Maya Angelou’s time in San Diego during the 1940s isn’t well known. But it became a curious line in many of the obituaries noting her death on Wednesday. People magazine described her as “a madam.” That’s only a small part of the story.
‘Are You in the Life?’
Thirty-seven pages of her 1974 autobiography “Gather Together in My Name” are devoted to Angelou’s stint in San Diego, beginning with the words spoken by a woman named Mother Cleo who offered a helping hand to mothers with young children: “Are you in the life?”
Angelou was offended. Mother Cleo was asking her if she turned tricks. “You surely look like a trickster,” Mother Cleo said. “Your face and everything.”
She was not in the life. Not yet, at least.
But Mother Cleo was helpful after the abrupt introduction. She helped Angelou get a job at a nightclub called the Hi Hat Club.
The clientele were underworld types and sailors. The place smelled of “Lysol and perfume and bodies, and cigarettes and stale beers.” And the women sitting at the bar were prostitutes.
Angelou took classes at a dance studio, read Russian novels at the library and eventually convinced two lesbians she had met when she first arrived in San Diego to let her pimp them out. Not to women, but to men.
A Knack at the Business of Pleasure
Her business savvy seems to have sealed the deal. Angelou told them the price ($20 a trick) and the split ($7.50 for them, $7.50 for her and $5 for the taxi driver who made the referral, typically a sailor). “In a few weeks, we’ll be thousandaires,” she declared.
She approached a taxi driver, and the business began: “I had managed in a few tense years to become a snob on all levels, racial, culture and intellectual. I was a madam and thought myself morally superior to the whores.”
Angelou worked for almost three months and made a bundle. She bought a car (a 1939 pale-green Chrysler convertible) and lied about who got it for her (a boyfriend, she said). But she quit the business when she visited the home of her prostitutes and found a naked sailor there – tricks on the property were against the rules when she made visits.
Angelou felt threatened and afraid. It was time to leave San Diego. “At the train station I wiped the steering wheel and unstrapped the baby. I left the car parked in a No Parking zone, and as far as I know, it is there to this day.”
San Diego: Sunny and Monotonous
Angelou wrote little about the city itself other than describing it as a sunny place with “monotonous” streets, where women dressed more freely than they did in her former home of San Francisco.
Other specific details are sparse too. It’s not clear where she lived, although she may have found her home in the southeastern neighborhoods of San Diego that have long been the center of African-American life here.
And while she wrote about working as a waitress for the Hi-Hat Club, there’s no listing for such a place in the San Diego phone books of the 1940s. (However, a bar called the Hi-Ho Cafe does appear in the Barrio Logan neighborhood in the 1950s.)
Angelou may have changed the nightclub’s name or misplaced it in her memory prior to the publishing of her autobiography. Or perhaps it didn’t have a phone number.
Whatever the case, her story sheds light on the shadows under the sun in our fair city.
San Diego’s Long History of Sin for Sale
San Diego, a dusty cowtown-turned-metropolis, has a long history as a place where pleasure can come for a price.
For a look back, check this story  from the Voice of San Diego archives, about how cops 100 years ago tried to dowse the brothels in what is now the Gaslamp District: “By 1910, at least 143 hookers worked the Stingaree, and one bordello had 19 prostitutes on duty. Cops generally looked the other way with some notable exceptions, like the time they reportedly nabbed the mayor and police chief in a brothel raid.”
The mammoth fair in 1915 in Balboa Park tried to get locals to clean things up. But there were hitches:
Some worried about the effects of a crackdown. “The women will only go to infect another city,” warned Mrs. L.K. Lanier of the Shakespeare Club.
That they did. A 1912 newspaper headline read: “138 Are Arrested in Stingaree Raid/136 Promise to Leave City; Two Agree to Reform.”
Over the years, the business of prostitution here has evolved. These days, a new report  estimates the sex trade is nearly a $100 million industry in San Diego, even bigger than the drug and gun trades.