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Kitt, Eartha (1928—)

Kitt, Eartha (1928—)

African-American singer, dancer, and actress who, from the poverty of Southern U.S. cotton fields, created an international career that was almost derailed by her views on the Vietnam War expressed one afternoon at the White House. Nickname: Kitty Charles. Born Eartha Mae Kitt on January 26, 1928, in North Carolina (no records of her birth date exist; the January 26, 1928 date was an estimate given by her in the 1950s when she was required to do so); daughter of William Kitt (a sharecropper) and Anna Mae (Riley) Kitt; educated at New York School for the Performing Arts; married William McDonald, on June 9, 1960 (divorced 1965); children: daughter Kitt McDonald.

Toured U.S., Mexico, South America, England and France as a singer and dancer (1944–49); made European nightclub debut in Paris, France (1949); played in Orson Welles' production of Faust, Paris (1951); had first American nightclub and Broadway successes, New York City (1952); recorded albums and made films and television appearances (1953–59); appeared on Broadway (1954–59); wrote first autobiography (1956); attended White House luncheon and denounced Vietnam War (January 1968); worked mostly overseas (1968–74); attended White House reception by invitation of President Jimmy Carter and returned to Broadway (1978); appeared at Carnegie Hall (1985).

Awards:

Golden Rose First Place Award for best special of the year (This is Eartha) from Montreux Film Festival (1962); Woman of the Year Award from National Association of Black Musicians (1968).

Plays:

Faust (1951); New Faces (1952); Mrs. Patterson (1954); Shinbone Alley (1957); Jolly's Progress (1959); Timbuktu (1978).

Filmography:

Casbah (1948); New Faces (1954); Accused (1957); The Mark of the Hawk (1958); Anna Lucasta (1959); Synanon (1965).

Television appearances:

"Batman" (1966); "The Ed Sullivan Show"; "Colgate Comedy Hour"; "I Spy" (1965); "Police Woman."

Albums:

Eartha Kitt Album; That Bad Eartha (1955); Down to Eartha; St. Louis Blues; Thursday's Child; Bad But Beautiful (1961); At The Plaza (1965); I Love Men (1984).

Writings:

Thursday's Child (1956); Alone With Me (1976). Recorded dramatic readings: Black Pioneers in American History: Nineteenth Century (1968); Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa (1968).

In January of 1968, Lady Bird Johnson hosted the initial "Women Doers' Luncheon" at the White House. The discussion topic: "Why is there so much juvenile delinquency in the streets of America?" One of the guests, the popular and sultry singer and actress Eartha Kitt, had accepted her invitation with a keen interest. Kitt's own childhood in poverty had influenced every aspect of her life and had inspired her to help create many anti-poverty and anti-crime groups. Over the years, wherever she worked she had visited ghettos and talked with residents, and she had formed dance workshops in Harlem and Watts. Before the luncheon, she met with an organization called the "Mothers of Watts" about the discussion topic. These women felt the war in Vietnam was directly escalating youth street crime in several ways, but the most serious was the fact that law-abiding young men were being drafted while those with criminal records were deferred. Kitt flew to Washington with a "grave sense of personal commitment," paying her own travel expenses. At the luncheon, she quickly became disappointed with the air of frivolity she perceived among many guests and was annoyed by the staging of a "surprise" visit by President Lyndon Johnson. She later recalled, "I hadn't flown from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. to watch a show." Kitt's subsequent words were to transform her life. She remarked to the first lady, "I think we have missed the main point at this luncheon. We have forgotten the main reason we have juvenile delinquency … there's a war going on and America doesn't know why. Boys I know across the nation feel it doesn't pay to be a good guy. They figure that with a [criminal] record they don't have to go off to Vietnam.… [N]o wonder the kids rebel and take pot, and Mrs. Johnson, in case you don't understand the lingo, that's marijuana."

Almost immediately Kitt became persona non grata in her own country, she later said. Contracts with nightclubs were canceled or "lost." Her phone stopped ringing. Although she insisted she had "had no intention of launching a diatribe against the war in Vietnam," her opportunities in the United States dried up. Virtually ostracized, she had to work mostly overseas until the mid-1970s. It was not until 1974 that she again began to book nightclub appearances in America. In 1975, it was reported that following the 1968 incident, a Secret Service file on her had been assembled. The file was filled with gossip about her personal life, including CIA documents quoting a Paris source as saying Kitt had a "lurid sex life" and labeling her "a sadistic nymphomaniac with a vile tongue." Kitt rebutted the smears, saying, "I have always lived a very clean life.… I have nothing to hide." The file concluded, however, that she was no threat to the nation, and the exposition of the extensive investigation of Kitt's life by government agencies hastened the recovery of her U.S. career.

Overall, I've had a very good life, a life of cotton and caviar. And the cotton years have made the caviar years far more savory than they would have been had my early life been an easy one.

—Eartha Kitt

In the "Acknowledgments" at the beginning of her 1976 autobiography Alone With Me, Kitt expressed both her frustration with the treatment she received at the hands of her homeland and her unwillingness to be crushed by it. In that long list, she recognizes, "My country, which hasn't allowed me to work here but which takes a more than healthy chunk of my income because I refuse to be intimidated and leave it." Eartha Kitt was not to be defeated by difficult circumstances; she had weathered adversity before and come out on top. She was born in 1928 in a back-country town in North Carolina and named Eartha to "thank the earth" after her father's first good harvest in years. Kitt's parents, William Kitt, who was African-American, and Anna Mae Riley Kitt , who was half-Cherokee and half-black, were poverty-stricken sharecroppers. Because of her parentage, Kitt's unique image would one day be admired for the challenge it presented to mainstream racial stereotypes. Her childhood was full of racial conflict, and she was resented by other children for her light complexion. Her father disappeared when she was small and was reported dead two years later, and her mother went off with another man. Kitt later wrote that she believed her mother died from the effects of voodoo.

