Louis Armstrong is widely considered one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. When he was 11 and living in New Orleans, Armstrong was arrested for firing a gun during a New Year’s Eve celebration and was sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, where he learned to play the clarinet and, as Armstrong later said, “me and music got married.”
Armstrong was always enormously popular. When the Beatles were at the early heights of their popularity in 1963, Armstrong topped the charts with his rendition of “Hello, Dolly!” In 1960 he was so well known that the two warring sides in the Democratic Republic of the Congo stopped fighting long enough to attend a concert he gave nearby.
However, Armstrong struggled his entire life with an anxiety that led to involvement with marijuana, the mob and an obsession with laxatives to control his weight.
Louis Armstrong and Weed
Louis Armstrong started smoking marijuana in the 1920s, like many musicians of the time. Armstrong used weed to control his anxiety about performance and other complications in his life. This is not an unusual practice for individuals who feel their anxiety is overwhelming. Armstrong claimed that weed “relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro. It makes you feel wanted, and when you’re with another tea smoker, it makes you feel a special kinship.”
Louis Armstrong’s marijuana smoking, however, did not go unnoticed. He was one of the first celebrities arrested for using the drug. A policeman spotted him and another musician smoking a joint outside a club in California. Armstrong was sentenced to 30 days and served nine in jail for the act. However, this reprimand did not seem to affect his connection to weed. (There is no known strong connection of Louis Armstrong with drugs beyond his affinity for marijuana.)
Louis Armstrong and Laxatives
Armstrong had huge appetites for almost everything in his life, but particularly for food. He loved to eat and would devour almost anything put in front of him. His favorite dish from the days of his youth was rice and beans, particularly prepared in a New Orleans style. He hesitated to marry his fourth wife, Lucille — the woman he would remain married to for the last 30 years of his life — until he knew she could cook the dish, as she was a New Englander.
However, this love for food caused Armstrong to struggle with weight his entire life. The way he chose to deal with his anxiety was through laxatives. Armstrong used laxatives to control his weight, along with other supplements. He even wrote a book and numerous magazine articles on the use of laxatives as a dietary method. He received more than a few fan letters from individuals who were more interested in his dietary use of laxatives than his music.
His first laxative of choice was Pluto Water from his native New Orleans, a mineral water that contained natural laxatives. (Pluto Water was later banned in the 1970s when it was discovered to contained lithium, a drug with psychological effects.) However, sometime in the 1930s during a tour of Europe, he discovered Swiss Kriss, the laxative that he was to use for the rest of his life.
Armstrong loved Swiss Kriss so much that he even did advertisements for the company that showed him sitting on a toilet with a big smile. He often gave bottles of the laxative to his friends as a present, and once during a tour of England, he regaled members of the royal family with details about his use of Swiss Kriss.
How Louis Armstrong Got Entangled With the Mob
Perhaps one of the lesser-known aspects of Louis Armstrong’s career was his connection to the mob. Armstrong was not a mobster, but he could not avoid interacting with them in the 20s and 30s. During the years of prohibition in the early part of the 20th century, mobsters like Al Capone controlled almost all the nightclubs in New Orleans, New York and Chicago where Armstrong performed much of the time.
Not only did mobsters control the clubs, but low-level hoodlums connected to the mob often acted as managers for many singers and musicians of the period. There’s some speculation that Armstrong’s use of marijuana may have affected his decisions about his interactions with these mobsters. In one case, while he was performing in Chicago in 1931, a thug showed up and told him he had to go to New York immediately to perform at a club owned by a mobster he had canceled on a few years earlier.
When Armstrong said no, the thug pulled a gun, and Armstrong later recalled “So I look down at that steel and say, ‘Weeellll, maybe I do open in New York tomorrow.'” Instead, Armstrong fled to Europe, where he performed for the next four years while he waited for the heat to die down in United States.
Louis Armstrong and Joe Glaser
Joe Glaser was a low-level hood and bar manager who once stood up to Al Capone on behalf of Louis Armstrong. When Armstrong returned from Europe in 1935, he knew he needed to align himself with someone who would not only manage his career but protect him. He asked Glaser for help. Glaser, who already believed that Armstrong was perhaps the best musician in the world, knew a good opportunity and signed on immediately.
Glaser served as Armstrong’s manager, father figure and protector for over 40 years until he died in 1969, two years before Armstrong.
Armstrong said shortly before he died that he was happy his entire life. However, his celebrity masked his use of marijuana and laxatives to deal with his often-complicated anxieties. His lifelong use of marijuana and the fact that he smoked cigarettes almost every day of his life could have contributed to his death at the relatively early age of 69.
If you find your life filled with anxieties and you’ve been using marijuana or some other drug to medicate away that feeling, we can help. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Our compassionate team of counselors is available 24/7 to help you start on the road to recovery. Contact us today by calling (844) 299-0618.