Great Encounters #36: When Maya Angelou met Billie Holiday

May 29th, 2014

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“Great Encounters” are book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons. This edition tells the story of the 1957 meeting of Billie Holiday and Maya Angelou, who at the time was a calypso singer/dancer, living with her son Guy in Los Angeles

Excerpted from The Heart of a Woman, by Maya Angelou


Laurel Canyon was the official residential area of Hollywood, just ten minutes from Schwab’s drugstore and fifteen minutes from the Sunset Strip.

Its most notable feature was its sensuality. Red-roofed, Moorish-style houses nestled seductively among madrone trees. The odor of eucalyptus was layered in the moist air. Flowers bloomed in a riot of crimsons, carnelian, pinks, fuchsia and sunburst gold. Jays and whippoorwills, swallows and bluebirds, squeaked, whistled and sang on branches which faded from ominous dark green to a brackish yellow. Movie stars, movie starlets, producers and directors who lived in the neighborhood were as voluptuous as their natural and unnatural environment.

The few black people who lived in Laurel Canyon, including Billy Eckstein, Billy Daniels and Herb Jeffries, were rich, famous and light-skinned enough to pass, at least for portuguese. I, on the other hand, was a little-known nightclub singer, who was said to have more determination than talent. I wanted desperately to live in the glamorous surroundings. I accepted as fictitious the tales of amateurs being discovered at lunch counters, yet I did believe it was important to be in the right place at the right time, and no place seemed so right to me in 1958 as Laurel Canyon.

When I answered a “For Rent” ad, the landlord told me the house had been taken that very morning. I asked Atara and Joe Morheim, a sympathetic white couple, to try to rent the house for me. They succeeded in doing so.

On moving day, the Morheims, Frederick “Wilkie” Wilkerson, my friend and voice coach, Guy, and I appeared on the steps of a modest, overpriced two-bedroom bungalow.

The landlord shook hands with Joe, welcomed him, then looked over Joe’s shoulder and recognized me. Shock and revulsion made him recoil. He snatched his hand away from Joe. “You bastard. I know what you’re doing. I ought to sue you.”

Joe, who always seemed casual to the point of being totally disinterested, surprised me with his emotional response. “You fascist, you’d better not mention suing anybody. This lady here should sue you. If she wants to, I’ll testify in court for her. Now. get the hell out of the way so we can move in.”

The landlord brushed past us, throwing his anger into the perfumed air. “I should have known. You dirty Jew. You bastard, you.”

We laughed nervously and carried my furniture into the house.

Weeks later I had painted the small house a sparkling white, enrolled Guy into the local school, received only a few threatening telephone calls, and bought myself a handsome dated automobile. The car, a sea-green, ten-year-old Chrysler, had a parquet dashboard, and splintery wooden doors. It could not compete with the new chrome of my neighbors’ Cadillacs and Buicks, but it had an elderly elegance, and driving in it with the top down, I felt more like an eccentric artist than a poor black woman who was living above her means, out of her element, and removed from her people.

* * *

ONE June morning, Wilkie walked into my house and asked, “Do you want to meet Billie Holiday?”

“Of course. Who wouldn’t? Is she working in town?”

“No, just passing through from Honolulu. I’m going down to her hotel. I’ll bring her back here if you think you can handle it.”

“What’s to handle? She’s a woman. I’m a woman.”

Wilkie laughed, the chuckle rolling inside his chest and out of his mouth in billows of sound. “Pooh, you’re sassy. Billie may like you. In that case, it’ll be all right. She might not, and then that’s your ass.”

“That could work the other way around. I might not like her either.”

Wilkie laughed again. “I said you’re sassy. Have you got some gin?”

There was one bottle, which had been gathering dust for months.

Wilkie stood, “Give me the keys. She’ll like riding in a convertible.”

I didn’t become nervous until he left. Then the reality of Lady Day coming to my house slammed into me and started my body to quaking. It was pretty well known that she used heavy drugs, and I hardly smoked grass anymore. How could I tell her she couldn’t shoot up or sniff up in my house? It was also rumored that she had lesbian affairs. If she propositioned me, how could I reject her without making her think I was rejecting her? Her temper was legendary in show business, and I didn’t want to arouse it. I vacuumed, emptied ashtrays and dusted, knowing that a clean house would in no way influence Billie Holiday.

I saw her through the screen door, and my nervousness turned quickly to shock. The bloated face held only a shadow of its familiar prettiness. When she walked into the house, her eyes were a flat black, and when Wilkie introduced us, her hand lay in mine like a child’s rubber toy.