After losing both parents, she and her younger sister Anna Pearl picked cotton in exchange for food and shelter, and drifted between neighbors. When Kitt was eight, their aunt, Mamie Lue Riley , sent for the sisters to come and live with her. The girls traveled to New York City with just catfish sandwiches to eat, wearing all the clothes their aunt had sent them on their backs.

Living with her aunt in the Puerto Rican-Italian section of Harlem, Kitt was frequently alone, so she invented her own world of singing and dancing. She picked up several languages, and later won awards in dramatics at the New York School for the Performing Arts. A sports lover, she played baseball and became an excellent pole vaulter. At 14, she quit school to work in a Brooklyn factory sewing army uniforms, saving some money for piano lessons.

Kitt's first big break came at age 16 when she won a scholarship from the Katherine Dunham Dance Group. With that troupe, she toured the United States, Mexico, and South America, and in 1947 danced in a sequence of the Hollywood film Casbah. Kitt was soon given more solo roles and became the group's vocalist, singing African, Haitian, and Cuban "ethnic" songs. The Dunham group toured in England and Europe, and Kitt was captivated by the cities of London and Paris. "Paris and London were the places that made me realise there is an Eartha Kitt inside of me somewhere," she said years later. When the Dunham troupe left Paris, she stayed behind and launched her nightclub career. Earning a reputation as "the rage of Paris," she traveled internationally and performed to wide acclaim. In 1951, upon returning to Paris from her aunt's funeral, Kitt was invited by Orson Welles to play Helen of Troy in his production of Faust. Although she had only two days to learn her part, her performance drew high praise from critics. She was grateful to Welles ever after for giving her her "first chance at a legitimate stage role."

Following Faust, she starred in two French films, and after a lukewarm reception at her first New York nightclub, she achieved her "first solid American success" at the Village Vanguard. Spotted by producer Leonard Sillman there, she went on to perform in his revue New Faces in 1952. As her fame snowballed, she sang at the after-dinner show at a local nightclub during the entire run of New Faces, breaking the all-time attendance record at the club. Her music recordings with RCA Victor made her a jukebox favorite of the time. After New Faces, she landed the lead role of Teddy Hicks, a 15-year old daughter of a Kentucky laundress, in Sillman's Broadway show Mrs.

Patterson. One reviewer was smitten with her cat-like style and wrote, "She has a fascinatingly alive face which can range from a savage look to one of tenderness. She prowls round the stage with a feline grace." While preparing for Mrs. Patterson in 1954, she made several television appearances. Her star had risen; she became a bona fide celebrity.

From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, Kitt, the 5'2" and 105-pound "sophisticated black seductress," was in high demand. She appeared in two more Broadway shows, wrote an autobiography, made several more records, appeared and starred in films and made several television shows. One of her most well-known roles was that of the Catwoman on the "Batman" television series of the mid-1960s. She was at the top of her profession when she articulated her opinion at that 1968 White House luncheon.

Eartha Kitt fit no one's stereotype, and opinions on what exactly she symbolized have varied widely. According to Black Women in America, interviews and articles on Kitt at the height of her career were preoccupied with her "urbane sophistication, linguistic fluency and haughty, aloof manner, all of which helped to shape a racially ambiguous image that stood at odds with the sambo stereotypes more commonly informing mainstream white perspectives." Her remarks to Lady Bird Johnson "castigating a group of prominent women for their myopic views of American racial and social problems and an unjust Vietnam War," shaped a portrait of her as a "pariah of conservative politics [and a] hero of the antiwar and civil rights movements." Yet her "feline seductiveness," her supposed predilection for white men, and her reported scorn of her own rural and racial past led some to feel her public persona also supported prevailing American social assumptions of male, urban, and white superiority. In 1972, she performed in South Africa and her "seemingly naive acceptance of white South African hospitality" garnered her the title of South Africa's "Honorary White" in a Life magazine essay.

"Knocked out of the box" in 1968, as she herself put it, Kitt did not return to Broadway until a brief stint in 1978 when she played "Sahleem-La-Lume" in Timbuktu. That year, a decade after the fateful luncheon, Kitt was invited to the White House by President Jimmy Carter for a reception for Ford's Theatre. She attended with her 16-year-old daughter Kitt McDonald and later said, "First I thought I shouldn't go. Now I'm very glad I went. Mr. Carter looked at me and smiled as though he understood." Since 1978, she has worked mainly as a cabaret singer. She appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1985 and made an album entitled I Love Men in 1984 which was popular in the gay disco communities of the time. In 1988, at age 60 or thereabouts, she appeared in the musical Follies to positive reviews. Throughout the early and mid-1990s she made several film and television show appearances.

Lon Tuck of the Washington Post wrote that Kitt "describes her life as a success story, in which disaster, for a citizen of the world, is only a temporary setback." Her extraordinary life trained her to survive personal disaster, while at the same time teaching her six languages, taking her to 92 countries, and showing her what it was like to make $10,000 a week. Kitt says simply, "In essence, I'm a sophisticated cotton picker."

sources:

Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1955.

Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1993.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Washington Post. January 19, 1978.

Wolf, Matt. "She's Still Here," in Plays & Players. October 1988, p. 16.

suggested reading:

Kitt, Eartha. Alone With Me. Regnery, 1976.

——. Thursday's Child. Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1956.

Jacqueline Maurice , Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

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