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Papa, Satchmo, And The Babe

June 2024
6min read

As anyone with a family album knows, photographs rarely tell the whole truth. That idyllic couple, snuggling on the dock, were divorced not long after the camera clicked; those Thanksgiving guests did not enjoy the turkey nearly as much as their glassy, flashbulb smiles suggest.

Even the most obscure among us learn to mask our feelings for the camera. Some celebrities make a lifetime of it, fabricating for themselves genial, self-assured public personas that often have little real connection with their insecure creators. Three recent pictorial biographies, of Ernest Hemingway, Babe Ruth, and Louis Armstrong, reveal in different ways how tricky a guide to personality and character the camera can be.

Ernest Hemingway Rediscovered , with photographs by Roberto Herrera Sotolongo and text by Norberte Fuentes (Scribner’s, $39.95), is an especially handsome book, beautifully laid out and well printed, made up largely of candid photographs taken by Hemingway’s longtime secretary during the writer’s last two decades and found in four yellow Kodak boxes after both the photographer and his subject were gone. These pictures were meant to document the boss’s high life and happy times. Hemingway stands his ground before a charging rhinoceros, shoots pigeons, enjoys a cockfight, hauls in a marlin, steers his fishing boat Pilar , even poses (only slightly uneasily) while being pawed by trained bears. But mostly he drinks—aboard ship, with movie stars, in fishermen’s bars and Havana nightclubs, all alone in his easy chair in the living room of the Finca Vigía, his Cuban hideaway, surrounded by the smiling hangers-on whose admiration he both craved and scorned. (There is just one picture of him doing the only thing for which he will finally be remembered: He Stands up as he writes, shirtless and in shorts, even the muscles in his calves tensed with the effort of squeezing out the words.)

Despite all the hilarity spread across these oversize pages, the impact of the pictures is overwhelmingly sad, a painful record of the disintegration of a once-gifted man increasingly unable to understand where his gift or his life has gone. Two portraits from the book remain most vividly in my mind. One shows a bleary, grizzled, scarred-up Hemingway, sucking in his gut to make himself look more like the youthful portrait on the wall behind him; the other is a merciless 1950s close-up, evidently made aboard the Pilar after a very long day of fishing and sun and red wine. Hemingway is bare-chested and supine; his face is sodden and puffy; his eyes are heavy-lidded and unfocused. He would endure his life for another decade before ending it, but in this photograph he already looks dead.

In The Babe: A Life in Pictures (Ticknor & Fields, $40.00), Lawrence S. Ritter makes a good case that Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Certainly he was the most colorful, and in this fine collection of pictures assembled by Mark Rucker, many of them never seen before, we get a vivid sense of the impression this big, homely athlete made on and off the field. The highlights of Ruth’s long baseball career are all here—his debut as a lean left-hander for the old Baltimore Orioles in 1914; whacking his sixtieth home run in 1927; saying a last farewell to Yankee Stadium just two months before his death in 1948. Two hitherto unpublished frames from a fan’s home movie, made during the fifth inning of the third game of the 1932 World Series, prove Ruth did indeed point at something before hitting his most famous homer, although the authors are careful not to take sides in the ancient controversy on whether he actually called his shot.

But Ruth’s private life was nearly as celebrated as was his batting skill; he squandered his money, drank bourbon and ginger ale before breakfast, consumed awesome amounts of food, and was a favorite customer in brothels from coast to coast. (Asked what it was like to room with Ruth, his teammate Ping Bodie answered that he didn’t room with Babe Ruth, “I room with Babe Ruth’s suitcase.” That suitcase—or one like it—is shown here in color, its battered sides ablaze with stickers advertising the posh hotels on three continents through whose halls he roistered.)

Ruth was always happy to cooperate with the camera boys, and The Babe is filled with wonderful publicity shots of him in soft hat, fur coat, and driving gauntlets at the wheel of his monogrammed sports car; spooning in Quaker Puffed Wheat; fingering a typewriter keyboard; riding a bull; hugging a chimpanzee; dressed up in top hat and tails and as a girl in a blond wig; wearing shorts and an undershirt and unaccountably blowing on a saxophone while Paul Whiteman and a very dignified John Philip Sousa stand by, similarly undressed.

