Monday, January 14, 2013

Did Richard Nixon Finger Louis Armstrong's Wife Lucille for a Pot Bust?

Louis and Lucille
On the evening of January 16, 1954 Louis Armstrong sat at the Alexander Hamilton Hotel at 631 O’Farrell Street in San Francisco and wrote what has been called “one of the most stunning documents Armstrong ever composed.”

"Mr. Glaser, you must see to it that I have special permission to smoke all the reefers that I want to when I want or I will just have to put this horn down, that's all," the letter says, addressing Armstrong’s manager. "I can gladly vouch for a nice, fat stick of gage, which relaxes my nerves, if I have any...I can't afford to be ...tense, fearing that any minute I'm going to be arrested, brought to jail for a silly little minor thing like marijuana."

The incident that prompted Louis to write about his love for marijuana was the arrest of his wife Lucille on marijuana charges in Hawaii on New Year’s Day, 1954. Lucille was nabbed by federal narcotics agents at the airport where a US Customs inspector found one cigarette and two stubs, totaling 14.8 grams of marijuana, in her eyeglass case.

The bust was a big deal: Louis almost lost a charity gig for the March of Dimes and was nearly barred from performing in Hawaii. Lucille posted $300 bail and appeared at a day-long hearing on January 5 with Louis sitting in the spectators’ section.  She pleaded guilty for expediency, she said, but protested her innocence. It's been widely speculated that it was Louis's stash, but the small amount of pot found in Lucille's personal belongs makes me wonder if she was a Tokin' Woman herself.

The judge reduced Lucille’s fine to $200 owing to her husband's good works. "At the start of 1954, he was at the peak of his popularity and was already being touted as an ‘Ambassador of Goodwill’ due to his tremendous popularity overseas," wrote Ricky Riccardi, who details the incident in his book What a Wonderful World.

An often-told story relates that Armstrong once prevailed on Richard Nixon to carry his valise containing pot through an airport for him. LA-based trumpeter Jack Coan, who toured the Midwest with Louis and Pat Boone in 1967, told me in October 2012 that that Satchmo laughed heartily every time he told the story, pinpointing the locale as Japan.

Both Armstrong and then-VP Nixon toured Japan in late 1953, just before Lucille’s arrest. The courier caper most likely would have happened on December 14, the day Nixon left Japan and three days before Louis's first concert there. 

The timing begs the question: Did Nixon or someone in his entourage figure out the Vice President had been used for a drug mule and fail to see the humor in it, leading to Lucille's arrest?

Louis hadn’t been in trouble with the law since 1930, when he was arrested outside the Cotton Club in LA while smoking a joint. That incident and his subsequent jailing ultimately lead to Joe Glaser, an Al Capone acolyte, taking over Armstrong’s career, and later suppressing his writings about marijuana.

Lucille Armstrong in 1983
A former dancer at Harlem's Cotton Club, Lucille Armstrong became a community activist after Louis's death, drafted by Gov. Rockefeller. Deciding drug rehabilitation wasn't her thing, she chose an appointment on the NY Committee on Aging. 

Riccardi, who is the archivist at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, credits Lucille with preserving Armstrong's letter to Glaser, and his taped audio version.  

"Can you imagine anyone giving Lucille all of those headaches and grief over a mere small pittance such as gage, something that grows out in the backyard among the chickens and so forth,” Louis emoted in his letter. “I just won't carry on with such fear over nothing and I don't intend to ever stop smoking it, not as long as it grows. And there is no one on this earth that can ever stop it all from growing. No one but Jesus--and he wouldn't dare. Because he feels the same way that I do about it."

The San Francisco hotel
where Louis wrote about gage.
Gage “ain't nothin' but medicine," Louis concluded, words that will resonate with medical marijuana advocates in the city where he wrote them. The medical marijuana movement began in San Francisco, where activist Dennis Peron rallied the HIV/AIDS community to fight for their rights in the early 1990s. The state Proposition 215 followed in 1996, making California the first state to legalize marijuana for medicine.

Those events and others will be marked by a conference happening January 26 & 27 at Ft. Mason Conference Center in San Francisco, sponsored by California NORML. The conference will take place at the 100th anniversary of cannabis prohibition in California. 

It’s high time to end the Hundred Year Weed War that has harassed and imprisoned so many of our citizens, including some of our best and brightest.

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