forte, from time to time he wrote an article for a prominent periodical and in his warm, artless, unmannered but expressive style,
he duplicated the genius of his music and left a memorable record of his early days, his family life, his friends and his musical career that the finest literary craftsman could not have improved.
That musical genius and the warm humanity of Louis Armstrong lightened my life on many occasions over the years. I feel that I have lost a friend and I know that the United States has lost one of its most illustrious and admirable citizens.
Mr. HEBERT. I thank the gentleman from Connecticut.
Mr. BOGGS. Mr. Speaker, will the gentleman yield?
Mr. HEBERT. I yield to my colleague, the gentleman from New Orleans.
Mr. BOGGS. Mr. Speaker, I agree with the very fine remarks of my colleague from New Orleans, but I would remind him that in later years those districts were moved so that at least at the time of his death, Louis Armstrong was a constituent in the Second Congressional District, which is my district, so I have a little claim to him, too.
Mr. HEBERT. I thank the gentleman for his observation. But come the next election, he will be back in my district.
Mr. BURKE of Massachusetts. Mr. Speaker, will the gentleman yield?
Mr. HEBERT. I yield to the gentleman.
Mr. BURKE of Massachusetts. Mr. Speaker, I would like to associate myself with the gentleman from New Orleans in his tribute to this great American, Louis Armstrong.
Yesterday, one of the great Americans of our time or any time died in his sleep. I do not qualify that description of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, as is customary on such occasions, by saying a great entertainer or a great American musician or a great American Negro. The fact is that this country lost a great American. He excelled at everything he tried, largely by excelling at what he knew best. His music, in the process, became our music; his gift to the Nation became this Nation’s gift to the world;
his musical idiom became the hallmark of an age, setting its style, its tone, its
whole way of life. With his roots in the birthplace of the blues and jazz, New
Orleans, he drew upon his local surroundings, its sounds and its soul, to
create and transform what came natural into a new art form. So successful and
so closely identified was this great man with the whole jazz culture that as long
as he was with us, all of us knew that the age of great men was still with us
and was not over. For Louis Armstrong was truly a legend in his own time and
this Nation was indeed fortunate that his time with us was so long. Fortunately,
with him and his talents grew the recording industry, so that present and
future generations will continue to be able to enjoy the genius of this great
man. As Mr. Slusser says in the article which follows:
He was not just a star, he was a constellation.
And if you think the horizons of this all too gloomy world are darkened a little bit more whenever a star goes out, think of the gloom resulting from the passing of a whole constellation. Although he walked with kings and mixed with all nationalities, he never let it go to his head or lost his down-to-earth appeal. I will leave it to others to give
this man the big funeral he obviously expected. I simply want to rise today to
pay my respects to his memory in the only way I can. At this point, I would
like to enter into the RECORD two excellent articles from the Washington
papers, paying tribute to this great man.
That will conclude the first part of our look at some of the condolences and tributes that Lucille Armstrong received in the days and weeks after Louis passed away, but we’ll be back with posts focused on entries from musicians, international fans and regular folks who never met Louis but felt the need to express their feelings to Lucille.