Well-being and Care the Satchmo Way – Part II

In April of 1933 rising star Louis Armstrong made headlines when a British tabloid newspaper known as the Daily Express declared him deceased. The front-page article offered no cause of death. Follow-up reports proved unhelpful for readers since they featured contradicting and strange information. For example, one report claimed that Armstrong died from a dog bite, while another asserted that he survived but was severely injured. The news of his supposed death/critical condition must have been shocking to Armstrong. However, he did not lambast or attempt to sue those spreading false information. Instead, he wrote a telegram that read, “Thank all the folks for the nice free publicity” and sent it to a British magazine named Rhythm.[1] His short but effective response temporarily silenced the noise, yet this was not the last time he would have to deal with talk and rumors about his health. As his fame increased, so did media and public interest in his physical well-being.

While in Spoleto, Italy in 1956 with the All Stars, Armstrong suffered from a heart attack. The incident caught the attention of media personnel abroad and in the United States. Journalists who based their story on the word of Armstrong’s personal physician Dr. Schiff, reported that the trumpet player was in stable condition. Those that did not base their story on the word of Dr. Schiff stated the opposite: in fact, The New York Post announced that Armstrong was in a coma. After he recovered, Armstrong asserted that he was never in a coma and denied having a heart attack. He declared that his health problems were mere chest pains caused by eating too much spaghetti.[2] Making such a statement helped him dim the spotlight on his physical well-being and re-promote himself as a relatively healthy musician.  

Armstrong posing with a nun in a hospital in Spoleto, Italy

In his final years, Armstrong experienced a sharp decline in health. From 1968-1971 he was in and out of Beth Israel Hospital, suffering from all sorts of related and unrelated problems – swollen legs, breathing issues, phlebitis, extreme weight loss, organ failure, and another heart attack.[3] News of his deteriorating health went global and fans were eager to write him to offer their well wishes.

American newspaper article on Armstrong’s health problems
Swedish newspaper article on Armstrong’s health problems

Despite his weakened state, Armstrong desired to return to his life’s passion, music, since taking a break from it depressed him greatly. In 1970, he managed to appear on television talk shows, make a new album entitled Louis Armstrong and His Friends, and perform multiple shows with the All-Stars in Las Vegas and New York. In a 1971 interview about his most recent hospitalization and heart attack, he highlighted his determination with the following statement:

I’m just one old cat you can’t kill…and I am definitely going back to work as soon as my legs get a little stronger…Work, that’s my life – oh yeah! But I wouldn’t want to go out on the stage with a walking cane. Soon as my pins get back in shape, Ole Satch will be back.[4]

While resting in the hospital and at home, Armstrong made time for one of his hobbies, writing, and he wrote autobiographical accounts and responded to fan letters. Below is a typed version of his handwritten words in a three-page fan letter, authored in 1971 while in his home in Corona.

In Armstrong’s update to fans, he reassures his readers that he is gaining strength and gives thanks to all the healthcare workers who helped him feel better. Reading Armstrong’s statement in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic made me think about modern day celebrities with large fan bases who have publicly shared information about their health and coronavirus status. After actor Tom Hanks discovered that had he tested positive for COVID-19 while in Australia in March 2020, he provided updates on his social media pages. In one of his Instagram posts (featured below), Hanks expressed his gratitude for medical professionals and encouraged his followers to take the virus seriously. He closed with “Hanx,” a signature he features in all of his posts.

 

I include the above information about Hanks to demonstrate that public interest in celebrity health continues today and stress that Armstrong, before the age of social media, kept his fans in the loop about his physical well-being by taking the time to write letters and talk with reporters. Steven Hoffman, director of various health and science institutes in Canada, states that when celebrities publicly address health-related topics, their words resonate “because they are speaking as humans with just as much vulnerability to health impacts as anyone else.”[5] Armstrong’s and Hanks’ public updates about their health helped humanize them for fans. However, it is Armstrong’s “posts” that require special attention since they predate the modern ones of Hanks. In the late twentieth century, Armstrong was demonstrating how to respond as a star to seemingly private matters in a respectful and friendly manner. His “posts” serve as models for contemporary celebrities desiring to do the same.

Like Hanks’ coronavirus status, many of Armstrong’s medical problems were, in modern lingo, “trending topics” for “followers” concerned about their favorite star. When dealing with health-related issues, Armstrong demonstrated his kindness, sense of humor, dedication to fans, strength, and resiliency in various ways. The aforementioned descriptors were applicable long before he suffered from bad health, and are what fans continue to respect and admire about him today.


[1] Ricky Riccardi, Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 139.

[2] Ricky Riccardi, What A Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 183-186.

[3] Riccardi, What A Wonderful World, 269, 293, 295.

[4] “1971 News Clippings – I’m One Old Cat you Just Can’t Kill,” Object ID: 1987.7.21, July 4, 1971, https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/asset-detail/1070739, The Louis Armstrong Archives.

[5] Jacqueline Howard, “How celebrities’ ‘golden glow’ shines on in public health,” CNN, May 18, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/05/18/health/celebrity-health-charlie-sheen-study/index.html.

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