6 Things You Didn't Know About Maya Angelou

By: Kathryn Whitbourne  | 
Women smiling on stage in performance space with microphone.
Poet and activist Dr. Maya Angelou addresses the Democratic National Convention in Boston 2004. Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Celebrated poet, playwright and memoirist Maya Angelou (1928-2014) had a dizzying number of firsts and crammed a lot of living into her life. "To know her life story is to simultaneously wonder what on earth you have been doing with your own life and feel glad that you didn't have to go through half the things she has. Before she hit 40 she had been a professional dancer, prostitute, madam, lecturer, activist, singer and editor," wrote Gary Younge in the Guardian. And that's just the half of it. Here are some other things you may not have known.


1. She Used to Be a Calypso Singer/Dancer

As a young single mother, Angelou paid the bills at one time working as a stripper at a club.  A customer who later became a friend told her about an opening at the happening San Francisco nightclub The Purple Onion. She put together an act where she sang calypso songs and told stories. She later starred in the film "Calypso Heatwave" and released an album as "Miss Calypso," both in 1957. (Calypso music was having a moment in the U.S. in the late '50s.)

Maya Angelou wears a red dress while dancing next to a fire in a promotional portrait taken for the cover of her album "Miss Calypso."
Gene Lester/Getty Images


2. She Wrote Her First Book on a Dare

Angelou's best-known book was her first one, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," which tells the story of her early life. But she never set out to be a writer. By the late '60s, she was producing a TV series for PBS. She went out to dinner with writer James Baldwin, cartoonist Jules Feiffer and his wife Judy. "All three of them are great talkers. They went on with their stories and I had to fight for the right to play it good. I had to insert myself to tell some stories too," she recalled in a Paris Review interview.

The stories were good enough that the next day Judy Feiffer told Bob Loomis, an editor at Random House, that he should try to get Angelou to write an autobiography. She turned him down three times. In the same interview she added, "Then he talked to James Baldwin. Jimmy gave him a ploy which always works with me—though I'm not proud to say that. The next time he called, he said, 'Well, Miss Angelou. I won't bother you again. It's just as well that you don't attempt to write this book, because to write autobiography as literature is almost impossible.' I said, 'What are you talking about? I'll do it.'"


3. She Racked Up a Lot of Firsts

Angelou was the first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco at age 16. She was also the first African-American woman to write a nonfiction bestseller (1969's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"), get a screenplay produced (1972's "Georgia Georgia") and direct a major movie (1998's "Down in the Delta").


4. She Married Her Third Husband Three Times

Angelou's third marriage was to Paul du Feu, a Welsh master carpenter, comic strip writer and former husband of feminist Germaine Greer. (He'd also posed with Greer for British Cosmopolitan's first nude centerfold.) "He said that if I were British or he black he'd be agreeable to merely live together. But with the difference in cultures, he wanted to make a public statement. So we married.... We liked the ceremony so much, and love each other so much, that we've been married twice since, and we'll do it again," she told People magazine in 1975. Sadly, their marriage ended in 1981. Angelou has said she's not the easiest person to live with.


5. She and Coretta Scott King Shared a Special Bond

Angelou's birthday was on April 4, the same day as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Angelou had been the northern coordinator of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. For years after King's death, she did not celebrate her birthday. However, she always called Coretta, his widow, and sent her flowers on that day.


6. Her Commemorative Postal Stamp Featured a Quote — NOT By Her

Angelou's 2015 stamp featured the line "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song" by poet Joan Walsh Anglund. Angelou quoted it in some interviews, but didn't take credit for it. (The U.S. Postal Service said it was unaware of the error until a newspaper pointed it out after the fact.) This is not the only writing misattributed to Angelou. At least two popular poems making the rounds on the internet have been wrongly attributed to her.


Originally Published: Apr 4, 2017