Nora Sawyer/Sausalito Historical Society
Thick planks stretched across the muddy shoreline, forming a bridge over the “sullen-looking” water of Richardson Bay. In the misty near-dark, lights gleamed out from the windows of a large ferryboat, illuminating a tall, slim woman in a flowered dress – “chic, but not formal” – that she’d borrowed from her mother.
The woman walked up the steps and peered through the glass. Inside, a “short sturdy man” bustled around a long wooden table, lighting candles. She rapped on the door; the man looked up and smiled. It was an overcast Monday night in 1954, and Maya Angelou was joining Jean Varda for dinner.
Though destined for fame as a memoirist and poet, Angelou was at the time an up-and-coming performer, dancing and singing calypso at a San Francisco nightclub, the Purple Onion, where she shared a bill with other “hip” acts including Phyllis Diller and the Kingston Trio.
Angelou had heard of Varda, a larger than life character famous in San Francisco art circles, but they’d never met. She had been surprised when he called and invited her to supper, promising “an ambrosia fit for a princess.” Nonetheless, she agreed to join him for dinner on the ferryboat Vallejo.
Over wine, Varda charmed her with legends from his Greek childhood and tales of his adventures as a young artist in Paris. Soon, she became part of Varda’s “crowd of intimates,” sailing and attending regular parties on the Vallejo, which she described as “a happy child’s dream castle.”
Their friendship’s influence stretched beyond Richardson Bay. “Yanko allowed me to enter a world strange and fanciful,” she later wrote. “I found that some of the magic of his world stayed around my shoulders.”
Angelou’s career took her to New York, and then a European tour as principal dancer in the cast of Porgy and Bess. She returned to the U.S. in 1957. “The year’s popular book was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road,” she wrote, “and its title was an apt description of our national psyche. We were traveling, but no one knew our destination nor our arrival date.”
With her ten-year-old son, Guy, Angelou “joined the beatnik brigade,” moving onto a houseboat at Waldo Point, where she “went barefoot, wore jeans, and both of us wore rough-dried clothes.” The Navy barge, owned by the poet Gerd Stern, was “a commune, back in the fifties before anyone knew about communes,” which they shared with an “ichthyologist, a musician, a wife, and an inventor.”
Angelou noted that even though she and Guy were the commune’s only Black residents, “the houseboat offered me a respite from racial tensions, and gave my son an opportunity to be around whites who did not think of him as too exotic to need correction, nor so common as to be ignored.”
Angelou continued to dance and sing, appearing at The Purple Onion and a new club called The Hollow Egg. The Sausalito News reported that she preferred simple sheath dresses for her nightclub performances. “I could have had gorgeous costumes, but then I wouldn’t have been sure if people came to see me or the costumes,” she said. “At the Purple Onion, I only wore black or white burlap.”
Stern, who also managed and briefly dated Angelou, described her as “a great talent. . . She was a performer. She could magnetize an audience; wonderful, wonderful onstage personality. . . She was over six foot tall and skinny, and when she moved people just gasped.”
She also participated in Sausalito’s art scene, developing choreography and dancing in a production by composer Harry Partch. She even appeared at the Sausalito Arts Festival “with the Boobam Bamboo Drum ensemble in a series of dances from the West Indies.”
Her stay proved short. After less than a year, she “began to yearn for privacy, wall to wall carpets, and manicures.” She was also concerned for her son, who was “becoming rambunctious and young-animal wild,” and noted that “because my friends treated him like a young adult, he was forgetting his place in the scheme of our mother-son relationship.” So they moved on, first to Los Angeles and then to New York, where she joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild.
Angelou would go on to become an acclaimed author, publishing her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1970. After reading her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993, her star rose even higher. ”I think my delivery (at the inauguration) had its own impact,” Angelou told Entertainment Weekly. “Before, I could pass 100 people and maybe 10 would recognize me. Now, maybe 40 percent recognize me. If they hear my voice, another 30 percent do too.”
Though writing brought her fame, Angelou still thought of herself as a dancer. “To me, dance and poetry are much the same,” she said in a 1974 interview. “Everything dances.”