Eartha Kitt

Although she could look back on a long and successful career, life was not always easy for Eartha Kitt. She had a difficult and impoverished childhood and lost track of her roots. Kitt worked hard to get to the top, but when she was a child, she had to fight prejudice within the African-American community because of her light skin color. Ironically, as an adult trying to succeed in show business, Eartha Kitt found that most of the available roles went to caucasian actresses.

[The picture shown here was sent by Eartha Kitt for use on this Web Page.]

Eartha Kitt, picture sent by Eartha Kitt for use on this PageThe singer-actress was born on a cotton farm in North in 1927. Because the harvest was good that year, her father named her "Eartha." But the family was poor and when she was still quite young, her father, who she never knew, left them. The family moved from place to place, trying to support themselves. Kitt was of mixed racial parentage, and her light skin made her unwelcome to some. When her mother, herself of mixed African-American and Native American ancestry, met a white man and decided to get married, he told her he would take her half-sister Pearl but not Eartha. Finally, her mother left the two children with a neighbor family, choosing not to separate them. The young Eartha Mae had to cook, clean, weed the garden, keep track of the cow, pick cotton, and do many other chores to cover her room and board. She recounts that she was not treated well in her new home. She saw her mother only a few times during the three years she lived there, once when she was taken to see her new half-sister, Almita. About six months later, her mother died.

Soon after, an aunt who lived in Harlem sent for Eartha. Kitt left South Carolina to live with her aunt when she was 8, losing touch with any family connections in the state. She attended school in New York, and started down the road that would eventually lead to a career in show business. Because her aunt wanted her to be a concert pianist, Eartha began to take piano lessons, although she disliked playing the piano and practicing. At church, she sang in the choir and acted in plays. But times were hard, and for awhile, Eartha and her aunt were on relief. They ate so many apples that for years after she couldn't eat them. As she entered her teens, their finances began to improve. Kitt recounts that they had more food to eat and better clothing. After an audition, she was admitted to the prestigious High School for the Performing Arts. But her relationship with her aunt, which had never been good, deteriorated. Eartha found a part-time job to pay for her food and expenses. Finally, her aunt threw her out of the house. After staying with friends for a few days, Kitt decided to drop out of school and get a job. She found work as a seamstress in a factory, but lost her job after an illness kept her out of work for two weeks. She briefly returned to school and unsuccessfully tried to reconcile with her aunt before leaving for good.

Kitt had decided on a life in the theater, but meanwhile, she had to support herself. She found temporary work in a factory and then spent the summer at a camp in Connecticut working on a farm. That fall, back in New York, she met a young woman on the street who was looking for directions. The young woman was a dancer for Katherine Dunham, a choreographer who had a dance school. She offered to introduce her, and told her that Dunham was holding auditions for dancers. Despite her apprehension, Kitt was persuaded to try out. Just sixteen years old, she was on her way.

After winning a scholarship to the Katherine Dunham Dance School, she began to tour with the group and achieved her first professional success. As a member of the troupe, the sixteen year old Kitt toured in Mexico, Europe and South America as well as the U.S. Choosing to stay in Paris, she began to sing in nightclubs. Subsequently, Kitt became known as a singer and actress as well as a dancer. In 1950 she began her acting career as Helen of Troy in an Orson Welles production entitled Time Runs. In 1952 she starred in a Broadway musical, New Faces of 1952. She recorded a number of successful songs in the early 1950s as well, learning over a dozen languages and singing in French, Spanish, and Turkish.  Kitt continued to act in both theater and on film, and to perform in nightclubs. Unwilling to contribute to the discrimination rampant in American society, Kitt decided that she would not perform before segregated audiences and included that requirement in her contracts. She appeared in several films, including St. Louis Blues in 1958 and Anna Lucasta in 1959. In the1960s she played the role of Catwoman on the Batman television show, creating a persona that would follow her throughout her career. Kitt had seemingly achieved the American dream, and was a success in show business. During her lifetime she would be recognized by her peers with several Tony and Grammy nominations. In 1960, she received a star on the Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame.

Her career took a different turn after she spoke out against the Vietnam War at a White House luncheon in 1968 in the presence of Lady Bird Johnson. As a result of her outspoken anti-war position, she was blackballed and was unable to find work in the U.S., with the exception of a few talk shows. Contracts were lost or cancelled. The CIA developed a file containing personal and professional information. Eartha moved to Europe, where she lived and worked for the next ten years, struggling financially and ignored by many friends. Kitt later said she would have spoken out even if she had known the consequences.

Unafraid of controversy, Kitt performed in South Africa in 1974. Heavily criticized, she responded by pointing out that she had managed to get two schools built there for black children. She had raised the money by selling autographs at department stores. Traveling around the country and performing in an integrated show, Kitt feels she did a little to weaken the apartheid system and raise awareness among South Africans of all colors.

In 1978 she was nominated for a Tony award for her starring performance in another Broadway show, Timbuktu. It was her first major performance n the U.S. in ten years. When the show opened in Washington, D.C., Kitt was invited to the White House, where President Carter met her, saying, "Welcome home, Eartha." The show was a success and ran for two and a half years.

In addition to her work as a performer, Kitt was also a successful author of three autobiographies, Thursday's Child (1956), Alone With Me, (1976) and I'm Still Here: Confessions of A Sex Kitten (1989). In 2001, Kitt, who remained fit and thin throughout her life and was often compared physically to much younger women, published Rejuvenate, a book filled with advice about staying physically fit. She was pictured on the cover wearing a slinky black dress.

