spacer Maya Angelou and Billie Holiday
Maya Angelou born 1928
Billie Holiday 1915-1959

After Maya Angelou returned from her European tour as premier dancer in Porgy and Bess, she . . . . took a job as a nightclub singer, and moved with her son into a bungalow in Hollywood's swank Laurel Canyon. It was June 1958. One morning her voice coach . . . .dropped by. Billie Holiday was in town; he would bring her over if Maya thought she could handle it. "What's to handle?" Angelou asked. "She's a woman. I'm a woman." At first Angelou found her guest hostile, her conversation a melee of sarcasm and obscenities. But after lunch--fried chicken, rice, Arkansas gravy--Holiday softened. Maya was a nice lady, and a good cook, too, she said. . . . Holiday spent five days with Angelou, and not until the end did she revert to her angry self. On the last evening . . . she shouted [Angelou] off the stage. Lady Day was some complicated woman. At parting she left Angelou with a two-edged prophecy: "You're going to be famous," she said. "But it won't be for singing."

[Adapted from First Encounters by Edward and Nancy Sorel (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1994)]

Ink and watercolor, 1990
Original illustration for The Atlantic, September 1990
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; gift of Edward and Nancy Sorel
© Edward Sorel

Click here for enlargement


Past Exhibitions | National Portrait Gallery Home

Willie Mays and Leo Durocher Book empty