The Truth About Louis Armstrong’s Adoption Story

I saw this story –

A Jewish family named Karnofsky, who immigrated from Lithuania to the United States, took pity on a 7-year-old boy and brought him to their home. There he stayed and spent the night in this Jewish family home, where for the first time in his life he was treated with kindness and tenderness. When he went to bed, Mrs. Karnovski sang him Russian lullabies, which he sang with her. Later he learned to sing and play several Russian and Jewish songs. Over time, this boy became the adopted son of this family. Mr. Karnofsky gave him money to buy his first musical instrument, as was the custom in Jewish families. Later, when he became a professional musician and composer, he used these Jewish melodies in compositions such as St. James’s Hospital and Go Down Moses. The little boy grew up and wrote a book about this Jewish family, who adopted him in 1907. And proudly spoke Yiddish fluently. In memory of this family and until the end of his life, he wore the Star of David and said that in this family he learned “to live a real life and determination. “This little boy’s name was Louis Armstrong.

It’s a very sweet story and has some factual basis but I have NOT been able to prove the adoption story. In fact, Louis Armstrong’s life – while filled with poverty and hardship – was more complicated than this simple story. The “adopted” allegation isn’t of the legal sort, though definitely the family was special to him and helpful at a critical point in Armstrong’s young life. Louis Armstrong’s actual family was always in his life to some degree, though at one time he was sent as a punishment to the Colored Waif’s Home for borrowing – without permission and recklessly firing – his stepfather’s gun.

Armstrong worked for Mr Karnofsky and the money “given” was actually an advance against what he earned. In fact, it was Louis playing a little tin horn that was intended to attract attention to Mr Karnofsky’s trade. Louis Armstrong did indeed write a memoir titled Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907. It has long been true that the Black and Jewish communities have recognized the discrimination that both races have suffered and have experienced some common ground due to their treatment by other members of society.

Louis Armstrong did adopt – he adopted the 3 yr old son of his cousin Flora. She had died shortly after giving birth. Clarence Armstrong was mentally disabled, the result of a head injury at an early age (forgive me, but this does give me pause without knowing how it happened). Louis Armstrong spent the rest of his life taking care of his son. He also accepted the paternity claim of Lucille “Sweets” Preston, a dancer at the Cotton Club. He had his manager pay a monthly allowance of $400 (US$4,830 in 2020 dollars) to the mother and child.

When asked about his religion, Armstrong answered that he was raised a Baptist, always wore a Star of David, and was friends with the pope. He wore the Star of David in honor of the Karnoffsky family, who took him in as a child and lent him money to buy his first cornet. He was baptized a Catholic in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in New Orleans, and met both Pope Pius XII and Pope Paul VI.

I love this song but watching Armstrong sing it brings up conflicted feelings. Some parts appear as deep reflection and other parts almost feel strained. No doubt, he had much to be grateful for but considering the times during which he was performing, I would not be surprised at honest and genuine feelings that were indeed conflicted.

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