One good look at the color of Maya Angelou's skin and the fellow who owned the two-bedroom bungalow decided it was no longer for rent. This happened in 1958 in Laurel Canyon, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. It was happening all over the country, of course. Black men and women would telephone someone who'd listed a property for rent. They'd ask if the property was available. They'd be told yes. They'd show up in person. They'd be told no.
At the time, Maya Angelou was, according to her best-selling book "The Heart of a Woman," a slightly desperate social climber and a "little-known nightclub singer who was said to have more determination than talent." She wanted to live in Laurel Canyon, just 15 minutes from Hollywood, but the fellow who owned the two-bedroom bungalow didn't want a black tenant.
Fortunately for Maya Angelou, she had a couple of sympathetic white friends - Joe and Atara Morhaim. They'd met earlier in Paris, where Joe Morhaim, a writer, had been doing that American-writer-in-Paris thing, and Angelou had starred with several other African-Americans in a production of "Porgy and Bess." The Morhaims had a son, Dan (now a physician and Maryland state delegate from Baltimore County).
Joe Morhaim rented the bungalow for Maya Angelou.
On moving day, they all showed up on the front steps - the Morhaims, Angelou and her son, Guy.
"The landlord shook hands with Joe, welcomed him, then looked over Joe's shoulder and recognized me," Angelou writes. "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."
Nearly 40 years later, Maya Angelou, now one of the nation's most accomplished and respected poets, and Joe Morhaim, longtime writer himself, had a reunion in Baltimore. It was arranged by Dan Morhaim while Angelou was in town recently to perform with Ashford & Simpson at the Meyerhoff.
"I had only asked if we could get a copy of her book autographed," Dan Morhaim says. "It turned into a two-and-a-half-hour lunch at the [Harbor Inn Pier 5], where she was staying. She and my father spoke French, and recalled the glory days of Paris."
Dan Morhaim's wife, Shelley, was there, along with their two daughters, Sarah, 16, and Liz, 13.
"I really wanted my daughters to meet Maya Angelou," Dan Morhaim says. "She was absolutely charming and told great stories and had some interesting advice for my daughters. She told them that they are the next generation and must carry on."
"You two young ladies have to live your dreams," Maya Angelou said. "And you have to do the things you believe in."
As their grandfather had done that day in 1958 on the steps of the bungalow in Laurel Canyon.
Maya Angelou told the girls they could be anything they wished to be in life, as long as they believed in themselves and worked hard. "And," the poet added, "you have to party every Saturday night."