Now I thought we could discuss one of my favorite musicians, favorite humans, and for no other reason than let's just go ahead and do it.
And this person is Louis Armstrong. Satchmo. Pops.
Everybody knows the names. Everybody knows the list of achievements--jazz visionary, cultural icon, goodwill ambassador to the world, actor, author, comedian, a man whose career spanned five decades and as many mediums.
But there's one thing that has always interested me: the man's virtual lifelong fixation on laxatives. I'd seen a photograph many years ago (the one you're looking at on this very page) of Satch sitting on the john, grinning from ear to ear, proffering a box of something called Swiss Kriss. At the bottom of the page was this: "Satchmo Slogan: Leave It All Behind Ya."
What did it mean? I knew he had a bountiful sense of humor, but this I didn't get. A bit of digging and I found that Swiss Kriss was a laxative, and that Armstrong was into it in a big way. Not addicted as a means of weight loss--as were the Barbi twins, for example, to their favored brand of evacuator--but for health reasons that he was quite passionate about.
Cut to a couple weeks ago and me walking through a large supermarket. And there it was, standing out on the shelf in all of its German-expressionist-logoed glory, a box of Swiss Kriss. They still made the stuff, the favorite laxative of the greatest trumpet player ever to walk the face of the Earth. Featuring licorice root, fennel, dandelion, peppermint, papaya, strawberry and peach leaves, among other ingredients. One hundred percent natural. I brought some Kriss home for research purposes. I took that about as far as I could, but I wanted to know more. I decided to dive in headfirst.
Why listen to me when Louis can fill you in? Here are some vital tidbits that he revealed in a letter written shortly before his death to authors Max Jones and John Chilton for their book Louis:
"We didn't do much drinking ... when we did, we always figured that pot would cut liquor anytime. And being physic-minded like we were, we would take a good laxative (of some kind) and keep our stomachs cleaned out, because that good stuff we were smoking gave you an appetite. And drinking makes you eat like a dog. A good, cleaned-out stomach makes one feel like any human deserves to feel, and I've always been physic-minded.
"Mayann (mother) used to tell me always stay physic-minded. You may not get rich, but you won't ever have those terrible ailments such as cancer, etc. And she would go out by the railroad tracks and pick a lot of peppers--grasses, dandelions, etc., and she'd bring it home and boil that stuff and give us kids a big dose of it. And, my gawd--we'd make sprints to the toilet and afterwards feel 'oh, so good,' all cleaned out 'n' stuff."
Armstrong obviously developed his doctrine of intestinal purification early on, and as he was for his art, he became a tireless cheerleader of the practice. But Louis was fond of another herb, good ol' marijuana, and his idea of a swell, healthy time called for frequent helpings of both Kriss and dope. One for the brain, and one for the bowels. He continues:
"Every time I'd light up with a cat, I'd mention laxatives and was happy to know that everybody got the message. Because, for a while, we were drinking Abalena Water. It came from a well in Abilene, Texas. We drank that well dry, sohad to get another kind of physic. So westarted drinking Pluto Water, which wasgreat. Then here come this book--ahealth book written by Gayelord Hauser. When I read down to the part where he recommended some 'herbs'--herbal laxatives--I said to myself, 'Herbs--Hmmm, these herbs reminds me of the same as what my mother picked down by the tracks in New Orleans.' Right away I went to the Health Store and bought myself a box of Swiss Kriss and took a big tablespoonful--make sure it worked me the same as other laxatives. Yes it did. Wow! I said to myself, yessindeed, this is what I need from now on--and forsake all others."
If you don't believe me or Louis Armstrong about the transcendent qualities of Swiss Kriss, bear in mind that it's been on the market--completely unchanged--since it was developed by one Gayelord Hauser in 1922. This is a laxative that has legs. It was that year that Hauser founded Modern Products, Inc., in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and began spreading his health message through what would ultimately become some 200 products.
"Louis Armstrong was a very generous man, a real nice person," exclaims Anthony Palermo, current CEO of Modern Products. He began working at the company after coming to the States from his native Italy in the early '50s. "We never paid him anything, never paid him a dime; he just loved the product. Louis--we called him "Pops"--Armstrong was so infatuated with the product 'cause it really works! And he told everybody! What he did, he had a valet called Doc Pugh, and he would get thousands of samples of Swiss Kriss from us. And Louis, at the concerts, he'd give it away to people."
Palermo is a great guy to talk to on the phone. He gets excited talking about Pops, talking about "Mr. Hauser--he was the father of modern nutrition!" His voice rasps, shades of an Italian accent filter in and out. I spoke with him three times, at the end of each conversation, he said, "Ciao!"
