The Woman Behind Louis?

Zelda Fitzgerald, Lillian Disney, Rachel Robinson, Jackie Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Coretta Scott King, and Lucille Armstrong — these are some of the names of American women whose stories are told and intertwined with those of their husbands. This week I was determined to answer an inquiry I raised in the first blog of what I intended to be a three-part series related to Armstrong’s physical and mental health — How did Armstrong’s friends, fellow musicians, or family support his well-being? That is a big question, one I knew I could not answer entirely in a short blog post. It seemed to me that the best and, perhaps the most obvious, way to tackle this question was to discuss Lucille Armstrong and the various ways she helped her husband during and after his time. Yet, while gathering information on Lucille, I realized I was in a predicament — How do I as a millennial woman avoid describing her as another “great woman who existed behind a great man?” What would an alternative reading of Lucille need to include? I realized that while I could refrain from only discussing Lucille as a “dutiful wife,” I could not ignore postwar gender politics. Many of Lucille’s print media and radio interviews feature words and turns of phrases that confirm and reject gender roles and norms of the time.

 In 1952 an article authored by Lucille (credited as “Mrs. Louis Armstrong”) appeared in the magazine Tan Confessions or Tan for short. It was entitled “A Woman’s Place Is Not In the Home” and offered her take on her life with Louis. The title and topic of Lucille’s article complemented the mission of Tan, a Johnson publication that launched in 1950 and existed as a magazine for African American women interested in “the topics of love and romance, marriage and family.”[1] In the article Lucille mentioned the various ways she aided Louis — by giving him companionship, helping arrange his off-duty habits and activities, ensuring he had time for sleep and relaxation, and handling some of his correspondence.[2]

Scholar Leisa D. Meyer claims that her research on magazines created for African American readers such as Ebony, Jet, and Tan revealed that many of the articles feature “contradictions.” While she is interested in the “contradictions” that suggest “a more fluid understanding of sexually normative practices, behaviors, and identities,” here I am more interested in one of Lucille’s “contradictory” statements, which provides some insight on domestic normative practices, behaviors, and identities.[3] On the first page of her article Lucille states, “Of course I believe that woman’s place is in the home. Only I also believe that home is where your husband is – by his side.”[4] In this declaration Lucille identifies herself as a woman of the “home,” a term, which for her, has a physical and metaphorical meaning. Lucille’s mobility distinguished her from an average woman of the time – the bulk of her work was not confined to one space and she had the option to travel and explore new places with her husband. As such, she had a broad definition of “home” and could, at times, assume the identify of a “free” woman. However, one of her later statements reveals that she still had to carry out duties expected of women of the time. She states, “With very rare exceptions my daily routine is like that of the average housewife…I cook just as the average housewife does.”[5] Throughout the article, Lucille self-fashions herself as representative and unrepresentative of the 1950s domestic woman.

In the article, Lucille clarifies that she views her daily support of Louis as a labor of love. Following her remark about “home” she declares:

I didn’t marry Louis to live in social splendor on the money he earns literally by the sweat of his brow. I didn’t marry him to become the mistress of a fabulous household, to preside over constant parties and afternoon teas. I married him because I’ve been in love with him ever since I first heard his music and realized that it made deep, moving things happen inside me. And since I was fortunate to become his wife, I’m determined – as he is – that we must remain together every possible minute of our lives.

Louis often publicly confirmed that Lucille’s presence and support made his life easier, especially when he was on tour. In one of his articles published in a 1954 issue of Ebony he commented, “My health is okay, and Lucille’s care has helped to no end. I’ll always be grateful to her for looking after me, for seeing that I eat right and don’t get upset emotionally.”[6]

Despite Lucille’s statement that she and Louis should “remain together every possible minute,” in reality, she was determined to maintain her independence while a wife, and later as a widow. In a portion of a 1974 BBC radio interview (featured below) she claims that she led a “double life,” one that included Louis and another that did not.

With the Tan and radio example, I sought to preliminarily explore some of the ways Lucille publicly articulated her identity as wife and widow. Her descriptions of herself often feature postwar gender rhetoric and reveal that she was concurrently a wife and partner and an independent and attached woman. More analyses of print media coverage on Lucille such as the obituaries memorializing her life after her passing in 1983 would also reveal more about her wife/widow identities. I have found that the majority of her obituaries portray her as the wife of Louis and discuss her charity work and commitment to honoring her husband’s legacy, but do not address the breadth of her commitments or find a better way to describe her. So, I conclude by asking again: What would an alternative reading of Lucille need to include?


[1] Leisa D. Meyer, ‘“Strange Love”: Searching for Sexual Subjectivities in Black Print Popular Culture during the 1950s,” Feminist Studies 38, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 629.

[2] “Tan – November 1952 – extended article by Lucille Armstrong,” Object ID: 1987.6.100, November 1, 1952, https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/asset-detail/1094585

[3] Meyer, “Strange Love.”

[4] “Tan – November 1952.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Why I Like Dark Women,” Object ID: 2011.15.1, August 1, 1954, https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/asset-detail/1096823.

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