What most surprised me about this photographic record is how rarely Ruth seemed to smile. In picture after picture, no matter what kind of paces he is being asked to go through, his big pie of a face is impassive or mournful, his eyes dark and wounded. That private melancholy may be explained by the basic, harrowing facts of his boyhood. Of the seven other children born to George and Kate Ruth after George, Jr., was born on the Baltimore waterfront in 1895, only one, a sister, survived infancy, a sad fact for which his parents seem to have blamed him. Largely ignored by them—“I think my mother hated me,” Ruth once confided to a friend—he learned to walk in the slippery sawdust of his father’s saloon and was stealing from local shopkeepers by the age of five. When he was seven, his parents had him declared “incorrigible” and sent to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, where he remained, off and on, until the age of nineteen. His family never bothered to visit him—“I guess I’m just too big and ugly for anyone to come see me,” he told a fellow inmate.

The strapping Xaverian in charge of St. Mary’s became his surrogate father, and it was the ease with which Brother Matthias hit a baseball that inspired the boy to try his hand. Ruth was so good so soon that he was allowed to leave the school two years early, at nineteen, to join the Orioles. Ruth rarely mentioned his real father in later years, although one 1915 picture in the book shows a grim father and son together behind the family bar beneath a tangle of beat-up tinsel that may be the most dispiriting Christmas display ever photographed. The Babe was a major leaguer then; perhaps his father thought his presence would boost business. In any case, not too long after the photograph was taken, the elder Ruth was killed in a brawl.

Given this grim background, it seems no accident that at least on the evidence of the pictures in this book, Ruth could be counted on to genuinely smile most often after hitting a home run, when he grinned and winked and tipped his hat as he rounded the bases on the normal-size legs that his beer belly made seem spindly, and while among the orphans and hospitalized children whom he insisted on going to see wherever he played and who seemed to understand him better than the adults who had so often let him down.

Three recent pictorial biographies reveal in different ways how tricky a guide to character the camera can be.

Hemingway’s bravado masked the terrors that finally killed him, Babe Ruth’s good-time reputation is belied by his sad eyes, but true joy is the central thesis of Gary Giddins’s fine new illustrated biographical essay Satchmo (Dolphin Doubleday). With Louis Armstrong, what you saw when he faced the camera or the audience—that unforgettable face, with its rolling eyes and broad, battered grin, here seen in a hundred different settings—“was what you got. … He was every bit as big-hearted and open and genuine as he seemed onstage.”

Armstrong was a child of his tough times, born poor and illegitimate in New Orleans on August 4, 1901. (Sadly, Giddins’s research disproves the nice old story that he was born on Independence Day in 1900.) Like Babe Ruth, Armstrong was incarcerated for a time in a waifs’ home; but his mother was a constant, loving presence in his life, and he once said that he owed his success as much to her as to the talent for playing cornet and trumpet that propelled him north to Chicago and musical immortality at the age of twenty-one. By 1940, according to Giddins, he may have been the world’s best-known musician, black or white.

A buoyant optimist about almost everything, Armstrong was a realist about race. The pianist Erroll Garner remembered poking his head into Armstrong’s dressing room to ask what was new. “Nothin’ new,” Armstrong replied. “White folks still ahead.” And he placed all his business dealings with the whites who controlled his world in the hands of a white manager who took 50 percent of his earnings. As late as 1949 he was still being billed as the “world’s highest paid colored musician….”

Armstrong was a great artist; he influenced how every subsequent jazz musician played and how every jazz and pop singer sang as well. He was also a great vaudeville entertainer; on his 1932 passport application he described himself as “actor and musician.” Toward the end of his life, this mix of art and commerce made younger critics and musicians, who had no understanding of the troubles he’d seen or the worlds he’d conquered, accuse him of debasing his art by Tomming. Such criticism baffled and annoyed but did not permanently embitter him. “People love me and my music,” he told an interviewer, with the blithe self-confidence of a man supremely certain of his own worth, “and you know I love them. The minute I walk on the bandstand, they know they’re going to get something good. I see to that.”

He saw to it for more than half a century. “I loved and respected Louis Armstrong,” Duke Ellington said after Satchmo’s death in 1971, recalling the joyous, cocky little man whose personality shines from the pages of this book. “He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone on the way.”

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