Tuesday, August 2, 2011

-3-Lil Hardin Armstrong: Idlewild Summer

August 2, 2011 is the beginning of the end of my year with Louis Armstrong. Maybe I chose this date to begin the end because it is my anniversary, accompanied by rumblings of a small hope that sometime, likely on a lake, there’d be a conversation. Death intervened; a long relationship ended, now closed.

A sultry day in early August—I’m tuned to Lil Hardin Armstrong, second of Louis Armstrong’s four wives. Lil is at the center of this inquiry—her music, her tailoring, and, most of all, her marriage to Louis that ended in divorce sixteen years later. But it’s more the realization that the constant variables—the seasons, weather, and place—are crucial in triggering memories as well as governing life choices.

Louis loved to swim. There’s a famous photo of him with four friends in Lake Michigan, a Chicago beach. They are all laughing, five heads bobbing close to one another. He wrote: “Of course I am not so bad myself at ″Swimming — in-fact it’s one of my’ famous’ Hobbies, outside of ″Typing”—I loves that also.”[1]

Then there’s another summer play day. This one:

The caption reads: Louis, Lil and Earl Hines boating with friends, Idlewild, Michigan, 1928.

Most city dwellers long for, dream about, and, some ultimately find a place outside the city to enjoy steamy summer days on the water. Lil found Idlewild within a few years of moving to Chicago. She came to the big city when she was seventeen. She wanted to escape her restricted Memphis life, longed to belong to Chicago jazz scene. She was academically trained in music (Fisk University), unusual for a jazz musician. Here is the boiled down bare bones Lil’s bio: she started out playing piano in the Dreamland Café. She eyed Louis, decided he was worth the time and trouble of a makeover. She convinced him to leave King Oliver. She pointed out career acceleration moves. In 1924 they married. She bossed him around; they both screwed around; he took solace in Alpha’s arms. They divorced in 1938, long after the soul mate era had ended. Lil stayed in the house on 44th Street she bought early on. Louis and Lil remained on friendly terms, though the depth of that friendship varies markedly depending on who said what in what year. She sued him over the copyright to “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque” and won. The royalties were crucial support in her later years. Louis died July 6, 1971. Seven weeks later Lil sang in a memorial concert for him. She had a stroke, collapsed on stage and died.

I see much of Lil in me, some of this is geography. Reading her life story invites me to sift through my own past, especially summers spent escaping the city. From childhood, getting out of town was the summertime highlight. My parents moved to Chicago in 1930 right after they married. They rented one apartment after another on the South Side for fifteen years. I was born in Hyde Park Hospital in 1941 and spent most of my childhood in Skokie.

In the 1980s I returned to Hyde Park. My husband and I and our sons moved there for his opportunity to teach and practice surgery at the University of Chicago. Given he’d grown up in Grand Haven, Michigan, he wanted to own property close to the lake in a small community. Chicago offers miles of public lakefront, a bounty for all, but this doesn’t fulfill the American dream of a plot of land. We bought a split-level in Stevensville, Michigan, a small town on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan right off the Red Arrow Highway. Renting a small third floor condo in Hyde Park was fine. Every weekend the 90-minute drive took us far from the city, a block from Lake Michigan. The drive was almost as memorable as the lake house. First, Stony Island Avenue, then the Skyway, then the stretch through the declining industrial shoreline strip, steel mills, the falling down Falstaff Brewery, the glow of the Amoco refinery and then the barreling north on I 94.

Another Chicago getaway possibility is a small lake in one of the states that border Lake Michigan. Lake James in northeast Indiana is my earliest lake memory. Though it is a long drive from Chicago, my parents, who grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, did not mind. The lake was familiar terrain, the past. When I was older, my parents and several other families rented a cottage on Powell Lake on the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The kids spent more time chasing each other through the cottages, slamming screen doors with mothers shouting “stop slamming the door!” than swimming in the lake. Little lakes, all about watching the moms paint their toenails and smoke cigarettes while we picked ditch lilies and looked for turtles. I grew up with the pleasures of little lakes, a very different experience from the big water, thundering storms and the shifting shoreline of Lake Michigan.

Getting back to Lil and that boating picture. Idlewild sounded familiar. In those driving-to-Stevenville years, I’d learned there was an African American lakeside community near Michigan City, Indiana. Finding the name Idlewild so many years later, I reckoned Idlewild must be the name of that community. Just to make sure Idlewild was nestled along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, I plugged it into Google Earth. Yikes—spin the globe and I’m zooming into the flatlands of Michigan, east of Ludington, far north of the Indiana border.

Idlewild is an African American resort community located on a small lake. Still popular today, its heyday was in the 1920s. In Swing That Music, Louis’s first autobiography published in 1936, he recounted time spent at Idlewild. Note that he described it as “out from Chicago”—an understatement at best. In 1926 Idlewild would be at least a seven-hour drive from Chicago.

