Getty Images // Caitlin Schneider
Getty Images // Caitlin Schneider

10 Famous Birthdays to Celebrate in April

Getty Images // Caitlin Schneider
Getty Images // Caitlin Schneider

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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4 Fascinating Facts About John Wayne
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Fox Photos, Getty Images

Most people know John Wayne, who would have been 111 years old today, for his cowboy persona. But there was much more to the Duke than that famous swagger. Here are a few facts about Duke that might surprise you.

1. A BODY SURFING ACCIDENT CHANGED HIS CAREER. 

John Wayne, surfer? Yep—and if he hadn’t spent a lot of time doing it, he may never have become the legend he did. Like many USC students, Wayne (then known as Marion Morrison) spent a good deal of his extracurricular time in the ocean. After he sustained a serious shoulder injury while bodysurfing, Morrison lost his place on the football team. He also lost the football scholarship that had landed him a spot at USC in the first place. Unable to pay his fraternity for room and board, Morrison quit school and, with the help of his former football coach, found a job as the prop guy at Fox Studios in 1927. It didn’t take long for someone to realize that Morrison belonged in front of a camera; he had his first leading role in The Big Trail in 1930.

2. HE TOOK HIS NICKNAME FROM HIS BELOVED FAMILY POOCH. 

Marion Morrison had never been fond of his feminine-sounding name. He was often given a hard time about it growing up, so to combat that, he gave himself a nickname: Duke. It was his dog’s name. Morrison was so fond of his family’s Airedale Terrier when he was younger that the family took to calling the dog “Big Duke” and Marion “Little Duke,” which he quite liked. But when he was starting his Hollywood career, movie execs decided that “Duke Morrison” sounded like a stuntman, not a leading man. The head of Fox Studios was a fan of Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne, so Morrison’s new surname was quickly settled. After testing out various first names for compatibility, the group decided that “John” had a nice symmetry to it, and so John Wayne was born. Still, the man himself always preferred his original nickname. “The guy you see on the screen isn’t really me,” he once said. “I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne.”

3. HE WAS A CHESS FANATIC. 

Anyone who knew John Wayne personally knew what an avid chess player he was. He often brought a miniature board with him so he could play between scenes on set.

When Wayne accompanied his third wife, Pilar Pallete, while she played in amateur tennis tournaments, officials would stock a trailer with booze and a chess set for him. The star would hang a sign outside of the trailer that said, “Do you want to play chess with John Wayne?” and then happily spend the day drinking and trouncing his fans—for Wayne wasn’t just a fan of chess, he was good at chess. It’s said that Jimmy Grant, Wayne’s favorite screenwriter, played chess with the Duke for more than 20 years without ever winning a single match.

Other famous chess partners included Marlene Dietrich, Rock Hudson, and Robert Mitchum. During their match, Mitchum reportedly caught him cheating. Wayne's reply: "I was wondering when you were going to say something. Set 'em up, we'll play again."

4. HE COINED THE TERM "THE BIG C."

If you say you know someone battling “The Big C” these days, everyone immediately knows what you’re referring to. But no one called it that before Wayne came up with the term, evidently trying to make it less scary. Worried that Hollywood would stop hiring him if they knew how sick he was with lung cancer in the early 1960s, Wayne called a press conference in his living room shortly after an operation that removed a rib and half of one lung. “They told me to withhold my cancer operation from the public because it would hurt my image,” he told reporters. “Isn’t there a good image in John Wayne beating cancer? Sure, I licked the Big C.”

Wayne's daughter, Aissa Wayne, later said that the 1964 press conference was the one and only time she heard her father call it “cancer,” even when he developed cancer again, this time in his stomach, 15 years later. Sadly, Wayne lost his second battle with the Big C and died on June 11, 1979 at the age of 72.

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10 Crazy Facts About Willie Nelson
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Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Willie Nelson is one of the world’s most accomplished musicians—and not just in the country music world. Nelson’s talents transcend genre, and go far beyond music. Here are 10 things you might not know about the legendary outlaw country singer, who turns 85 years old today.

