Credit is due to Richard Brookhiser for his excellent essay “Some Blessed Hope” (December 31). Brookhiser touches on the brilliant Thomas Hardy’s remarkable talent as both a poet and a novelist. In verse and prose, Hardy set a poignant tone that sees our humanity bent to other forces. In “The Darkling Thrush” that force is the title character — frail, yet wiser. My own favorite from Hardy, “Drummer Hodge,” strikes a more somber note. But even in so doing, the poem emphasizes what we must always remember: Life is inherently valuable.
Nicholas Frankovich must not be a wind player. While assessing the “rictus” of “Satchmo’s smile” (January 27), he fails to factor in the tremendous embouchure muscles of the professional wind player — particularly on trumpet, French horn, and double reeds. As an oboist, I can testify that if one makes that frozen face for the horn, all one has to do is part the lips and there it is: rictus smile. Furthermore, Armstrong’s all-encompassing embouchure also included his forehead and eyelids. Whatever the reason, he used it as part of his act.
Sylvia Swain Rummel
Nicholas Frankovich responds: Many thanks to Ms. Rummel for this addition to the story of Armstrong’s extraordinarily expressive face. Let me add yet another brushstroke or two: In 1935 he tore a muscle in his upper lip, from playing the trumpet too hard. The condition, to which players of wind instruments (but especially the trumpet) are susceptible, is now known as “Satchmo’s syndrome.”
His lips were susceptible to scar tissue and calluses. He began using a lip balm invented by Franz Schüritz, a German trombonist. Schüritz kept him well supplied, gratis, in exchange for rights to use Armstrong’s name on the product. It was rebranded as “Louis Armstrong Lip-Salve.” Armstrong dutifully endorsed it. “The greatest salve in the world,” he told an interviewer in 1952. “I’d be dead without it.” After a game, trainers would go to work on Sandy Koufax’s left elbow, on Mickey Mantle’s knees. Armstrong’s after-performance routine involved special attention to his lips.