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When Maya Angelou met Billie Holiday

FIRST ENCOUNTERS SOREL AND SOREL Two women from the wrong side of the tracks who found fame. The third in a series of memorable meetings drawn by the distinguished American illustrator Edward Sorel and written by Nancy Caldwell Sorel. Last week, Oscar Wil Charlotte Corday and Jean- Paul Marat
After Maya Angelou returned from her European tour as premier dancer in Porgy and Bess, she let her hair grow "natural", 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, Frederick "Wilkie" Wilkerson, 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."

But her nonchalance quickly gave way to nerves. Billie Holiday was more than a woman; she was Lady Day, she was legend. She had teamed up with the greats - Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Count Basie - and broken ground as a black woman singer with an all-white band. Then there was the flip side - the dark past, the time served, the long addictions to drugs and alcohol, all too apparent in the ravaged figure now walking in the door.

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. When Wilkerson got up to leave, she opted to stay. Angelou felt herself being watched. "You a square, ain't you?" Holiday said. Angelou admitted that she was.

Guy, aged 12, came home from school. He was introduced, and proved charming. Holiday forgot that she couldn't stand children ("little crumb-crushers") and followed him out to water the lawn. She told him about all the low- down men she had known in her life, but she was careful to curb her profanity. After dinner she sang him a good-night song - "You're My Thrill".

Holiday spent five days with Angelou, and not until the end did she revert to her angry self. On the last evening she was abusive to Guy; she accompanied Maya to the nightclub and shouted her 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."

Taken from 'First Encounters', published by Knopf, New York