From cabaret dancing to her portrayal as the villainous “Catwoman”, this “Santa Baby” songtress has done it all. The masses would agree that Eartha Kitt has lived an extraordinarily vibrant life. Once described as being “the most exciting woman in the world” by famed director Orson Welles, Miss Kitt seemlessly captivated her audiences for more than six decades. Let’s take a deeper look at the woman that seduced America.
Born in a small town of North located in Orangeburg County SC on January 17, 1927, Eartha Mae Kitt was conceived out of rape. Growing up very poor, she also suffered through the physical and mental abuse inflicted upon her by relatives. Miss Kitt endured the harsh realities of being a light skinned black girl situated in the deep south in the 1920s and 1930s. She was often referred to as “yella gal” and not accepted by the black community due to her mixed-race heritage.
Her mother was of African American and Cherokee decent, and her father was white. It was later discovered that her birth father’s name was concealed and blacked out on her birth certificate (a document in which she’d never seen until the age 71.) Previously, Miss Kitt had attempted to locate this record in the 1950s but was unsuccessful. For most of her life, she did not know her exact birthday. After being invited to speak at Benedict College, she charged the students with the challenge of locating her birth certificate and they did so successfully.
At the age of 8, Miss Kitt was sent to New York to live with a relative in Harlem. Although she was given piano and dance lessons, Kitt continued to be the recipient of abuse. This viscous cycle often prompted her to run away, and then she would return. By her teenage years, she was working in a factory and sleeping at friends’ homes or in subways. She would later become an advocate for homeless children.
At 16yrs old, Miss Kitt got her break into showbusiness on a whim, when one of her friends dared her to audition for the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe, which was the first African-American modern dance company. She passed the audition and permanently escaped the cycle of poverty and abuse that defined her life then. By the age of 20, she had toured all over the world.
Miss Kitt won awards for her music, film, television, and broadway performances. In 1960, the Hollywood Walk of Fame honored her with a star. She spoke four languages and sang in seven different languages. She had a plethora of career highlights which included the following: three Tony Award nominations, two Grammy Award nominations, two Emmy Award nominations, and the recipient of three Annie Awards for Voice Acting work in “The Emperor’s New Groove”, “Kronk’s New Groove”, and “The Emperor’s New School.”
In 1967 she made the role of Catwoman her own when she became the first black woman to achieve mainstream TV success in America with the series Batman. She broke racial taboos by flirting with Adam West in the lead role. She took over the role from Julie Newmar who had scheduling conflicts. Eartha brought a more mysterious and ruthless Catwoman to the series. With her lissome, cat-like frame and her distinguished voice, she immediately embodied the character. Her trademark purr became imitated worldwide, leaving an indelible mark on pop culture.
In 1968 Miss Kitt was invited to the White House to attend a luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson. At the event, Kitt spoke out against the Vietnam War, telling the First Lady that “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” Her remarks against the Vietnam War offended Mrs. Johnson, and erupted a media firestorm. Her popularity took a significant noise-dive after that. For several years after the incident occurred, Miss Kitt was blacklisted in the U.S. The CIA had branded her “a sadistic nymphomaniac” and she was forced to work abroad where her reputation remained untarnished. However in 1978, President Jimmy Carter invited her back to the White House and that same year she earned her first Tony nomination for her work in “Timbuktu.”
She kept a busy work life well into her 70s. She regularly charmed New York nightclubs with her performances at The Cafè Carlyle. She continued to enthrall audiences as she had done so many decades previousy, when she was revered as the toast of Paris. Although Miss Kitt still seemed to have men of all ages wrapped around her finger, she would often toy with younger fans at her shows by suggesting they introduce her to their fathers.
On January 17 2007, Miss Kitt held a celebratory concert in honor of her 80th birthday at Carnegie Hall called “Eartha Kitt And Friends.” The celebrity audience members included Diahann Carroll and Janet Jackson with special guests performances by Tony Award winners Ben Vereen, LaChanze and Tonya Pinkins.
Miss Kitt died on December 25, 2008 and is survived by her daughter, Kitt Shapiro, and four grandchildren.
“I am the original Material Girl.”
Photography Credit: Alexia Guidry
The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/oct/19/eartha-kitt-suffered-over-identity
The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/26/arts/26kitt.html?mcubz=1
Eartha Kitt: http://earthakitt.com/eartha/
Kenneth In The 212: http://www.kennethinthe212.com/2007/06/earth-kitts-80th-birthday-celebration.html