Maya Angelou Invests in Harlem
Three years ago, famed poet Maya Angelou decided to buy a Brownstone in Harlem. The 4,000 square foot house sits on 120th Street in Mount Morris Park. With high ceilings, five bedrooms and three full bathrooms, the house has become a home away from her 18 room home located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Her front parlor is not unlike Ms. Angelou herself: vivid and a little larger than life (though a bit frail, she is six feet tall). Oversize armchairs and couches are upholstered in raw silk in shades of lime, tangerine, cherry, grape and bright yellow. The grouping gives new meaning to the phrase eye candy, but it wasn’t candy Ms. Angelou had in mind when she chose them. “I wanted the room to look like a bowl of summer fruit,” she said. And to accentuate the point, a bowl of perfectly formed glass fruit in jewel-like colors sits in the center of a marble-topped table, topped by a single glass cherry.
The house is 20 feet wide and 50 feet deep. The dining room is behind the parlor, dominated by a round glass-topped table that seats 10 in bright red lacquered chairs. Painted clouds drift overhead on the light blue ceiling. Ms. Angelou still enjoys cooking in the well-equipped kitchen off the dining room; steak and kidney pie with mashed potatoes is a favorite. At the back of the house is her favorite spot, the breakfast nook — sunlit and painted marigold with terra cotta-colored trim. From its black-and-white checkered farm table, she fields calls, jots on ever-present yellow legal pads and issues instructions to her assistant, Lydia Stuckey, who lives and travels with her, staying in a ground-floor bedroom when they are at the Harlem house. Ms. Angelou loves several other spaces in her house, but, she says, “Sooner or later, I end up back here.”
THESE days, the nook occasionally serves as a studio for her newest venture: a weekly talk show on the Oprah & Friends Channel on XM Satellite Radio. “It’s the first radio show I’ve had,” she said, gesturing to a pair of headphones and a pile of audio taping equipment stacked nearby. Sex, religion, race, music and food are all fodder for the program.
An elegant stairway arises from the front entryway, although an elevator carries Ms. Angelou to the blue master bedroom (years of professional dancing have taken a toll on her hips and knees). A 46-inch TV faces her crisply dressed king-size bed, and a 15-foot bay window framed by burgundy brocade draperies overlooks 120th Street. A glimpse outside reveals a row of Victorian lampposts lining the block, which carry red banners that proclaim “Welcome to Mount Morris Park Historic District.” Another bedroom serves as a dressing room.
On the top floor are a laundry room and the two other bedrooms, where Ms. Angelou’s son Guy Johnson, 61, and his family, stay when they visit from Oakland, Calif. For their Christmas visit, Ms. Angelou planned a special treat for her two great-grandchildren, Caylin Johnson, 8, and Brandon Bailey Johnson, 5 — a lighted seven-foot figure from “The Nutcracker” in the yard.
Inside, eye-catching artifacts of rarer quality are on display everywhere. They vary from luminous paintings of African women ferrying babies in slings to charming drawings of little African-American girls wearing yarn ribbons in their hair, resembling illustrations from the 1950s. African masks, quilts, photographs and sculpture sit on tables, hang on walls, line stairways. Collages by Phoebe Beasley are scattered through the rooms. “I bought most of the sculpture in Ghana 45 years ago, and I’ve been collecting Phoebes since the early 1970s,” Ms. Angelou said.
There are works, too, by the Harlem artist Romare Bearden. A 4-by-7-foot fabric piece by Faith Ringgold, who specializes in painted story quilts, was a gift from Oprah Winfrey that was commissioned for Ms. Angelou’s 60th birthday. And awaiting proper placement upstairs is a framed two-page newspaper spread that appeared in The New York Times on Jan. 21, 1993, including a photograph of Ms. Angelou delivering her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” written for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
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