“Lil and I were making real good money between us and we began to do what we wanted. We bought a house and a little car and then we bought some lots on the lake-front at Idlewild, which was a summer resort on Idlewild Lake, out from Chicago. I used to like to go to Idlewild with Lil. I like to swim and hadn’t had much of a chance to since I was on the Mississippi. The lake was about a mile across and I could make that easy. But Lil wouldn’t go swimming with me. I had ducked her in the water just for fun when we had spend a day once on Lake Michigan, and I guess I must have scared her too bad, without meaning to…When the crowd would go canoeing in the evenings, and sing together, she wouldn’t go either…Another thing I liked to do was to ride horseback there. I would rent myself a good old nag for an hour or two and climb on without any saddle and in my suit and ride around the country. The weekends  I could get off we went to Idlewild and this was the most exercise, and the best, I remember—although you might say blowing a trumpet is exercise all of the time.”[2]

According to some of his biographers, when this Idlewild respite took place Louis was spending more time with Alpha than Lil. Bergreen’s account mentions that Lil engineered a three-week vacation at Idlewild in an attempt to win him back.[3] Maybe so, but the attraction of the lake, the laid-back summer life, the distance from Chicago is what Louis captures in his narrative. It amazing how wrongs can be righted lakeside, even if it’s only for the short run. On the other hand, the distance from civilization offers another possibility, an excellent tryst site. Louis called the Idlewild property joint, but others credit the investment solely to Lil. Mention of such details might seem picky, but when it comes to divorce property matters.

Leaving the books and internet behind, I go to the lake to chew all this over, add my bit to our ongoing deck-staining project, and, best, paddle. Last year I bought a 19-pound boat that I can manage BY MYSELF down to the water and up again to the deck.

Today the day begins as I wish all summer days to begin. It’s Monday. Fishermen in small boats with small motors put in at the Public Boat Launch. No rocketing phalluses of the Jet Ski boys; they’re at rest after a weekend of high-pitched whining. The lake is glass, as the phrase asserts it is (nod to William Bronk’s “The Real Surrounding”). A bit of a breeze out of the south, refreshing but not resisting, assures me that I will stop occasionally to float on the way back. I head straight down the middle of the half-mile wide lake until I get to the tip of The Oaks, a summer community where water and other utilities are shared, a community buttoned up tight all winter.

I head across to the eastern shore where our cottage lies about a mile north. I want to check out the long, tall concrete retaining wall poured a few days ago. An old man lives in a big white, well-kept house above it. He’s hired a crew to build, or perhaps, overbuild, this structure. This lake has its problems as all little lakes do these days—weeds grow thicker and faster every year making for big blooms of floating gunk. As well, they provide good habitat for bass and turtles. The boat launch is an easy opportunity for anyone’s propeller to introduce a new species. Zebra mussels abound. Inland lakes are a far cry from what they were in the 1920s. Okay, I won’t go there. The point is erosion is not a major concern.

Eight years now we’ve settled into this quasi-community. This we is a different one from the we that had two sons and drove to Stevensville  for sunsets, blueberries and little league baseball. All of that life grown up or away, the boys as old as we were when we bought the split-level, my grandchildren only a couple of years younger than my sons were then. Much is different in this life on the water of a small lake from life near Lake Michigan. Everything in this life is mulled over and over, some things completed, more in process for years to come.  It’s all open water.

I walk or bike the road around the lake or paddle the lake every day that weather permits. Fantasizing about the neighbors’ lives goes hand in hand with the exercise. The old man in the white house always waves and nods; I don’t think he gets around much any more. Lots of family-type people come and go to the house.

Why is he spending a ton of money to build this wall? From the water I have a better view of small front shovel construction machine. Three guys in their 20s or early 30s are standing by the big walls, forms recently removed, jawing. A young woman comes out of the house, walks down the stairs, and crosses the road. She looks down at the men, combs her thick brown hair with her fingers. She makes no move to go down there. They pay her no attention. One of the men detaches himself from the others and climbs up to the road. He doesn’t pause or acknowledge her. She steps aside. He passes by. She turns and follows him, crosses the road in his shadow, follows him up the stairs. He takes a seat on the porch. She walks up to him and then turns crosses the porch and leans over a chair.

One of the workers climbs in the cab and begins lifting shovels of sandy, grassy shoreline dumping each a few feet from its rightful place.

The lake is glue for us, just as it was for my other us. The drive to Cossayuna is a snap, all back roads. We know most every road from here to there. We choose according to season, time of day and how much time we want to spend driving. Arriving in darkness, I open the car door and the silence smacks me. The arrival sensation is the same for each lake house, the rigors of the drive are not. In the Chicago years, when leaving for Stevensville, I did not mind three lanes each way crammed with cars; I was on my way to the lake. Coming home started hours before packing and leaving. I felt it in the pit of my stomach. Summer, hot Sunday nights heading back, crossing the Skyway, then onto Stony Island, Package Goods stores on every corner. So, yes, it’s never the destination, always the journey. The first time I heard “the past is foreign country,” it stuck. It sounded so wise and right but it’s not so.


[1] Louis Armstrong in His Own Words, Thomas Brothers, ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, sixth page of photos inserted between 132-133.
[2] Swing That Music, Louis Armstrong, New York: Da Capo Press, (1936) 1993 edition, 84-85.
[3] Louis Amstrong: an extravagant life, Laurence Bergreen, New York: Broadway Books, 1997, 288.