“How you do, Maya? You got a nice house.” She hadn’t even looked around. It was the same slow, lean, whining voice which had frequently been my sole companion on lonely nights.

I brought gin and sat listening as Wilkie and Billie talked about the old days, the old friends, in Washington, D.C. The names they mentioned and the escapades over which they gloated meant nothing to me, but I was caught into the net of their conversation by the complexity of Billie’s language. Experience with street people, hustlers, gamblers and petty criminals had exposed me to cursing. Years in night-club dressing rooms, in cabarets and juke joints had taught me every combination of profanity, or so I thought. Billie Holiday’s language was a mixture of mockery and vulgarity that caught me without warning. Although she used the old common words, they were in new arrangements, and spoken in that casual tone which seemed to drag itself, rasping, across the ears. When she finally turned to include me in her conversation, I knew that nothing I could think of would hold her attention.

“Wilkie tells me you’re a singer. You a jazz singer too? You any good?”

“No, not really. I don’t have good pitch.”

“Do you want to be a great singer? You want to compete with me?”

“No. I don’t want to compete with anybody. I’m an entertainer, making a living.”

“As an entertainer? You mean showing some tittie and shaking your bootie?”

“I don’t have to do all that. I wouldn’t do that to keep a job. No matter what.”

“You better say Joe, ’cause you sure don’t know.”

Wilkie came to my defense just as I was wondering how to get the woman and her hostility out of my house.

“Billie, you ought to see her before you talk. She sings folk songs, calypso and blues. Now, you know me. If I say she’s good, I mean it. She’s good, and she’s nice enough to invite us to lunch, so get up off her. Or you can walk your ass right down this hill. And you know I’m not playing about that shit.”

She started laughing. “Wilkie, you haven’t changed a damn thing but last year’s drawers. I knew you’d put my ass out on the street sooner or later.” She turned to me and gave me a fragile smile.

“What we going to eat, baby?” I hadn’t thought about food, but I had a raw chicken in the refrigerator. “I’m going to fry a chicken. Fried chicken, rice and an Arkansas gravy.”

“Chicken and rice is always good. But fry that sucker. Fry him till he’s ready. I can’t stand no goddam rare chicken.”

“Billie, I don’t claim to be a great singer, but I know how to mix groceries. I have never served raw chicken.” I had to defend myself even if it meant she was going to curse me out.

“O.K., baby. O.K. Just telling you, I can’t stand to see blood on the bone of a chicken. I take your word you know what you’re doing. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

I retreated to the kitchen. Wilkie’s and Billie’s laughter floated over the clangs of pots and the sputtering oil.

I couldn’t imagine how the afternoon was going to end. Maybe I’d be lucky; they would drink all the gin and Wilkie would take her to a bar on Sunset.

She sat at the table, gingerly. Each move of her body seemed to be considered before she attempted execution.

“You set a pretty table and you ain’t got a husband?”

I told her I lived alone with my son. She turned with the first sharp action I had seen since she came into my house. “I can’t stand children. The little crumb-crushers eat you out of house and home and never say, ‘Dog, kiss my foot.’ ”

“My son is not like that. He’s intelligent and polite.”

“Yeah. Well, I can’t stand to be around any of the little bastards. This is good chicken.”

I looked at Wilkie, who nodded to me.

Wilkie said, “Billie, I’m going to take you to a joint on Western, where you can get anything you want.”

She didn’t allow the full mouth of chicken to prevent her from speaking. “Hell, nigger, if I wanted to go to a joint don’t you think I could have found one without you? I know every place in every town in this country that sells anything that crosses your mind. I wanted to come to a nice lady’s house. She’s a good cook, too. So I’m happy as a sissy in a CCC camp. Let me have that drumstick.”

While I put away the remaining chicken, she talked about Hawaii.

“People love ‘the islands, the islands.’ Hell, all that shit is a bunch of water and a bunch of sand. So the sun shines all the time. What the hell else is the sun supposed to do?”

“But didn’t you find it beautiful? The soft air, the flowers, the palm trees and the people? The Hawaiians are so pretty.”

“They just a bunch of niggers. Niggers running around with no clothes on. And that music shit they play. Uhn, uhn.” She imitated the sound of a ukulele.

“Naw. I’d rather be in New York. Everybody in New York City is a son of a bitch, but at least they don’t pretend they’re something else.”

Back in the living room, Wilkie looked at me, then at his watch. “I have a student coming in a half-hour. Come on, Billie, I’ll take you back to your hotel. Thanks, Maya. We have to go.”

Billie looked up from her drink and said, “Speak for yourself. All I got to do is stay black and die.”

“Well, I brought you here, so I’ll take you back. Anyway, Maya’s probably got something to do.”

