NEW YORK -- Her body weak, her voice rich and strong, Maya Angelou sang, lectured and reminisced as she accepted a lifetime achievement award Thursday night from the Norman Mailer Center.
The 85-year-old author, poet, dancer and actress was honored during a benefit gala at the New York Public Library, the annual gathering organized by the Mailer Center and writers colony . Seated in a wheelchair, she was a vivid presence in dark glasses and a sparkling black dress as she marveled that a girl from a segregated Arkansas village could grow up to become a literary star.
"Imagine it," she said, "a town so prejudiced black people couldn't even eat vanilla ice cream."
Angelou was introduced by her former editor at Random House, Robert Loomis, and she praised him for talking her into writing her breakthrough memoir, the million-selling "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." The key was suggesting to her that the book might be too hard to write.
The people who knew her best, she explained, understood that "if you want to get Maya Angelou to do so something, tell her she can't."
Angelou, a longtime resident of North Carolina, will be back in Manhattan next month to collect an honorary National Book Award medal.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz and the late author-journalist Michael Hastings also received prizes Thursday. Hastings' widow, Elise, teared up as she accepted a journalism award on behalf of her husband, who died in a car accident last summer at age 33.
She recalled that Hastings, best known for a Rolling Stone story about the U.S. war in Afghanistan that led to the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, felt a kinship with for the brilliant and troublesome Mailer. When the couple fought, she said, he would point out that in "comparison to Mailer he was a great husband," a reference to a notorious incident in which Mailer stabbed his wife.
Hastings was a "dissident, a cynical idealist and a breathtaking writer," she said.
The dinner event was the fifth gala for the Mailer center, named for the celebrated author who died in 2007 and dedicated to helping writers "across all genres who seek artful ways to express themselves and provoke meaningful discussion about our society."
Previous honorees include Toni Morrison, Keith Richards and Robert Caro.