10 Famous Birthdays to Celebrate in April
Some of our favorite historical figures were born in April—including three dancers who ended up famous for something else. We couldn't possibly name them all, so here are just a handful of lives we'll be celebrating.
1. WASHINGTON IRVING: APRIL 3, 1783
Washington Irving is best known for writing The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, but his body of work is quite extensive—which only makes sense since he was named after a prolific and accomplished Founding Father. Irving got his moniker from George Washington and even attended Washington's inauguration as a child. He later got a degree in law, served as the U.S. minister to Spain in the 1840s, and deserves some props from Batman: Irving was the first person to refer to New York City as "Gotham." He also worked to strengthen copyright laws to protect the work of American writers.
2. MAYA ANGELOU: APRIL 4, 1928
Maya Angelou was an author, poet, and Civil Rights activist, but her life included periods in which she was a singer, dancer, composer, educator, and even movie director. Angelou, born Marguerite Annie Johnson, was seven years old when her mother's boyfriend raped her and was then killed by her uncles. The experience was so traumatizing that Angelou didn't speak for years. Later she trained as a dancer and actress and earned money performing with touring shows. Angelou wrote seven autobiographies, the first of which was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969. The book was banned in many high schools because of its depiction of sexual violence, but became a hit and often even required reading on college campuses. It was the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman.
3. BOOKER T. WASHINGTON: APRIL 5, 1856
Born a slave in Virginia, Booker T. Washington grew up during Reconstruction and the beginning of the Jim Crow era. He worked his way through school after the Civil War and became a teacher. In 1888, General Samuel C. Armstrong, who was Washington's mentor, recruited him to found the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, now Tuskegee University. Washington built the school into a successful institution and became a national advocate for the education of black Americans. He was an "accommodationist," believing that equal rights for African-Americans could be put on the back burner while they made educational and economic progress. Washington's views drew criticism from equal rights advocates, but those views also allowed him access to national leaders, particularly Teddy Roosevelt. As a result, Washington was one of the most famous black advocates of the early 20th century.
4. BILLIE HOLIDAY: APRIL 7, 1915
Legendary singer Billie Holiday had a rough start in life. She was born into poverty to a teenage mother, began working as a child, dropped out of school in fifth grade, spent time at a reformatory, and was arrested for prostitution at the age of 15. Soon after, she went to Harlem (Holiday was born in Philadelphia and spent much of her childhood in Baltimore) to break into the entertainment field as a dancer. She wasn't great—but her singing enchanted audiences. Producer John Hammond discovered her singing in a bar in 1933 and signed her to a record contract, and she went on to make hundreds of recordings in the 1930s. Her 1939 song "Strange Fruit" was a protest against lynching, and since her record company refused to release it, she turned to a smaller jazz label to record it. During the 1940s, Holiday added opium use to her drinking problem, and eventually turned to heroin. She continued performing, but during her final years her personal struggles began to cloud her public persona. Holiday died from complication of drug and alcohol addiction in 1959. She became more famous than ever after her death, as her records were re-released and her life was chronicled in the 1972 movie Lady Sings the Blues. In 1999, her recording of "Strange Fruit" was named the "song of the century" by Time magazine.
5. CHARLIE CHAPLIN: APRIL 16, 1889
Charlie Chaplin was born to parents who were both music hall performers in England, and young Chaplin made his stage debut at age five. He worked in vaudeville until moving to California in 1913, where he brought his physical comedy to the silver screen—making 35 movies in rapid succession with Mack Sennett of Keystone Studios in a matter of years. His output was almost as fast at other studios, and in 1919, he launched United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith. Chaplin's pacifist bent showed in his films, and drew the suspicion of J. Edgar Hoover, who considered him a communist sympathizer. Chaplin's offscreen activities got him in trouble, too. He lost a paternity suit in 1944, despite that fact that a blood test showed he was not the father of actress Joan Barry's child. The case led to a change in paternity laws, and afterward, blood tests became admissible in court. Hoover got his wish to rid America of Charlie Chaplin when the actor went to England for a film premiere in 1952, and was denied a re-entry visa. Chaplin settled in Switzerland with wife Oona O'Neill and children, and did not return to America until 1972 to receive an Honorary Academy Award.
