Legendary composer, trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong, who was affectionately called Pops, Satch, Satchmo or Louie by his fans, enjoyed a fruitful career that spanned 50 years. Some of his popular hits include “What a Wonderful World,” “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and “Hello Dolly.” He was married four times and had hundreds of affairs. Yet when he died, many thought he had left the earth without having any children.
In December 2012, that is four decades after his demise, letters the late trumpeter wrote to a former mistress emerged, showing how he kept a second family without public knowledge for many years. 57-year-old Sharon Preston-Folta, a marketing worker bearing a striking resemblance to Armstrong, declared in that month of December that she is the jazz legend’s daughter. She produced nine letters, postcards, a signed photo and an audiotape in which Armstrong professed his love for her.
Preston-Folta of Sarasota, Florida, said she decided to tell her story to the world because she was “upset” that Armstrong’s estate never recognized her, The New York Times reported. The jazz legend’s will left nothing for Preston-Folta and her family. Armstrong’s last wife, Lucille Wilson, also signed an affidavit to the court after his death in 1971, stating that he had no children.
“I chose to tell my story now because it’s about my legacy,” Preston-Folta said in December 2012 as a batch of letters her father wrote to her mom went on sale at an auction house in Los Angeles. Experts said the documents were authentic, The Telegraph reported. “I matter. My story is important. I have every right to say who I am, to be proud of it.”
Most biographers have noted that Armstrong was childless. Even though he adopted his late cousin’s mentally disabled son, Clarence, when the boy was three, Armstrong was for 16 years supporting Preston-Folta and her mother, accepting Preston-Folta as his child. He sent Preston-Folta and her mom monthly checks from his manager’s office and even bought them a house in New York state where he would visit them. He also saved $25,000 for her college expenses.
“After Louis was gone, because my mother didn’t step up and insist that I be recognized, the estate didn’t have to. My mother has a saying, ‘Those that know, and those that don’t know don’t need to’. She felt that I was recognized in his eyes.” Preston-Folta said in an interview.
Preston-Folta’s mother, Lucille “Sweets” Preston, was a dancer at the Cotton Club in New York when she started a romantic relationship with Armstrong in the 1950s. Sweets later told Armstrong that she was pregnant with his child. Armstrong, in one of his letters to Sweets, told her how excited he was about the arrival of their child, whom he called his “little Satchmo.”
“You must remember, I never had a baby before,” he wrote. In another letter, he said he hoped to soon leave his wife, Lucille Wilson. “If I ever get rid of that evil selfish Bitch, whether you want me or not you will have to marry me. I prey (sic) to God every day for that moment,” he wrote and signed off as “Your future husband”.
But Armstrong never left his wife, who, according to Armstrong’s clarinetist Barney Bigard, later had an argument with the singer, saying that the child was not his because he was sterile. Preston-Folta said Armstrong continued to visit her and her mother while supporting them financially.
“Whatever college she wishes to go to I’ve got her covered,” he wrote in one of his letters to Sweets. “All she have to do is finish high school and that’s where I step in. As long as Ol’ Satchmo lives, her happiness is assured. P.S. If I die, she will be straight just the same,” Armstrong wrote.
Preston-Folta said growing up, it was never a secret to her who her father was. She said she and her mom often joined her father as he toured with his All Stars. According to Preston-Folta, her father’s affair with her mother ended in 1967 after an argument in a hotel in New Jersey where her mother demanded to know when they would be getting married.
“Hearing him say ‘Never’ was devastating,” she told The New York Times. Preston-Folta said she only saw Armstrong once more at a show in 1968 in Manhattan. Armstrong continued to send her mother monthly payments until he died in July 1971, Preston-Folta said.
His manager subsequently sent them a bundle of savings bonds that the late singer had bought for her college fund. In a letter dated June 12, 1968, Armstrong wrote: “Sharon may not realize now what I mean to her & doing for her.
“But I am sure as she matures she’ll Dig Pops as the man who’ll be loving her until he day he dies, or she dies. That’s sincerity and from the heart stuff.”
Preston-Folta’s story is now the subject of Little Satchmo, a documentary that is playing at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF).
“Publicly fawning over a child fathered with his mistress wasn’t exactly an option for Louis Armstrong,” Preston-Folta, who is married with a son, says in the trailer. “He always wanted to be a father, but we had to keep it all secret.”