11 Things That May Surprise You About Maya Angelou's Extraordinary Life

A renaissance woman who approached her work with glee and fervor, Dr. Maya Angelou was the true example of a life well-lived. As we celebrate her what would have been her 88th birthday, here are 11 surprising facts about Maya Angelou's extraordinary journey.  

Yolanda Sangweni May, 29, 2014

1 of 11 G. Marshall Wilson/ Ebony Collection via AP

Asked why she wanted the job at 15, Dr. Angelou told Time, "The women wore beautiful uniforms, and they had this change belt--click, click, click, click. I went to apply. No one would even give me an application. My mother said, "Take one of your big Russian books and sit there. I did, for two weeks--I hated it. But I didn't want to go home and tell my mother I wasn't woman enough. Finally, a man asked me, "Why do you want this?" I said, "I like the uniforms. I like people." I got the job."

2 of 11 Moneta Sleet, Jr./ Ebony Collection via AP Images

Dr. Angelou joined in 1975, becoming the African-American member of the the Director's Guild of America. She directed her first feature film, Down in the Delta, starring Alfre Woodard, in 1998.

3 of 11 Moneta Sleet, Jr./ Ebony Collection via AP Images

Maya—born Marguerite Ann Johnson—married Tosh Angelos, a Greek-American sailor in 1949. After her marriage collapsed three years later, she changed her name to Angelou as a play on Angelos' last name following the advice of her drama coach.

4 of 11 Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

"Our bodies were perfectly matched," she told ESSENCE in 2010. "We made our own costumes. He had a leopard-print G-string to match what I'm wearing here. We danced for $30 a night at clubs in San Francisco. He would go out first, but I was young and used to shake that thing and just run 'em crazy."

5 of 11 Moneta Sleet, Jr./ Ebony Collection via AP Images

Maya began her professional career as a dancer and singer. She was also a fry cook at a hamburger joint, a madam for prostitutes (she recounted this experience in Gather Together in My Name), a magazine editor for The Arab Observer (1962-63) and The Africa Review (1964-66), and a university administrator at the University of Ghana, where she met Malcolm X.

6 of 11 The Washington Post

Maya was living and working in Ghana when she met Malcolm X in 1964. He convinced her to work with him on the newly-founded Organization of African-American Unity. "We became great friends," she told ESSENCE in 2010. But shortly after arriving back home to the U.S., Angelou was devastated to learn of Malcolm X's assassination. "[People] should know he had an incredible sense of humor," Angelou has said.

7 of 11 Getty Images

Maya was living and working as an editor in Cairo in 1962 when she met the then-revolutionary Mandela while she was married to South African activist Vusumzi L. Make. They resumed their friendship when Mandela was released from prison in 1990. When Mandela passed, Angelou wrote the poem "His Day Is Done" in his honor. 

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"I'm terrified, terrified," she told PEOPLE in 1993, shortly before she had to read a commissioned poem at Bill Clinton's inauguration. "I can hardly sleep," she added. Clinton had requested the poem on December 1, 1992 and Dr. Angelou had to have it ready by January 20, 1993. She delivered the unforgettable "On the Pulse of Morning."

9 of 11 Jemal Countess/WireImage

Asked who her favorite singers were, Dr. Angelou told Southern Living, "Martina McBride, Brad Paisley, and Ronnie Dunn. And I especially like Toby Keith. He's got a wonderful sense of humor and a sense of patriotism."

10 of 11 Moneta Sleet, Jr./ Ebony Collection via AP Images

Dr. Angelou married three times in her life. The first, to Greek carpenter Tosh Angelos (1949-52), the second to South African activist Vusumzi L. Make (1960-63) and the third to carpenter Paul du Feu (1973-80). "I know that I'm not the easiest person to live with. The challenge I put on myself is so great that the person I live with feels himself challenged. I bring a lot to bear and I don't know how not to," she once told PEOPLE. "If the man has the wit and the courage to pursue me, then I'll respond."

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After being raped by her mother's boyfriend when she was 8, Dr. Angelou did not speak for five years. It was then, she told PEOPLE, that she turned her body into "an ear" in order to hear and communicate.