Eartha Kitt – from her name to her appearance to her singing style, she has evoked exotic images for 50 years: a sultry, almost feline stage presence (which led inevitably to her role as Catwoman in the 1960s Batman TV show), combined with a breathy, smokey-voiced, occasionally purring, singing style.
All this from a waif who was born into the poorest of circumstances on a farm near the town of North, in South Carolina on January 26, 1928 to a family of sharecroppers. For years Kitt had no idea how old she was, and stated in her second autobiography, Alone With Me, that there was no record of her birth. However, after she signed to perform at South Carolina’s Benedict College, students there researched this and found her birth certificate. She was given a copy and a key to the town of North when she arrived at the college.
The story of her youth of one of abuse and abandonment. Named “Eartha” because the 1927 harvest was a good one, she was of mixed racial heritage. Her mother was African-American, but she believes her father was white and that she is also part Cherokee. As a “yella gal” she was rejected by both races in the rural south of the early 1930s. When her mother subsequently got married her new husband told her he would accept Eartha Mae’s half-sister Pearl, but not Eartha. Rather than separate the half-sisters, their mother left them with a neighbor family when Eartha was five. When she was eight her mother died and she went to Harlem to live with an aunt.
It was in New York City that Eartha began going to school, and, at her aunt’s urging, took piano lessons. In church she joined the choir and acted in plays. But Depression times were hard and there were times when she had little to eat but apples. As a teenager she was accepted into the New York School of Performing Arts. She wanted a life in the theater, but took factory and farm work in Connecticut to support herself, and it was by accident that she was introduced to Katherine Dunham, a choreographer who ran the Katherine Dunham Dance School. She auditioned for and was accepted into the school at 16.
This led to tours with the Dunham dance troupe – to Mexico, Europe and South America. When she got to Paris, Kitt decided to stay there, performing in cabarets and nightclubs. In one such club she met Orson Welles, who was captivated by her and called her “the most exciting woman in the world.” He signed her to star with him as Helen of Troy in his stage production of Dr. Faust, called Time Runs, which opened in Paris in 1950 and toured Europe to much acclaim.
Returning to America, Kitt played a 20-week run at the Blue Angel (setting a still unbroken record for cabaret artists) and then moved on to the Village Vanguard, where producer Leonard Stillman saw her. He put her in the Broadway musical, New Faces of 1952, where her performance of “Monotonous” became legendary for stopping the show. New Faces ran for a year on Broadway, followed by a national tour and a film of the same name from 20th Century Fox. Posters and programs from this show are rare and much-sought by collectors.
Suddenly Eartha Kitt was in the public eye. RCA Victor signed her and began releasing torrid singles like “I Want to be Evil,” “Uska Dara” (sung in Turkish), and “C’est Si Bon.” (Stan Freberg did an inspired parody of that last song, which had been a major hit for Kitt.) In 1953 RCA Victor released her first album, a 10-inch LP titled RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt (LPM 3062). (RCA had also released the original-cast album of New Faces of 1952, LOC 1008, containing Kitt’s performance of “Monotonous.”) In 1954 RCA Victor released a follow-up album, also a 10-inch LP, “That Bad Eartha” (with the title in quotes) (LPM 3187) which included such hits as “Let’s Do It,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” and Duke Ellington’s “The Blues.” Kitt purred her way through “Daddy.” Both LPs are now quite rare and valued at $100 to $300, depending in their condition.
Kitt returned to Broadway with a dramatic role in Mrs. Patterson, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award. Subsequent stage appearances included Shinbone Alley, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Owl and the Pussycat, and two London successes, Bunny and The High Bid. She appeared in several movies, including St. Louis Blues, in which she played the wife of W. C. Handy (who wrote “St. Louis Blues” and a number of other songs), but these were not the best-made movies and they did not achieve critical or popular success. Kitt also worked on TV in the 1960s, making guest appearances on Mission Impossible and I Spy (the latter earning her an Emmy Award nomination), as well as playing the Catwoman on Batman.
She received a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame in 1960.
In 1968 Kitt was outspoken in her opposition to the war in Vietnam while attending a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson, then the First Lady. This was not well received by the Johnson administration, which mounted a negative campaign against her and led to her being blacklisted by the American entertainment industry for much of the next decade. She was forced to move to Europe, but returned to star on Broadway again in Timbuktu in 1978, earning another Tony Award nomination. When the show opened in Washington, D.C., President Carter invited her back to the White House and greeted her with “Welcome home, Eartha.”
Kitt has written three autobiographies, Thursday’s Child (published in 1956), Alone With Me (1976) and I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten (1989). She is still performing and her appearance belies her age. She remains as sultry and sexy as ever, a unique and fascinating performer.