I am Louis Armstrong’s daughter. His only child. I have waited my entire lifetime to say that publicly. Out loud. Because up until this very moment, I wasn’t allowed to admit to anyone other than my closest family and friends that the blood of a legend runs through my veins. For more than fifty years, I swallowed that bitter secret whole. Some days, it would go down easy. On others, I would have to choke it down—every faded memory, every hushed conversation, every missed moment scraping and burning my tongue and my throat and my heart and settling like rocks in the pit of my stomach. Not knowing your family history is painful enough. Being forced to keep it a secret—to pretend you are not who you really are—well, that sears.
I have lived with the pain for what seems like a lifetime.
But now, it is time—time to tell my story.
I thought that I should begin by telling you who I am not.
I am not bitter.
I am not angry.
I am not a gold digger or some money-hungry, long lost relative looking to sink my claws into a jazz legend’s fortunes.
I am a daughter. A human being whose flesh and bone and vein and sinew is the sum of two parts—Lucille “Sweets” Preston, a small-town Harlem girl who made it big as a dancer on the jazz circuit at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and her lover of more than two decades, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, the architect of one of America’s most important contributions to the art of music.
To the rest of the world, jazz and Satchmo enthusiasts in particular, this is, indeed, quite a revelation. It is widely believed that Louis Armstrong died childless in 1971, after a twenty-nine year marriage to his fourth wife, Lucille Armstrong. In all of the copious research that I’ve conducted during my five-year quest to get to know and understand just who my father was as a man and a husband, I have come across only one passing reference to the possibility that I exist, in a short passage in Louis Armstrong In His Own Words: Selected Writings, a collection of my father’s letters, assembled by Thomas Brothers. In the passage, Brothers notes that in one particular letter my father penned in 1955 to his longtime manager, Joe Glaser, Louis directs Glaser to handle a few “business arrangements” before his wife, Lucille, arrives in Las Vegas to accompany him on an overseas tour. Brothers writes:
Armstrong needs Glaser to take care of payments to a “sweetheart and secretary,” to a mistress (the name has been deleted from this edition) who, he thinks, has borne him a child, to in-laws, and to a friend…
That I am mentioned in just a passing reference toward the end of only one of the many books, magazine articles, newspaper clippings, letters and memoirs written by or about Louis Armstrong comes as no surprise to me. Not anymore. Because for as long as I have been able to remember, both my mother and my father have implored me to keep my true identity a secret. My father, one of the most well-known and respected entertainers in the world, who at the time of my birth, enjoyed unparalleled success and privilege in a society that had not yet embraced African Americans as equals, either could not, or would not, publicly claim me, a child he fathered out of wedlock with his longtime mistress, lest his reputation as a sterling, perfect, unassailable man of character—an American icon—be tarnished. And my mother, well, in her mind, private acknowledgment, financial stability, and a long-held promise of marriage from the man who fathered her only child was more than enough for her. Outing his secret was never an option for her—not so much as even a thought. “That,” my mother said often—even to this day, “is his life, Sharon. Not yours. You have no rights to it.”
But I beg to differ. As a mother, as a grandmother, as a daughter, as a living, breathing, thinking, thoughtful human being, I can say with certainty, finally, that while I can make claims to neither the life that my father lived, nor the decisions that he and my mother made to protect their relationship, I certainly have the right to my life—to know both sides of my family tree, to count, as blood, not just my mother’s people but my father’s people, too. I have the right to know my grandmother, Mayann Albert, and his father’s mother, Josephine Armstrong, who helped raise Louis, and his sister, Beatrice, too. I have the right to know how his childhood and that of those who came before him influenced the man he came to be—and certainly how this played into the kind of father he was to me. My son and his children, too, have the right to fill in that specific patriarchal side of our family tree—to write, with certainty, on each of their familial branches that they are Armstrongs. That they come from an invaluable legacy—as strong and beautiful and amazing as a Baobab tree.
Most importantly, though, I’ve come to realize after a half century of secrets—after 50 years of being invisible—that I have the right, too, to consider how my father’s DNA contributed to the sum that is Sharon Preston Folta. This is a basic human right—to know from whence we’ve come, who was responsible for giving us life, and how each and every one of their experiences, monumental and miniscule, laid the foundation for who we ultimately become.
It’s about legacy.
Of course, there will be the inevitable question: Why, after all of these years, do I feel the need to let the world know that I’m Louis Armstrong’s daughter, at the risk of ruining the sterling reputation of one of the greatest musicians of all time? The answer is all at once extremely complicated and ridiculously simple: I’m writing this book because I don’t want to be invisible anymore. The decision to render me invisible was made for me by my parents who thought it prudent to hide my existence, despite the emotional, physical and mental toll it would take on their daughter. Later, the decision by Lucille Armstrong to sign an affidavit claiming Louis Armstrong had no children, legally erased me from my father’s life—a lie that, when coupled with my mother’s insistence that my father’s wishes to keep me secret be honored, effectively carved me, Louis Armstrong’s sole heir, out of his physical, historical, and financial legacy.
My father and Lucille Armstrong took this secret to the grave.
My mother has guarded the secret deep in the gristle of her ninety-year-old heart, alternately too afraid, too ashamed, too defiant and too proud to share it with anyone other than me and her closest loved ones.
But this is a secret I can no longer keep.
That I will not keep.
Getting to know my father through the memories of my mother, aunts, uncles and cousins, memoirs and biographies about Louis Armstrong and, especially, through my father’s own writings has been a joyous, but also painful personal journey for me. One of the saddest revelations has been to discover how my father was such an open book to the world about every other aspect of his life—his music, his childhood, his travels, his manager, his love for women, his love for food, his relationship with Lucille Armstrong and his three other wives, sex, even his bowel movements—but was unable and unwilling to open up about his own daughter. Yes, he was famous, but he certainly wasn’t the first or only famous musician to father a “love child.” What hurt me the most was seeing, through adult eyes, new evidence of how I was erased from his life—evidence that forced me to take a hard look at the fantasy my mother created about him and our family life, and how her fantasy controlled and dictated my life. While he was alive, Louis Armstrong never did give me what I’d always dreamed of having: an attentive, loving father who acknowledged his baby girl beyond sending her money and dropping by for the occasional visit. In death, I’ve come to find, the disregard for our relationship was even more shocking in its aggressiveness.
The truth is, to the best of my knowledge, I’m the only child Louis Armstrong ever had. He knew it, my mother knows it and I know it, too. And even if the two of them wouldn’t claim it publicly, I most certainly will.
And so I write this book to give not only a rare, intimate glimpse into who Louis Armstrong was as a man, lover and father, but to say, finally, that I do, indeed, exist. That I am not invisible. That I have a history, a legacy and a voice that deserves to be heard. Not just for my own peace of mind, but for that of the millions of children who have grown up or are growing up in fatherless households, being raised by the hands of single mothers and grandmothers and aunties who made a way out of no way for their babies, even as the fathers of their children walked away, leaving generations of children to grow up without a keen understanding of their own blood, their own DNA, their own history. Their legacy.
It is for them that I am stepping out of the shadows.
For my children and my grandchildren.