Last month Armin Büttner posted this previously unpublished 1950’s photo of Sarah Vaughan on his blog celebrating the Crown Propeller Lounge in Chicago. (For more about photo’s back story, see Doug Ramsey’s Rifftides post here.) Vaughan is enjoying a night out with friends, including boxing champion Joe Louis and trumpeter King Kolax. I love the nostalgia of these kinds of photos. They provide a glimpse into Vaughan’s life offstage, when she wasn’t performing. They’re candid and almost private, but not quite – Vaughan is clearly posing for the camera.
This photo reminds me that Vaughan’s life offstage was often a performance, too. By the 1950s she was a celebrity, especially within the African-American community, and the press documented her every move. She was rarely truly alone in public. And, for better or worse, the press was intent upon using these public performances of her life offstage to speculate about her private life. In this case, that she and Joe Louis were much more than friends. They were having an affair.
The pair, who likely met back in 1947 when Vaughan performed at a Chicago club co-owned by Louis, circulated in the same social sphere and frequented the same clubs, often together as part of a larger party. They were both celebrities. And they were both married: Vaughan to her long-time manager, George Treadwell, and Louis to the wealthy cosmetics manufacturer, Rose Morgan. In fact, the Pittsburgh Courier ran a photo in January of 1956 of Vaughan congratulating Louis on his recent marriage. The pair “smooched” but it was okay, because, according to the caption, they were “just friends.”
A year later, the tone had changed. Amid persistent rumors that Louis and his wife had separated, the New York Amsterdam News speculated that Vaughan was, in fact, the cause of the rift. Vaughan and Louis had been seen making eyes at one another at Billy Eckstine’s Copa appearance in January of 1957, the News reported. The feature included two photos: one of Vaughan and Louis sitting side by side, engaged and smiling, and a second of a less happy Louis sitting with his wife. The captions read “Can Lola Get!” followed by “What Lola Wants?” – a not-so-subtle play on the lyrics of Vaughan’s recent hit “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets.” After yet more speculation and comments from Rose Morgan, the story concluded: “Sultry Sarah who is accused of rocking the boat was unavailable for comment.”
Even though evidence of an affair was circumstantial at best, rumors continued and spiraled out of control. A few weeks later, for example, the Pittsburgh Courier reran the photo of Vaughan chastely kissing Louis, this time with the caption: “If the great Joe Louis and marvelous Sarah Vaughan aren’t in love, they’re certainly past the stage of just being chums.”
And a few weeks after that the Baltimore Afro American countered with the headline: “Sarah won’t air romance with Joe.” When asked about the affair during an appearance at a local club, Vaughan responded “I happen to be a married woman!” The reporter tried again: “Although you deny the romance, why do you think Joe Louis hasn’t? And how do you feel about his refusal to talk about it?” “A startled laugh escaped the Divine One,” the Afro American printed. “She exchanged a glance with Johnnie Garry, her road manager, and made up her mind she’d had enough: ‘This is all very silly,’ she said, and was gone.”
According to Garry, reports of the romance between Vaughan and Louis came “from nowhere.” “They’ve been friends for years, and have often been seen together,” he said. “Then, boom; somebody gets something like this started. I don’t understand it.”