On a personal level, Kitt was married briefly, from 1960 to 1965, to Bill McDonald. The marriage was not a success, but did produce a daughter, Kitt McDonald, born in 1961, who managed the actress/singer's career in her later years, and had two children of her own. Eartha Kitt, who was once referred to by director Orson Wells as the “most exciting woman in the world,” (“Sultry actress-singer…,” 2008) never remarried, although she had a number of romantic relationships during her lifetime.

As she moved into her sixties, Kitt continued to perform. In 1992 she appeared in an Eddie Murphy movie, Boomerang. Kitt received a Grammy nomination for her album "Back in Business" in 1995. Remembering her own unhappy childhood, Kitt was also a spokesperson on behalf of abused children for UNICEF.

In 1996 Kitt’s career experienced a resurgence in the U.S. After appearing in a documentary about the fashion world entitled “Unzipped,” she performed at the Café Carlyle, a jazz club at the luxurious Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. She continued to perform there for more than ten years in sold-out shows. A reporter described the venue as “an ideal setting for Kitt to strut her archetypal show business persona: a glamorous, calculating international gold digger enslaving rich men with exaggerated feline wiles, then treating them like cat toys” (Holden, 2009). But Kitt, who was often described with feline terminology throughout her life, was far more than just the persona of a sex kitten. She remembered where she had come from. She said that she had always admired the late jazz singer Billie Holliday, a performer who also had to fight against racial discrimination. Kitt remembered hearing her sing when she first came to Harlem. In 1996, Kitt performed in the role of Billie Holliday in a musical entitled Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill in Chicago. The musical was so successful that its run was extended to meet the demand.  Kitt continued to perform until shortly before her death. In 2000 she provided the voice for Yzma in a Disney animated film entitled “The Emperor’s New Groove.” In the fall of 2003 she appeared on Broadway in a revival of “Nine,” replacing the star, Chita Rivera.

Eartha Kitt learned more about her origins when she returned to South Carolina in 1997 for a benefit performance at Benedict College that was to help create a scholarship fund. The Eartha Kitt Performing Arts Scholarship provides opportunities for students majoring in dance. It was her first visit to the state since the early1980s. According to historian Jack Bass, Kitt’s family name may have come from Lawrence Keitt, a 19th century South Carolina planter, slave owner, and Confederate officer (Monk, 2008). But Kitt grew up knowing little about her past, and for this reason, there are some contradictions in some of the stories that have been written about her childhood. In her second book, Alone With Me, she stated that she didn't know how old she was and that there was no record of when she was born. However, after Kitt committed to doing the performance at Benedict College, students there were assigned a research project and found her birth certificate. Kitt learned then that she was actually born on January 17, 1927.  She was given a copy of her birth certificate, along with a key to the town of North when she arrived in South Carolina to perform.

Kitt died on December 25, 2008 at the age of 81. The cause of death was colon cancer. In a tribute posted on their website, Carlyle Hotel manager James McBride stated in part: “Eartha Kitt’s engagements at the Café Carlyle were nothing less than a cultural happening. Each season, including this past spring, she reminded audiences of the extraordinary gifts and true warmth that made her an American legend…” Kitt has sometimes been described as a loner, a woman who walked her own path as a result of the hard life she had lived and the barriers she faced along the way. Regardless, Eartha Kitt was a courageous woman who was not afraid to speak her mind and overcame the many obstacles that were in her path. In a March 2005 online interview that occurred shortly after two African-American performers won Oscars, she noted with pleasure the opportunities available today for African-American performers. Kitt herself certainly played a role in making these opportunities available to others. But in looking back at a long career, Kitt said that she thought of herself as more than just an African-American, as “a woman that belongs to everybody…” And she always will.

 

Carol Sears Botsch, Political Science, USC Aiken, carolb@usca.edu

Sources:

Breckenridge, Mona. "Singer connects to S.C." The State (April 17, 1997), A1.

Cain, Joy Duckette. "Eternally Eartha." Essence 23 (January 1993), 56-57, 92.

"Eartha Kitt Portrays Jazz Singer Bille Holiday in One-Woman Musical." Jet 90 (May 27, 1996), 54-55.

“Eartha’s Biography.” http://www.earthakittfanclub.com/biography.htm

Haywood, Richette. "Eartha Kitt at Sixtysomething." Ebony48 (October 1993), 112-116.

Holden, Stephen. “Kitt never lost what made her special.” The State (January 1, 2009), D1.

Kitt, Eartha. Alone With Me. (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company,1976)

Kitt, Eartha. Confessions of a Sex Kitten (London: Sidgwick &Jackson Limited, 1989)

Kitt, Eartha. Thursday's Child. (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce,1956)

"Kitt, Eartha." <http://blackhistory.eb.com/micro/722/33.html>(June 10, 1997)

Leavy, Walter. "Fifty Years of Black Love in Movies." Ebony 50 (February 1995), 147-153.

McBride, James. “In Memory of Eartha Kitt.” Accessed at http://thecarlyle.com/entertainment.cfm

  on February 13, 2009.

McCormick, Jerry. "Kitt to bring passion, soul to 'Calah'. "The State (April 18, 1997), Weekend 4.

Monk, John. “Star had love-hate tie to SC.” The State (December 26, 2008), A1, 12.

Ralston, Jeannie. "Family Flair." McCall's 113 (January1986), 74-81.

“Sultry actress-singer who played Catwoman was famous for her rendition of ‘Santa Baby.’ “  Winston-Salem Journal (December 26, 2008), A2.

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The University of South Carolina-Aiken
e-mail carolb@usca.edu

last updated 2/20/2009

original article 9/25/1997