1. HE WROTE HIS FIRST SONG AT THE AGE OF SEVEN.

While other kids were still struggling to keep inside the lines of their coloring books, Nelson was composing music. He recalled the experience of his songwriting debut to Rolling Stone in 2004: “Back when we used to take music lessons from our grandmother, we'd go through lessons, and if we'd get the lesson right that day she'd take a gold star—a little star, about the size of your finger, with glue on one side—and she'd stick it on the sheet of music, which meant you'd done well. So I wrote this song with the line ‘They took a gold star away from me when you left me for another, long ago.’ I'd never been left by anybody, so it was kind of funny.”

2. HE USED TO BE A BIBLE SALESMAN.

Before he became a full-time musician in the mid-1950s, Nelson worked as a cotton picker (a gig he began as a child, working alongside his grandmother), disc jockey, and a Bible salesman.

3. HE RAN INTO A BURNING HOUSE (TO SAVE HIS POT).

While living in Nashville, Nelson arrived home one evening to discover that his house was burning to the ground. “By the time I got there, it was burning real good,” he told People in 1980. “But I had this pound of Colombian grass inside. I wasn't being brave running in there to get my dope—I was trying to keep the firemen from finding it and turning me over to the police.” One-hundred tapes of yet-to-be-recorded songs weren't as lucky as Nelson's stash; they were lost in the fire.

4. HE RETIRED IN 1972.

In 1972, Nelson paid $14,000 to buy out his contract so that he could retire to Austin, Texas. But his withdrawal from the music business didn’t last long. Especially considering how vibrant the music scene was happening all around him in Austin. Within a year, he was back on the charts with the album Shotgun Willie. By the mid-1970s he scored some of his biggest hits with a trio of albums: Red Headed Stranger, The Sound in Your Mind, and The Troublemaker.

5. HE HAS BEEN PLAYING THE SAME GUITAR FOR NEARLY 50 YEARS.

Nelson has been playing Trigger, his beloved guitar (which he named after Roy Rogers’ horse), since 1969. “I’ve got to take good care of Trigger,” Nelson told Uncut Magazine in 2014. “He’s had a couple of problems. We’ve had to go in and do some work on the inside, build up the woodwork in there a little bit over the years. But Trigger’s holding up pretty good.”

6. HE RECORDED THE IRS TAPES TO PAY OFF HIS TAX DEBT.

In 1990, the IRS raided Nelson’s house and seized his assets (everything except Trigger) for non-payment of taxes. The $32 million bill, one of the largest in IRS history, was eventually negotiated down and settled in a creative way: Nelson would record a new album with the IRS receiving at least 15 cents of every dollar made. The result was the limited-edition The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories, which sold for $19.95 on cassette or CD and was purchased by dialing 1-800-IRS-TAPE.

7. HE WROTE “ON THE ROAD AGAIN” ON A BARF BAG.

Nelson’s 1980 hit, “On The Road Again,” was written aboard an airplane—on a barf bag. “I was on an aeroplane with Sydney Pollack and Jerry Schatzberg, who was the director of the movie Honeysuckle Rose,” Nelson told Uncut in 2014. “They were looking for songs for the movie and they started asking me if I had any ideas. I said, ‘I don’t know, what do you want the song to say?’ I think Sydney said, ‘Can it be something about being on the road?’ It just started to click in my head. I said, ‘You mean like, ‘On the road again, I can’t wait to get on the road again?’ They said, ‘That’s great. What’s the melody?’ I said, ‘I don’t know yet.’”

8. HE PERFORMED "UP AGAINST THE WALL, REDNECK MOTHER” WITH ROSALYNN CARTER.

Former President Jimmy Carter has never made a secret of his admiration of Willie Nelson. And the two have shared a long friendship. On September 13, 1980, Nelson performed for Carter and guests at the White House—which included a duet of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” with then-First Lady Rosalynn Carter. (On various occasions, Nelson has recounted how he later made his way onto the roof of the White House and smoked a joint.) In 2012, the former President got his own chance to share the stage with the legendary musician when the two performed “Amazing Grace” together in Atlanta.

9. HE OWNS A BIODIESEL FIRM.

Nelson is much more than a musician—he’s a noted activist and entrepreneur, too. In 2004 he launched his own biodiesel firm, BioWillie Biodiesel.

10. HE’S A POT-REPRENEUR.

Nelson has hardly made a secret of regular marijuana use, or his support for its legalization. (His rap sheet of pot-related arrests certainly backs up those claims.) As more and more states are legalizing the once-outlawed weed, Nelson has put his expertise on the topic to good use, and launched his very own brand of pot: Willie’s Reserve.

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