Louis Armstrong was not only a great artist but one of the brightest stars in the sky of America’s popular culture. One of the signs of his admittance to that pantheon was the frequency with which Al Hirschfeld drew him. For most of his long lifetime, Hirschfeld was America’s best-known and most successful caricaturist. To be drawn by him was like being the mystery guest on What’s My Line? It meant that you’d really, truly arrived.
So far as I know, Armstrong first achieved that distinction in 1939, the year that he played Bottom on Broadway in Swingin’ the Dream, a swing-era musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that closed after just thirteen performances. Hirschfeld drew him for the New York Times that season. The failure of Swingin’ the Dream put an end to his brief stage career, but not to his popularity, and from then on he would figure prominently in Hirschfeld’s gallery of celebrities.
I wanted very much to include a Hirschfeld caricature of Louis Armstrong in A Cluster of Sunlight, my Armstrong biography, both as an indication of his renown and because Hirschfeld’s portrayals of Armstrong are vividly suggestive of the way in which he was perceived by the public at large. In the prologue to A Cluster of Sunlight, I talk about the contrast between “the grinning jester with the gleaming white handkerchief who sang ‘Hello, Dolly!’ and ‘What a Wonderful World’ night after night for adoring audiences” and the private man whom I got to know by listening to the private conversations that he taped for posterity throughout the last quarter-century of his life:
Off stage he could be moody and profane, and he knew how to hold a grudge. “I got a simple rule about everybody,” he told a journalist. “If you don’t treat me right–shame on you!” While he was anything but cynical, he had no illusions about the world in which he lived, whose follies he summed up with pointed wit. A friend dropped in on him after a gig and asked what was new. “Nothin’ new,” he said. “White folks still ahead.” He was as clear-headed about his own fame: “I can’t go no place they don’t roll up the drum, you have to stand up and take a bow, get up on the stage. And sitting in an audience, I’m signing programs for hours all through the show. And you got to sign them to be in good faith. And afterwards all those hangers-on get you crowded in at the table–and you know you’re going to pay the check.”
At the same time, I learned in the course of writing my book that Armstrong’s public face was not a mask. Though he was more complicated than he let on, he was in the end what he seemed to be, an essentially happy man who lived to give pleasure to his fans. In later years, to be sure, his minstrel-show mugging made many younger Americans uncomfortable, black and white alike. Ossie Davis, who co-starred with Armstrong in his next-to-last feature film, Sammy Davis Jr.’s A Man Called Adam, detested his good-humored clowning and wrote sharply about it: “Everywhere we’d look, there’d be Louis–sweat popping, eyes bugging, mouth wide open, grinning, oh my Lord, from ear to ear….mopping his brow, ducking his head, doing his thing for the white man.” But Armstrong’s stage persona was part of who he was, and it is impossible to understand him without accepting that fact and coming to terms with it.
The Armstrong whom Al Hirschfeld drew was the Armstrong whom Ossie Davis hated–and he wasn’t alone. One of the things that I discovered while researching my book was that Time commissioned a Hirschfeld caricature of Armstrong in 1998 that the editors chose not to publish after black staffers at the magazine complained that it was racially insensitive. While I didn’t include this story in A Cluster of Sunlight because it was peripheral to the narrative, it made me feel even more strongly that I needed to reproduce one of Hirschfeld’s caricatures in my book in order to provide the fullest possible context for my discussion of the changing ways in which black and white listeners perceived Armstrong throughout his long career.
The caricature that I had in mind was drawn in 1991. It is one of Hirschfeld’s most complex and evocative pieces of portraiture, a little-known color lithograph called “Satchmo!” that embodies what Philip Larkin once called “the stageshow Armstrong” more completely than any drawing of Louis Armstrong that I have ever seen–and I’ve seen plenty.
To be sure, I have no doubt that some contemporary viewers will see in “Satchmo!” the Armstrong to whom Shelby Steele referred in A Bound Man, his 2007 book about Barack Obama:
The relentlessly beaming smile, the handkerchief dabbing away the sweat, the reflexive bowing, the exaggerated humility and graciousness–all this signaled that he would not breach the manners of segregation, the propriety that required him to be both cheerful and less than fully human.
But I see another Armstrong in Hirschfeld’s drawing, the one whom the black jazz pianist Jaki Byard knew and loved. “As I watched him and talked with him, I felt he was the most natural man,” Byard said. “Playing, talking, singing, he was so perfectly natural the tears came to my eyes.”
Who is right? That’s for the reader of A Cluster of Sunlight to decide, which is why I paid a visit last Wednesday to the Margo Feiden Galleries, the representatives of Al Hirschfeld’s estate. I was anxious, having been told more than once that it was difficult and costly to obtain permission to reproduce Hirschfeld’s caricatures. Neither proved to be true. Within a matter of minutes, the deal was done, and I spent the remainder of my visit inspecting the gallery, whose walls are thickly hung with original caricatures, many of them of well-known jazz musicians (Duke Ellington was another of Hirschfeld’s preferred subjects).
Image #31, as “Satchmo!” is now known to Harcourt, my publisher, will be the final photograph reproduced in A Cluster of Sunlight. This is the caption I wrote for it:
“Grinning, oh my Lord, from ear to ear”: Many now feel ill at ease with the old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing entertainer portrayed in this 1991 caricature by Al Hirschfeld, but there was nothing false about Satchmo’s unselfconscious smile.
I hope you agree.
Incidentally, the subtitle of Shelby Steele’s book was Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win. He was wrong about that, too.