Louis Armstrong, the King of Queens
HOW IS IT possible that this house has remained so perfectly intact? And why is it so little known? (The home, which opened to the public in 2003, gets about 18,000 visitors each year; Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, by comparison, draws about 600,000 people annually.) The second question can be explained partly by its location in Corona, a neighborhood that, unless you live here, takes some work to get to.
The first question is more complicated. It certainly helped that the Armstrongs had no children, though it’s still remarkable that the house wasn’t completely picked over following Armstrong’s death. (His 1971 funeral, for which Frank Sinatra and Dick Cavett were among the honorary pallbearers, was held in nearby Flushing Cemetery and drew thousands of spectators.) Much of the credit for its preservation is due to Lucille; after her husband died, she abandoned her desires for a fancier home and became the primary caretaker of his legacy. She stayed in the house until her own death in 1983, at age 69, and left it to the city; since 1987, it has been run by Queens College, which also owns Armstrong’s archives. The college had the foresight to put Lucille’s longtime housekeeper, Bessie Williams, whom she hired in 1972, on the payroll, and every couple of weeks, she’d clean the house as she always had; she retired not long before the house opened as a museum.
But the other factor was Armstrong himself, who despite dropping out of school in the fifth grade had a scholar’s proclivity for saving and indexing. His archive houses his trumpets, his library (which includes “War and Peace,” “Of Mice and Men” and the Bible), the original score from the first recording of “What a Wonderful World” in 1967 and also stranger fare: There’s a 1959 manuscript of a treatise on marijuana (“gage, as they so beautifully call it sometimes,” he writes in the opening sentence); boxes of Franz Schuritz lip salve, which he used prolifically enough (the trumpet was hard on Armstrong’s mouth) to receive a lifetime supply from the company; and a personally compiled joke book that includes an extensive index of punch lines (“Them ears,” “Prostate massage” and so on). Ricky Riccardi, who runs the Armstrong archive, said of this penchant for collecting and organizing: “He was very humble, he didn’t have an ego, but he was very self-aware of his accomplishments. He wanted to be the one to tell his own story.” The house, then, became its own archive, a record of his life off the road.
Riccardi recounted a story about how, during the postwar years, Armstrong would visit Chicago for gigs and stay at the Palmer House hotel downtown. When word would get out, as it always did, that Armstrong was in town, a line would form outside his room, and Armstrong would listen to people’s hardships and give them money: $20 here, $50, sometimes as much as $500. When Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, asked why he’d give away money like that, Armstrong responded, “Money? What do I need money for? They’re gonna write about me in the history books one day.”