Black History is American History – February 25
Eartha Kitt (1927-2008)
Born in North, South Carolina, famed singer and actress, Eartha Kitt, had a difficult childhood. Her mother abandoned her, and she was left in the care of relatives who mistreated her. Kitt was often teased and picked on because of her mixed-race heritage—her father was white, and her mother was African-American and Cherokee.
As a child, Kitt moved to New York City to live with an aunt. There, she eventually enrolled in the New York School of Performing Arts. As a teen, she won a scholarship to study with Katherine Dunham, and later joined Dunham’s dance troupe and toured with the group for several years before going solo. In Paris, Kitt became a popular nightclub singer. She was discovered in Europe by actor-director Orson Welles. Welles, who reportedly called her “the most exciting woman alive,” cast her as Helen of Troy in his production of Dr. Faustus.
Kitt became a rising star with her appearance in the Broadway review, “New Faces” of 1952. In the production, she sang “Monotonous.” Her performance helped launch her music career with the release of her first album in 1954. The recording featured such signature songs as “I Want To Be Evil” and “C’est Si Bon,” as well as the holiday classic “Santa Baby.”
On the big screen, Kitt starred opposite Nat “King” Cole in the W. C. Handy biopic St. Louis Blues (1958). She netted her one and only Academy Award nomination the following year, for her role as the title character in Anna Lucasta. In the film, Kitt plays a sassy young woman who is forced to use her womanly wiles to survive. She stars opposite Sammy Davis Jr.
In the late 1960s, Kitt played one of her most famous parts—the villainous vixen “Catwoman.” She took over the role, on the TV series Batman, from Julie Newmar. Kitt only played Catwoman on a handful of episodes of the short-lived campy crime show, but she made the role her own with her lithe, cat-like frame and her distinctive voice. The series found a second life in reruns.
Always outspoken, Kitt was able to channel her celebrity into activism. In May 1967, she testified before Congress along with Washington D.C. youth group, “Rebels with a Cause,” on behalf of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s juvenile delinquency bill.
Lady Bird Johnson subsequently invited Kitt to her “Women Doers’ Luncheon” on Jan. 18, 1968, for a discussion of what women could do to help eradicate crime on the streets. Towards the end of the luncheon, Lady Bird asked the room of 50 women, from groups such as the Association of Colored Women’s Club and the League of Women Voters, including a few governor’s wives, for their comments. Kitt raised her hand and told the first lady of the United States exactly what she thought — juvenile crime was in part a pushback against being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War.
“Boys I know across the nation feel it doesn’t pay to be a good guy,” Kitt said. “They figure with a record they don’t have to go off to Vietnam. You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They will take pot and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.” Kitt continued: “Mrs. Johnson, you are a mother too, although you have had daughters and not sons. I am a mother and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my guts. I have a baby and then you send him off to war. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot. And, Mrs. Johnson, in case you don’t understand the lingo that’s marijuana.”
The cultural and political backlash was swift. The Washington Post reported at the time that President Johnson had Kitt blacklisted. According to Broadly, Kitt alleged that the White House, which had sent a car for her, didn’t arrange a car for her departure and she had to catch a cab.
Unable to get jobs in the United States, Kitt was forced to perform in Europe until she returned to America in 1978 to headline the Broadway musical Timbuktu! It was later unveiled by the New York Times that the CIA, prompted by the Secret Service in 1968, had kept a dossier on her. “It was really heart-breaking to her and very upsetting that her own government turned on her for something as simple as just giving an honest response to a question,” said Kitt Shapiro, Eartha Kitt’s daughter. “And that was really something, I think, that she really never let go of, that disappointment.” Kitt enjoyed a career renaissance with her performance on Broadway in “Timbuktu!” She earned a Tony Award nomination for her role in the play, and received an invitation to the White House by President Jimmy Carter. In 1984, Kitt returned to the music charts with “Where Is My Man.” She continued to win acclaim for her music, including scoring a Grammy Award nomination for 1994’s “Back in Business.”
Throughout her adult life, Kitt had a tremendous work ethic. She kept up a busy work schedule well into her 70s. In 2000, Kitt netted a Tony Award nomination for her work in “The Wild Party” with Toni Collette. She picked up a Daytime Emmy Award for her vocal performance on the animated children’s series “The Emperor’s New School” that same year, and again in 2007.
For many years, Kitt performed her cabaret act at New York’s Cafe Carlyle. She continued to wow audiences as she had so many decades before, when she was the toast of Paris. With her voice, charm and sex appeal, Kitt knew how to win over a crowd. Kitt learned that she had colon cancer in 2006, a disease that ended up taking her life on December 25, 2008.