They both stared at me. I thought for a moment and decided not to lie.

“No. I’m free. I’ll take her back to the hotel when she wants to go.”

Wilkie shook his head; “O.K., Pooh.” His face was saying, “I hope you know what you’re doing.” Of course I didn’t, but I was more curious than afraid.

Billie tossed her head. “So I’ll see you when I see you, Wilkie. Hope it won’t be another twenty years.”

Wilkie bent and kissed her, gave me a very strange look and walked down to his car.

We spent the first few moments in silence. Billie was examining me, and I was wondering what subject I could introduce that would interest her.

Finally, she asked, “You a square, ain’t you?”

I knew what she meant. “Yes.”

“Then how come you invited me to your house?”

Wilkie really invited her, but I had welcomed his invitation.

“Because you are a great artist and I respect you.”

“Bullshit. You just wanted to see what I looked like, up close.” She interrupted my denial. “That’s all right. That don’t hurt my feelings. You see me now, though, you ain’t seeing nothing. I used to be a bitch on wheels. Lots of folks thought I was pretty. Anyway, that’s what they said. ‘Course, you know how folks talk. They’ll tell you anything to get what they want. ‘Course, there are them that’ll just strong-arm you and take it. I know a lot of them, too.” Suddenly she withdrew into her thoughts and I sat quiet, not wanting to break into her reverie.

She raised her head and turned half away from me, toward the window. When she spoke it was in a conspiratorial whisper. “Men. Men can really do it to you. Women would too, if they had the nerve. They are just as greedy; they’re just scared to let on.”

I had heard stories of Billie being beaten by men, cheated by drug pushers and hounded by narcotics agents, still I thought she was the most paranoid person I had ever met.

“Don’t you have any friends? People you can trust?”

She jerked her body toward me. “Of course I have friends. Good friends. A person who don’t have friends might as well be dead.” She had relaxed, but my question put her abruptly on the defense again. I was wondering how to put her at ease. I heard Guy’s footsteps on the stairs.

“My son is coming home.”

“Oh. Shit. How old you say he is?”

“He’s twelve and a very nice person.”

Guy bounded into the room, radiating energy.

“Hey, Momhowareya? Whatwereyoudoing? What’sfordinner? CanIgoovertoTony’s? CanIgoovertoTony’saftermyhomework?”

“Guy, I have a guest. This is Miss Billie Holiday.” He turned and saw Billie, but was accelerating too fast to read the distaste on her face.

“Billie Holiday? Oh. Yes. I know about you. Good after noon, Miss Holiday.” He walked over and stuck out his hand. ”I’m happy to know you. I read about you in a magazine. They said the police had been giving you a hard time. And that you’ve had a very hard life. Is that true? What did they do to you? Is there anything you can do back? I mean, sue them or anything?”

Billie was too stunned at the barrage of words to speak.

Guy reached down and took her hand and shook it. The words never stopped tumbling out of his mouth.

“Maybe they expect too much from you. I know something about that. When I come from school the first thing I have to do, after I change school clothes, of course, is go out and water the lawn. Have you not noticed we live on the side of a mountain, and when I water, if there is any wind, the water gets blown back in your face. But if I come in wet, my mother thinks I was playing with the hose. I can’t control the wind, you know. Will you come out and talk to me, when I’ve changed? I’d really like to know everything about you.” He dropped her hand and ran out of the room, shouting, ”I’ll be back in a minute.”

Billie’s face was a map of astonishment. After a moment, she looked at me. “Damn. He’s something, ain’t he? Smart. What’s he want to be?”

“Sometimes a doctor, and sometimes a fireman. It depends on the day you ask him.”

“Good. Don’t let him go into show business. Black men in show business is bad news. When they can’t get as far as they deserve, they start taking it out on their women. What you say his name is?”

“Guy, Guy Johnson.”

“Your name is Angelou. His name is Johnson? You don’t look old enough to have married twice.”

Guy was born to me when I was an unmarried teenager, so I had given him my father’s name. I didn’t want Billie to know that much about our history.

I said, “Well, that’s life, isn’t it?”

She nodded and mumbled, “Yeah, life’s a bitch, a bitch on wheels.”

Guy burst into the room again, wearing old jeans and a torn T-shirt. “Ready, Miss Holiday? You want to do anything? Come on. I won’t let you get wet.”

Billie rose slowly, with obvious effort.

I decided it was time for me to step in. “Guy, Miss Holiday is here to talk to me. Go out and do your chores and later you can talk to her.”

