He could have been on a book tour promoting his latest novel, but on June 29, British-born award-winning author Stephen Maitland-Lewis was among the 200 people that attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new $26 million Louis Armstrong Center in north Corona.
The novelist is a trustee on the board of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, where America’s first Black popular music icon, known internationally as Satchmo, spent the last 40 years of his life with his wife Lucille.
“It was a very wonderful event that was in the making for 20-plus years,” Maitland-Lewis said. “For those 20-plus years we’ve been talking about it and looking at architectural drawings and at the models, and then we had to arrange funding with Queens College, the city, the state and the federal agencies that were all wonderful, and then we had to negotiate with the neighbors so it was all a bit of a hassle but 20 odd years later, we have this fabulous facility.”
Maitland-Lewis was invited to join the board in 2009 after Michael Cogswell, the founding executive director of the Louis Armstrong House House Museum, learned of his long friendship with the international icon. Maitland-Lewis grew up in post-war England, just outside of London where food and gasoline were still rationed. His parents were huge jazz fans and by the time he was 8 or 9, he became enamored with Armstrong’s music in particular.
“I started listening to his records and totally fell in love with the music and the guy and when I was about 11 or 12 I wrote him a letter,” Maitland-Lewis told Schneps Media. “It was not high literature and full of poor grammar and spelling mistakes, and four weeks later, I got from him a four page letter in his own handwriting thanking me for my letter. Of course, I still have that letter, it’s a prized possession. Then I wrote to thank him for thanking me and we suddenly drifted into a pen pal exchange of correspondence, which lasted through till about three or four months before he died.”
When he had his first meeting with Cogswell at Queens College, Maitland-Lewis was presented with a file of Armstrong’s letters, and inside was every letter and birthday or Christmas card he sent to Satchmo over the years.
“When I was 16, he came to England with Lucille and they invited me to visit them at the Mayfair Hotel in London,” he recalled. “I think one of the most memorable things was stepping out of the elevator at the Mayfair and walking down the corridor toward his suite and listening to him tootle on the trumpet. I knocked on the door, and when they opened it, it was a magical moment.”
In the ensuing weeks, the young man was invited along on Armstrong’s bus tour with backstage passes to concerts. This was repeated each time Armstrong was in England.
“I mean, it was just an incredible relationship,” Maitland-Lewis said.
The friendship remained strong until Armstrong died in 1971. A decade later, Maitland-Lewis moved to New York City, where he became an international investment banker on Wall Street.
He is now an accomplished author splitting time between homes in Rancho Mirage, Beverly Hills, and New Orleans. His latest novel “Legacy of Atonement” was released last month, but he was drawn to North Corona, where another one of his prized possessions is now on display.
Lucille Armstrong died in 1983 and when the New York auction house Butterfields handled the sale of many items in her estate, Maitland-Lewis was the successful bidder on the only Grammy Award Satchmo ever won, for “Hello Dolly” in 1964. He has since loaned it to the Armstrong House Museum and it is part of the exhibition in the new center which houses the 60,000-piece Louis Armstrong Archive, the world’s largest for a jazz musician.
“This truthfully would never have come about without the support of Queens College,” Maitland-Lewis said. “They are the heroes of this along with Michael Cogswell who tragically died three years ago.”
He also gave credit to Regina Bain, the current executive director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
Maitland-Lewis was sitting in the second row just feet from where Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, 75, wrapped up his opening remarks during the ribbon-cutting ceremony and stepped off the stage when he collided with an alleged car thief who was evading police.
“I saw the crook run straight in front of row one and I heard Jeff hit the pavement striking his head. It was a dreadful moment as he was taken away by the paramedics,” Maitland-Lewis said. “But then he sat up on the gurney and then waved to the crowd to everyone’s relief.”
Aubry was taken to Elmhurst Hospital, where he was treated for a laceration on his head and released
“Thank God Jeff was okay — I mean it could have been worse, it could have been considerably worse. What was remarkable about that event was the way Regina Bain was able to calm the crowd and proceed with the program,” Maitland-Lewis said. “There was a lady sitting toward the back of the crowd and she began to sing a hymn or a gospel song and Regina was at the podium and she knew what the lady was singing and began to sing it, too. I can’t say enough about the way she handled the moment, it was just impeccable.”