Papa, Satchmo, And The Babe

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What most surprised me about this photographic record is how rarely Ruth seemed to smile. In picture after picture, no matter what kind of paces he is being asked to go through, his big pie of a face is impassive or mournful, his eyes dark and wounded. That private melancholy may be explained by the basic, harrowing facts of his boyhood. Of the seven other children born to George and Kate Ruth after George, Jr., was born on the Baltimore waterfront in 1895, only one, a sister, survived infancy, a sad fact for which his parents seem to have blamed him. Largely ignored by them—“I think my mother hated me,” Ruth once confided to a friend—he learned to walk in the slippery sawdust of his father’s saloon and was stealing from local shopkeepers by the age of five. When he was seven, his parents had him declared “incorrigible” and sent to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, where he remained, off and on, until the age of nineteen. His family never bothered to visit him—“I guess I’m just too big and ugly for anyone to come see me,” he told a fellow inmate.

The strapping Xaverian in charge of St. Mary’s became his surrogate father, and it was the ease with which Brother Matthias hit a baseball that inspired the boy to try his hand. Ruth was so good so soon that he was allowed to leave the school two years early, at nineteen, to join the Orioles. Ruth rarely mentioned his real father in later years, although one 1915 picture in the book shows a grim father and son together behind the family bar beneath a tangle of beat-up tinsel that may be the most dispiriting Christmas display ever photographed. The Babe was a major leaguer then; perhaps his father thought his presence would boost business. In any case, not too long after the photograph was taken, the elder Ruth was killed in a brawl.

Given this grim background, it seems no accident that at least on the evidence of the pictures in this book, Ruth could be counted on to genuinely smile most often after hitting a home run, when he grinned and winked and tipped his hat as he rounded the bases on the normal-size legs that his beer belly made seem spindly, and while among the orphans and hospitalized children whom he insisted on going to see wherever he played and who seemed to understand him better than the adults who had so often let him down.

Three recent pictorial biographies reveal in different ways how tricky a guide to character the camera can be.

Hemingway’s bravado masked the terrors that finally killed him, Babe Ruth’s good-time reputation is belied by his sad eyes, but true joy is the central thesis of Gary Giddins’s fine new illustrated biographical essay Satchmo (Dolphin Doubleday). With Louis Armstrong, what you saw when he faced the camera or the audience—that unforgettable face, with its rolling eyes and broad, battered grin, here seen in a hundred different settings—“was what you got. … He was every bit as big-hearted and open and genuine as he seemed onstage.”

Armstrong was a child of his tough times, born poor and illegitimate in New Orleans on August 4, 1901. (Sadly, Giddins’s research disproves the nice old story that he was born on Independence Day in 1900.) Like Babe Ruth, Armstrong was incarcerated for a time in a waifs’ home; but his mother was a constant, loving presence in his life, and he once said that he owed his success as much to her as to the talent for playing cornet and trumpet that propelled him north to Chicago and musical immortality at the age of twenty-one. By 1940, according to Giddins, he may have been the world’s best-known musician, black or white.

A buoyant optimist about almost everything, Armstrong was a realist about race. The pianist Erroll Garner remembered poking his head into Armstrong’s dressing room to ask what was new. “Nothin’ new,” Armstrong replied. “White folks still ahead.” And he placed all his business dealings with the whites who controlled his world in the hands of a white manager who took 50 percent of his earnings. As late as 1949 he was still being billed as the “world’s highest paid colored musician….”

Armstrong was a great artist; he influenced how every subsequent jazz musician played and how every jazz and pop singer sang as well. He was also a great vaudeville entertainer; on his 1932 passport application he described himself as “actor and musician.” Toward the end of his life, this mix of art and commerce made younger critics and musicians, who had no understanding of the troubles he’d seen or the worlds he’d conquered, accuse him of debasing his art by Tomming. Such criticism baffled and annoyed but did not permanently embitter him. “People love me and my music,” he told an interviewer, with the blithe self-confidence of a man supremely certain of his own worth, “and you know I love them. The minute I walk on the bandstand, they know they’re going to get something good. I see to that.”

He saw to it for more than half a century. “I loved and respected Louis Armstrong,” Duke Ellington said after Satchmo’s death in 1971, recalling the joyous, cocky little man whose personality shines from the pages of this book. “He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone on the way.”