"Do you know who also took Swiss Kriss? Greta Garbo. You've heard of her? I took care of her [Kriss needs] for over 20 years; she was like my mother. She was Gayelord Hauser's friend. I met her November 7, 1952. She was the most wonderful, noble person you'd ever wish to meet. She was fantastic! She just wanted to be left alone. She never said, 'I want to be alone.' She said, 'I want to be left alone.' She was very careful about what she did, and Swiss Kriss is good, so she used it."
And then Palermo is back to Louis.
"He even had an argument on the radio once with Tony Randall, who was interviewing him," says the successor to the father of modern nutrition. "Tony Randall made fun of him that he was taking Swiss Kriss. And Louis blasted him, he really blasted Tony Randall!"
Here's what an actual physician, Phoenix health/nutrition guru Art Mollen (who has a jogging path named for him at Arizona Biltmore), has to say on the subject of Swiss Kriss:
"I've never heard of that Swiss Kriss, but all of [those ingredients] act as a natural laxative." It seems that there really was something to Armstrong's theory of cleaning out.
"Back in the '20s, '30s, even back to ancient times, laxatives were used because they were thought to be a purification for the body," the doctor informs us. "The thing about taking a laxative and having increased movement through the bowel, it decreases the amount of time that any fecal material will actually be in thebowel and allowed to beabsorbed through the intestines and potentially become carcinogenic. Strictly colon cancer is what we're talking about. From that standpoint, it can be helpful."
But let the warning label begin here.
"An excess of laxatives can be dangerous to your health, and I think that should have to be a consideration and a caution for anyone who even considers taking a laxative on a regular basis," Mollen says.
I forgot to ask him what effect a really ferocious poop-prodder might have on trumpet playing.
If there's one guy who can give up the lowdown on Armstrong's Krissmania, it is Dan Morgenstern. He is the director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. He's written countless books, articles and essays on jazz, has one of the world's largest collections of Armstrong 78s, and was a good friend of Pops in his later years.
Plus, he's the kind of guy who picks up on the second ring of a cold call, the kind of guy who, when I mentioned the names "Louis Armstrong" and "Swiss Kriss" in the same sentence, laughed and said, "Hang on, lemme turn the music down.
"Louis was a laxative fan most of his life," says Morgenstern. "Prior to discovering Swiss Kriss, he had something called PlutoCR> Water that he recommended to everybody, but once he found Swiss Kriss, that was it."
Forsake all others ...
"It came in little envelopes, and Louis always carried a stack of these, and if you got a letter from him, sometimes there would be a little envelope of Swiss Kriss in there. ... Some people mistakenly thought--because it looked a little bit like it--that it actually was pot. They were disappointed when it wasn't; it looked a little bit like reefer."
No kidding. A friend of mine who happens to enjoy the wicked substance was inmy kitchen the other day, and I pulled out a little baggy stuffed with fine, green Kriss.
"Check this out, man," I whispered, taunting discreetly. For the seven seconds it took him to figure out what it wasn't, he looked, well, he looked like he was about to shit.
"Once in a while, he would pull a thing on somebody he was friendly with on the band bus, if the person didn't know about Swiss Kriss. Louis would say, 'Hey, man, take some of this. It'll make you feel good.' Then he would watch with great delight and interest as this person obviously had to go, you know? Then they would stop the bus--they'd be out on the road someplace--and the guy would go in the bushes! Pops would get a kick out of that."
Morgenstern admits that he took a quick ride on the Kriss bandwagon. "I tried it a few times, but I've never been much of a laxative fan. I did it so I could say to him that I did try it; it'd make him happy. ... He really swore by it, and he recommended it to everyone. He used to sign his letters 'Swiss Krissly Yours,' and he had a thing he would send to people that was about dieting."
Indeed he did, a "thing" titled "Lose Weight the Satchmo Way." This consisted of:
1. Swiss Kriss ... You can buy it in any drugstore.
2. Bisma Rex ... It cuts gas.
3. Fresh Orange Juice ... It's delicious, softens fat.
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P.S. Your first dose will be real heavy, in order to start blasting right away, and get the ball to rolling. After you get over your surprises and whatnots, you'll be very happy...
"Once at a gathering, I think it was in Philadelphia, he got into a conversation with an elderly lady," Morgenstern recalls. "She was having some problems with her digestion, so he pulled out one of those packets and said, 'You should take this.' She said, 'Well, what is it? What does it consist of?' And with his New Orleans accent he said, 'Oibs, mama, oibs!'"
And that's about it. I think this is probably all you need (or want) to know about this fascinating little nugget of history. Of course, if you're curious, if you really want to listen to Pops, and I don't mean just his music, then head on down to the store and plop down $6.69 and take home a bit of history. Fill up that tablespoon, gulp some fresh orange juice, and you'll say to yourself, What a wonderful world ...