Offered here is an important piece of history in the life of arguably the most important and influential artist the history of American music, Louis Armstrong.
I came across this set of four 8x10 photos thirteen years ago quite by chance. The particular details of the items presented themselves as a mystery to be solved and so I went about the business of researching them till it all made more sense. I will detail the strange story of the photos below. I never thought I would part with this set, but, sadly, hard times dictate otherwise and so I am searching for a suitable buyer. I have no way of enforcing the following request, but I do hope that whoever purchases them will always keep these photos together. It would be a real shame to split them up since they have existed together and survived so much for nearly a century now.
The story of the set is as follows:
These four photos were purchased by me in 1998 from a construction worker who was demolishing a blighted home in the New Orleans 9th Ward Neighborhood, not far from the Treme area where Louis Armstrong grew up and married his first wife, Daisy, in 1918. The seller walked into my old music and memorabilia shop in the French Quarter, Louie's Juke Joint.
I was immediately intrigued by the set because the inscription in the first photo referred to the recipient as "our daughter". This was especially interesting because Armstrong never had any known children. I was also intrigued by the presence of the name "Alpha" in the signature - Alpha was Armstrong's third wife to whom he was married for only four years and
there isn't much documented about their relationship. Since this photo is signed in a hand dissimilar to that of Mr. Armstrong's, one assumes it is in the hand of Alpha, which would be a true rarity. Since I have no other samples of Alpha Armstrong's handwriting, I am unable to absolutely confirm this, though it would seem fairly certain that this is the case.
Click here to view a scan of the first photo.
Click here to view a scan of the back side of the first photo.
The inscription in the second photo refers to the recipient as "Godchild" - also intriguing. The handwriting in this photo is clearly that of Louis Armstrong himself.
Click here to view a scan of the second photo.
The third photo showed Armstrong playing trumpet for a woman who looked to be in her mid thirties and a young man of about twenty - the identities of these two people presented another mystery.
Click here to view a scan of the third photo.
Click here to view a scan of the backside of the third photo.
the fourth photo showed a photo of a congregation in a church gathered around a table for a meal.
Click here to view a scan of the fourth photo.
The set presented an interesting puzzle. After some research, I found the following information that clears up a good bit of the mystery.
In 1918, at the age of 18, Louis Armstrong fell in love with and married his first wife, Daisy Parker, a local prostitute. According to Armstrong himself in his first autobiography, Satchmo: My Life In New Orleans, his first encounter with Daisy was as "working girl and customer" at a New Orleans house of ill repute called The Brick House. Their marriage was loving but tumultuous. According to Armstrong, Daisy was very jealous with a violent temper, and according to others she occasionally went back to "her old trade" even after the marriage. The marriage lasted 6 years, ending in 1924 when Armstrong met and fell in love with pianist Lil Hardin, who was to be his second wife.
But here's where Wila Mae Wilson fits into all this: The only direct reference I could find of Wila Mae turns out to be from the best possible source - Louis Armstrong's own autobiography, My Life In New Orleans" On page 221 he states:
"In the same year of 1921 Daisy adopted a little girl called Wila Mae Wilson."
He continues on about Wila Mae for two more interesting pages, stating on page 222 that she was 13 years old at the time (an important clue!) and also that in 1922 (one year later) Wila Mae "married a boy named Sibley and had a son she called Archie". On page 222 to 223 Armstrong refers to himself as Wila Mae's godfather and states that Archie, when he got older, took up the trumpet and changed his name to Archie Armstrong.
This information gives Wila Mae the likely birth year of 1908 (Armstrong states she was 13 in 1921) and Archie the likely birth year of 1923 or 1924 (Armstrong mentions Wila Mae's marriage to Sibley as being around 1922). This would mean that Wila Mae gave birth to Archie at the young age of 14 or 15 years old.
With this information, the mystery of the two unnamed people in Photo #3 is potentially solved thus:
The stamped date on the back of Photo #3 is March 28, 1945. With their birth years reliably approximated by Armstrong, this would mean that in 1945 Wila Mae would be 37 years old and Archie either 21 or 22 years old. The people in the photo with Armstrong do appear to be about those ages.
Which brings us back to Photo #1. In the picture, Armstrong is kissing a woman and mugging for the camera. The photo is inscribed to Wila Mae from "Louis & Alpha Armstrong", so it isn't difficult to figure out that the woman in the picture is Armstrong's third wife, Alpha Smith.
Louis met Alpha (who was a young fan from Chicago) in 1938 while on tour and still married to Lil, fell in love with Alpha, divorced Lil and married Alpha. This was to be the shortest of Armstrong's marriages lasting only 4 years. After divorcing Alpha in 1942, he quickly remarried a showgirl named Lucille Wilson. There is a happy ending for Satchmo, because Lucille turned out to be the love of his life and they stayed married until his death in 1971.
So, Photo #1 is a prize for several reasons. It's a rare unpublished photo of Louis with his third wife (unknown even to the Armstrong House in Queens, New York!), and it is inscribed to Wila Mae, the adopted daughter of his first wife, Daisy. Plus, it is a gorgeous and touching photo of a rare kiss. The date of it was probably early in Armstrong's marriage to Alpha, 1938 or 1939. As I stated above, the inscription and signature on this piece is more than likely that of Alpha, not Louis. This may seem a disappointment, but, then again, a personal inscription on such a rare photo by Alpha Armstrong is rare indeed.
Photo #2 is also for Wila Mae, signed to "my darling godchild." The image itself is an Associated Booking Corp promotional photo, probably from the early 1940s.
Photo #4 is a complete mystery; I have been unable to identify any of the faces in the photo. It is most likely a photo from a local Baptist church familiar to Wila Mae and her family, and is included in the lot only because it was found with the other photos and therefore bears some importance to Wila Mae's family (having been kept with the others). As I mentioned above, it is my hope that whoever purchases this lot will keep all four together in some manner.
The items are in various condition, as can be seen in the scans above. There is a fair amount of wear and some occasional water damage, but really very good considering the journey these items have taken, being rescued from an abandoned and blighted house in 1998, and of course Hurricane Katrina in 2005 -- and who knows what else along the way. PLEASE NOTE: The watermark that states DO NOT DUPLICATE does not appear on the actual items.