Billie was erect. “Naw, I’m going out with him. But how the hell can you let him wear raggedy clothes like that? You living in a white district. Everybody be having their eyes on him. Guy, tomorrow, if you mamma will take me, I’m going to the store and buy you some nice things. You don’t have to look like you going to pick cotton just ’cause you doing a little work. Come on, let’s go.”

Guy held the door for her as she picked her way across the room and to the steps. A minute later, I watched from the window as my son directed the hose toward the rose garden and Billie maintained her balance, although the heels of her baby-doll pumps were sinking into the soft earth.

She stayed for dinner, saying that I could drop her off on my way to work. She talked to Guy while I cooked. Surprisingly, he sat quiet, listening as she spoke of Southern towns, police, agents, good musicians and mean men she had known. She carefully avoided profanity and each time she slipped, she’d excuse herself to Guy, saying, “It’s just another bad habit I got,” After dinner, when the baby-sitter arrived, Billie told Guy that she was going to sing him a good-night song.

They went to his room, and I followed. Guy sat on the side of his bed and Billie began, a cappella, “You’re My Thrill,” an old song heavy with sensuous meaning. She sang as if she was starved for sex and only the boy, looking at her out of bored young eyes, could give her satisfaction.

I watched and listened from the door, recording every sound, firmly setting in my mind the rusty voice, the angle of her body, and Guy’s look of tolerance (he’d rather be reading or playing a word game).

When I dropped her off at the Sunset Colonial Hotel, she told me to pick her up the next morning, early. I was amazed to hear her say that she was having trouble sleeping, so she might as well bring her Chihuahua along and spend the time with me.

For the next four days, Billie came to my house in the early mornings, talked all day long and sang a bedtime song to Guy, and stayed until I went to work. She said I was restful to be around because I was so goddam square. Although she continued to curse in Guy’s absence, when he walked into the house her language not only changed, she made considerable effort to form her words with distinction.

On the night before she was leaving for New York, she told Guy she was going to sing “Strange Fruit” as her last song. We sat at the dining room table while Guy stood in the doorway.

Billie talked and sang in a hoarse, dry tone the well-known protest song. Her rasping voice and phrasing literally enchanted me. I saw the black bodies hanging from Southern trees. I saw the lynch victims’ blood glide from the leaves down the trunks and onto the roots.

Guy interrupted, “How can there be blood at the root?” I made a hard face and warned him, “Shut up, Guy, just listen.” Billie had continued under the interruption, her voice vibrating over harsh edges.

She painted a picture of a lovely land, pastoral and bucolic, then added eyes bulged and mouths twisted, onto the Southern landscape.

Guy broke into her song. “What’s a pastoral scene, Miss Holiday?” Billie looked up slowly and studied Guy for a second. Her face became cruel, and when she spoke her voice was scornful. “It means when the crackers are killing the niggers. It means when they take a little nigger like you and snatch off his nuts and shove them down his goddam throat. That’s what it means.”

The thrust of rage repelled Guy and stunned me.

Billie continued, “That’s what they do. That’s a goddam pastoral scene.”

Guy gave us both a frozen look and said, “Excuse me, I’m going to bed.” He turned and walked away.

I lied and said it was time for me to go to work. Billie didn’t hear either statement.

I went to Guy’s room and apologized to him for Billie’s behavior. He smiled sarcastically as if I had been the one who had shouted at him, and he offered a cool cheek for my goodnight kiss.

In the car I tried to explain to Billie why she had been wrong but she refused to understand. She said, “I didn’t lie, did I? Did I lie on the crackers? What’s wrong with telling the truth?”

She decided that she didn’t want to be taken to the hotel. She wanted to accompany me to the night club and catch my act. Efforts to dissuade her were unsuccessful.

I took her into the club and found her a front-row seat and went to my dressing room.

Jimmy Truitt of the Lester Horton Dance Troupe was in costume for their first number.

“Hey”-Jimmy was grinning like a child-“Billie Holiday is out front. And you can’t believe what’s happening.”

The other dancers gathered around.

“The great Billie Holiday is sitting in the front row, and a little dog is drinking out of her glass.” I had gotten so used to Pepe I had forgotten that Billie hardly made a move without him.

The dancers took over the -stage, sliding, burning brightly in a Latin routine. When they finished, I was introduced.

After my first song, I spoke directly to the audience.

“Ladies and gentlemen. It is against the policy of the club to mention any celebrity who might be in the audience, for fear that an unseen person might be missed. But tonight I am violating that custom. I think everyone will be excited to know that Miss Billie Holiday is present.”

The crowd responded to my announcement with an approving roar. People stood cheering, looking around the room for Billie. She looked straight at me, then, picking up Pepe, stood up, turned to the audience and bowed her head two or three times as if she was agreeing with them. She sat down without smiling.

