Last week, a batch of letters that Louis Armstrong wrote to a girlfriend went on sale at an auction house in Los Angeles. That in itself is not surprising: Armstrong wrote thousands of letters in his lifetime, and he was known to be a lothario.
But these letters offer strong evidence of something else: Armstrong, who most biographers say was childless, believed until his death that he had a child. What’s more, the woman he regarded as his daughter has surfaced and says Armstrong supported her and her mother for more than 15 years, sending them monthly checks from his manager’s office, buying a house for them in Mount Vernon, N.Y, and even saving $25,000 for her college expenses.
The woman, Sharon Preston-Folta, 57, of Sarasota, Fla., said she decided to break her long silence about what she calls “my parents’ secret” because she was upset that Armstrong’s estate never recognized her existence. His will left her family nothing, and his last wife, the former Lucille Wilson, signed an affidavit to the court stating that he had no children. Besides selling the letters, estimated to be worth as much as $80,000, she is releasing a short memoir on Kindle, written with Denene Millner.
“I chose to tell my story now because it’s about my legacy,” Preston-Folta said. “I matter. My story is important. I have every right to say who I am, to be proud of it.”
Preston-Folta, a media planner for a department store chain who is married and has a grown son, bears a striking resemblance to Armstrong, but has no medical evidence to support her claims – just the letters and a sworn affidavit from her mother, who is 91 and declined to be interviewed.
Scholars have known for more than a decade that Armstrong had claimed to have fathered a child in the mid-1950s with Lucille Preston (who was known as Sweets), a dancer he was seeing romantically. Shortly after Preston-Folta’s birth in 1955, Armstrong wrote to his manager, Joe Glaser, directing him to pay her mother’s bills and describing, in graphic detail, the moment he believed “that cute little baby girl was made.” That letter was first made public in 1999 in Thomas Brothers’ book “Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words.”
Armstrong’s clarinetist Barney Bigard mentioned the child in his 1983 autobiography, relating an argument he overheard between Armstrong and his wife. He recalled that Armstrong had insisted the girl was his, and his wife retorted that he could not be the father because he was sterile.
Many Armstrong biographers thought she might have been right. He was married four times and had hundreds of affairs, yet none of those unions produced children. And after 1957, mentions of Preston and her baby seemed to drop out of Armstrong’s correspondence.
But Preston-Folta’s memoir and the letters for sale (there are nine in all), along with a telegram, four postcards, a signed photo and an audiotape, offer a fuller picture of Armstrong as a man who kept a second family for more than a decade. In two letters from November 1954 Armstrong professes his love for Preston and tells her how excited he is that she is pregnant with his child, whom he calls his “little Satchmo.” In one he says he is on the verge of divorce and promises to marry Preston, signing off, “Your future husband.”
Preston-Folta said Armstrong visited her and her mother regularly until 1967, when they had a bitter falling out after he refused to leave his wife. When she was a young girl, Preston-Folta said, she and her mother joined Armstrong as he toured with his All Stars every summer. “It was never a secret to me who my father was,” she said.
A letter from 1959 supports her story: Armstrong writes of how much he misses Preston and sends the route for his tour, urging her to join him.
In 1962 Armstrong bought a three-bedroom house for them at 413 South Columbus St. in Mount Vernon and continued to visit them there several times a year, Preston-Folta said. She has few happy memories of him beyond the concerts she saw: him listening to the news on the radio at their house in Mount Vernon and one fatherly talk he gave to her after a concert at Jones Beach. She said that at 10 she learned Armstrong had a wife and a home in Queens when she saw him give an interview on Johnny Carson’s show. “I just felt so betrayed,” she said.
By the mid-1960s Armstrong was spending less time with her mother. In two letters from 1965 he offers apologies for traveling so much. “Give Sharon a big kiss,” he wrote. “Tell her if she’s forgotten ol’ Satchmo, I don’t blame her. I feel she is too young to understand.”
The love affair ended the summer of 1967, when she and her mother accompanied Armstrong to Atlantic City, where he was playing at Steel Pier. Late one night, in a hotel suite, she woke to hear Armstrong and her mother screaming at each other. Her mother demanded to know when Armstrong would marry her. “Hearing him say ‘Never!’ was devastating,” she said. A letter from Aug. 31, 1967, refers to that fight. Armstrong begins “If you’re ready to bury the hatchet, I am,” then tells Preston to “give my little daughter a big kiss from her daddy.”
Still, Preston-Folta said, Armstrong continued to send her mother monthly payments until he died in July 1971. After his death his manager sent them a bundle of savings bonds that Armstrong had bought for her college fund. But he left his entire estate to his wife, Lucille, who declared to the probate court that he had no children. “I had been legally erased,” she said.
Terry Teachout, the author of “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” said, “Needless to say, we can’t be certain that Sharon is Armstrong’s natural daughter, only that he thought she was.”
“The letters, which are clearly authentic,” he added, “prove that beyond any possible doubt.”