6. CHARLOTTE BRONTE: APRIL 21, 1816
As an aspiring poet in the 19th century, young Charlotte Bronte was told that her writing showed talent, but she shouldn't pursue it because after all, she was a woman. Despite that, Charlotte—and her sisters Emily and Anne—all went on to became famous authors after publishing their stories and poetry under men's names. Charlotte, the oldest of the three, was listed as author Currer Bell on her first book of poetry, a collaboration with her sisters. It was also the name on the novel Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, published in 1847. Even her publishers didn't know Currer Bell was a woman until a year later, long after the book proved to be a bestseller. Charlotte Bronte wrote four novels before she died at age 38.
7. JOHN MUIR: APRIL 21, 1838
After an industrial accident blinded him for six weeks, John Muir left his job behind and began a pilgrimage to explore the United States on foot. He set off in September of 1867 on a 1000-mile walk from Kentucky to Florida, studying plants along the way. Muir traveled light, and relied on the kindness of strangers for his sustenance. The diary of his two-month journey was published as A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. Muir continued his wandering, falling more and more in love with the natural world. He founded the Sierra Club in 1892, and lobbied to have the Yosemite area preserved as a national park. That was after he and President Teddy Roosevelt spent three days camping in the wilderness in 1903. Muir is credited with inspiring the president to form an entire system of national parks—earning him the nickname, the "Father of the National Parks."
8. ELLA FITZGERALD: APRIL 25, 1917
When Ella Fitzgerald was 17, she won the chance to compete at amateur night at the Apollo Theater. She had planned to dance, but after seeing the competition, she decided at the last minute to sing instead. Fitzgerald won first prize and set out on a career that spanned the rest of the 20th century. Fitzgerald toured and recorded with Chick Webb's band until he died in 1939, and it became her band. She added scat singing to her repertoire in the 1940s. Fitzgerald fan Marilyn Monroe used her influence to get the singer booked at the Mocambo Club in Hollywood in 1955, which cemented her superstar status. Fitzgerald sang in numerous movies, on television variety shows, and with elite musicians through the '80s. Along the way, she won 13 Grammys and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, among other awards. Fitzgerald continued to perform as her health declined, giving her last concert at Carnegie Hall in 1991, five years before she died of complications from diabetes in 1996.
9. HARPER LEE: APRIL 28, 1926
For most of her life, Harper Lee was known to have written only one novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, where her father was a prominent lawyer. As a kid, Lee had a close relationship with Truman Capote (who was two years older). He later introduced her to the literary world of New York City after she dropped out of law school. In 1956, her new friends Joy and Michael Brown were so impressed with her writing that they gave her enough money to support her for a year, giving her time to write a novel. Published 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird became a hit, earning Lee a Pulitzer Prize. It also became a movie that garnered eight Academy Award nominations (and three wins). Lee never finished another book, but over 50 years later it was discovered that she had written a novel before To Kill a Mockingbird. That book, Go Set a Watchman, had been rejected for publication in 1957. It featured an older Atticus Finch and Scout, and was published in 2015. Harper Lee died in 2016 at age 89.
10. DUKE ELLINGTON: APRIL 29, 1899
Jazz legend Duke Ellington earned many of the combined accolades of others in this list: 13 Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, the Medal of Freedom, and more. A piano prodigy, Ellington first started writing music in his teens. He took his band The Washingtonians to New York in 1923 where they played the hot nightspots in Harlem, including three years as the house band at the Cotton Club. The band also played for Broadway and on radio, which turned a nation on to jazz. Ellington took the show on the road, and eventually logged over 20,000 performances. He also wrote over 3000 songs. As if all that wasn't interesting enough, Ellington also experienced chromesthesia, a type of synesthesia that meant he saw colors and textures in musical notes. The Duke performed up until his death in 1974, after which his son Mercer and then his grandson Paul took over the Duke Ellington Orchestra.