My next song was an old blues, which I began singing with only a bass accompaniment. The music was a dirge and the lyrics tragic. I had my eyes closed when suddenly, like a large glass shattering, Billie’s voice penetrated the song.

“Stop that bitch. Stop her, goddamit. Stop that bitch. She sounds just like my goddam mamma.”

I stopped and opened my eyes and saw Billie pick up Pepe and head through the crowd toward the women’s toilet. I thanked the audience, asked the orchestra leader to continue playing and headed for the women’s lavatory. Twice in one night the woman had upset me. Well, she wasn’t going to get away with it. She was going to learn that a “goddam square” could defend herself.

I had my hand on the knob when the door burst open and a very pale middle-aged white woman tore past me.

I entered and found Billie examining herself in the mirror. I began, “Billie, let me tell you something …”

She was still looking at her reflection but she said, “Aw, that’s all right about the song. You can’t help how you sound. Most colored women sound alike. Less they trying to sound white.” She started laughing. “Did you see that old bitch hit it out of here?”

“I bumped into a woman just now.”

“That was her. She was sitting on the toilet and when I opened the door, she screamed at me, ‘Shut that door.’ I screamed right back, ‘Bitch, if you wanted it shut, you should have locked the goddam thing.’ Then she comes out of there and asked me, ‘Ain’t you Billie Holiday?’ I told her, ‘Bitch, I didn’t ask you your name,’ You should have seen her fly.” She laughed again, grinning into the mirror.

I said, “Billie, you know that woman might have been an old-time fan of yours.”

She turned, holding on to Pepe and her purse and her jacket. “You know when you introduced me, you know how all those crackers stood up? You know why they were standing up?”

I said they were honoring her.

She said, “Shit. You don’t know a damn thing. They were all standing up, looking around. They wanted to see a nigger who had been in jail for dope. I’m going to tell you one more thing. You want to be famous, don’t you?”

I admitted I did.

“You’re going to be famous. But it won’t be for singing. Now, wait, you already know you can’t sing all that good. But you’re going to be real famous. Well, you better start asking yourself right now, ‘When I get famous, who can I trust?’ All crackers is bad and niggers ain’t much better. Just take care of your son. Keep him with you and keep on telling him he’s the smartest thing God made. Maybe he’ll grow up without hating you. Remember Billie Holiday told you, ‘You can’t get too high for somebody to bring you down.’ ”

Outside, I found a taxi for her. A few months later, she died in a New York hospital. All the jazz and rhythm-and-blues stations had oily-voiced commentators extolling the virtues of the great artist whose like would not be seen or heard again. Jazz buffs with glorious vocabularies wrote long and often boring tributes to the pulchritudinous Lady Day, her phrasing and incredibly intricate harmonics. I would remember forever the advice of a lonely sick woman, with a waterfront mouth, who sang pretty songs to a twelve-year-old boy.

For weeks after Billie’s visit, Guy treated me coolly. Neither of us mentioned the shouting scene, but he acted as if I had betrayed him. I had allowed a stranger to shout and curse at him and had not come to his defense. School semester was drawing to a close, and when I asked him whether he wanted to go to summer school or camp, or just stay home and hike the canyons, he answered, from the distance of indifference, that he had not made up his mind.

It was obvious that our home life was not going to return to normal until he aired his grievance.

“Guy, what did you think of Billie Holiday?”

“She was O.K., I guess.”

“That’s all you thought?”

“Well, she sure cursed a lot. If she curses that way all the time, it’s no wonder people don’t like her.”

“So you didn’t like her?”

“Anybody who curses all the time is stupid.”

I had heard him use a few unacceptable words when talking in the backyard with his friend Tony. “Guy, don’t you use some bad words yourself?”

“But I’m a boy, and boys say certain things. When we go hiking or in the gym. We say things you’re not supposed to say in front of girls, but that’s different.”

I didn’t think that this was a time to explain the unfairness of a double standard. He walked to his room, and standing in the doorway without turning back to face me) he said, “Oh yeah. And when I grow up, I’m not going to let anybody-no matter how famous she is-I’m not going to let anybody curse at my children.”

He slammed the door.


Excerpted from The Heart of a Woman, by Maya Angelou



 Angelou’s use of fiction-writing techniques such as that found in this autobiographical excerpt has often resulted in the placement of her books in the genre of “autobiographical fiction.”

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3 comments on “Great Encounters #36: When Maya Angelou met Billie Holiday”

    1. It’s not an article. It’s an excerpt from Maya Angelou’s autobiographical series, and obviously written beautifully. I can’t imagine what you could have disliked about it.

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