Kitt, Eartha (Mae) 1928-

views updated

KITT, Eartha (Mae) 1928-

PERSONAL: Born January 26, 1928, in North, SC; daughter of William (a sharecropper) and Anna Mae (Riley) Kitt; married William McDonald, June, 1960 (divorced, 1965); children: Kitt McDonald Shapiro (daughter). Education: Educated in New York, NY.

ADDRESSES: Home—New York, NY. Office—Eartha Kitt Productions, 888 Seventh Ave., Floor 37, New York, NY 10106-3799. Agent—Gurtman and Murtha Assoc., 162 West 56th St., New York, NY 10019. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER: Singer, dancer, actress, and nightclub performer. Toured United States, Mexico, and South America as a dancer and singer with Katherine Dunham dance troupe, 1944-49; European nightclub debut at Carroll's, Paris, France, 1949; played Helen of Troy in Orson Welles's production of Faust, Paris, 1951; American nightclub debut at La Vie en Rose, New York, NY. Stage performances include New Faces, 1952, Mrs. Patterson, 1954, Shinbone Alley, 1957, Jolly's Progress, 1959, and role of Princess-Sahleem-La-Lume, Timbuktu, 1978; touring performances include productions of The Skin of Our Teeth, The Owl and the Pussycat, and Cinderella, 2000-02. Motion picture performances include New Faces, 1954; Accused, 1957; The Mark of the Hawk, Universal, 1958; Anna Lucasta, Paramount, 1959; Synanon, 1965; All by Myself, 1982; Ernest: Scared Stupid; Unzipped; Feast of All Saints, 2000; and two French films. Television appearances include Ed Sullivan Show, Colgate Comedy Hour, I Spy, Batman, and Police Woman.

Recordings include At the Plaza, 1965; Bad but Beautiful, 1976; At Her Very Best, 1982; C'est si bon, Polydor, 1983; I Love Men, Sunnyview, 1984; St. Louis Blues, 1985; That Bad Eartha, RCA, 1985; Eartha Kitt with the Doc Cheatham Trio (recorded 1950), Swing, 1986; In Person at the Plaza (recorded 1965), GNP Crescendo, 1987; My Way: A Musical Tribute to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Caravan of Dreams, 1987; Eartha Kitt in Person at the Plaza, 1988; A Funny Dame, 1988; Diamond Series (compilation), 1988; I'm Still Here, 1989; Live in London, 1990; Best of Eartha Kitt (compilation), MCA, 1990; Miss Kitt to You, RCA, 1992; Primitive Man, 1992; Thinking Jazz, ITM, 1992; Back in Business, 1995; Love for Sale, Capitol; and The Romantic Eartha Kitt, Capitol. Recorded dramatic readings include Black Pioneers in American History: Nineteenth Century, with Moses Gunn, Caedmon, 1968; and Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa, Caedmon, 1968.

AWARDS, HONORS: Golden Rose First Place Award for best special of the year, Montreux Film Festival, 1962, for This Is Eartha; Woman of the Year Award, National Association of Black Musicians, 1968; three Tony Award nominations; Grammy Award nomination; Emmy Award nomination.


Thursday's Child (autobiography), Duell, Sloan & Pearce (New York, NY), 1956.

Alone with Me (autobiography), Regnery (Washington, DC), 1976.

I'm Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten, Barricade Books (New York, NY), 1991.

Rejuvenate!: It's Never Too Late, Scribner (New York, NY), 2001.

ADAPTATIONS: Rejuvenate! was adapted as an audiobook, narrated by Kitt.

SIDELIGHTS: "In essence, I'm a sophisticated cotton picker," wrote vocalist and actress Eartha Kitt in her autobiography Alone with Me. Despite her childhood of poverty and instability, Kitt has achieved international recognition and success in one of show business's most unusual and poignant tales. From a humble background in the Deep South, Kitt rose to become the toast of Europe during the 1950s as a cabaret singer with a dynamic persona and memorable, throaty voice. Back in America, however, she faced criticism from the African-American community for being too "white," but later earned their support after speaking out against the Vietnam War in 1968. The media backlash over Kitt's remarks, combined with government harassment, effectively derailed Kitt's career in the United States for several years. Later, however, Kitt returned to both stage and screen and her recording career. She is one of the few performers to have earned nominations for Tony, Grammy, and Oscar awards in her lifetime.

Though Kitt is uncertain about her exact date of birth, she recalled a hardscrabble life in the sharecropping territory of South Carolina during the Great Depression. She, her mother, and younger sister moved from house to house while their mother did chores in exchange for room and board. The young Kitt routinely suffered taunts of "yella" because of her lighter skin; eventually her mother left her behind with one farm family when she married a man who rejected Kitt because of her mixed race. "My mother felt a man was more important than her daughter," Kitt told Richette Haywood in Ebony. "I would never have left my child," she added.

The young Kitt, who wore a dress made from a potato sack and did not own a pair of shoes, worked the fields and tended the animals. She was an outsider, and suffered for it. "Their children would put a sack on my head, tie me to a tree and throw stones," she remembered in an interview with New York Times contributor Michael T. Kaufman. In her autobiography I'm Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten, she recalled accidentally allowing the farm's milk cow to stray near a patch of lima beans, poisonous to cows. The cow had a seizure and died before her eyes, but not before it bellowed terribly; across the field, its calf heard and replied in distress, and "the sound of her calf in answer brought me to sobs I cannot describe—afraid for the whipping I knew I would get and afraid for the calf who, like me, might be left without a mother."

Kitt's life changed when a distant relative from the North sent clothing and instructions to send the girl to New York City. She learned that this was her mother's sister, but has since suspected that this "aunt" was in reality her biological mother. Kitt arrived alone at Pennsylvania Station at the age of eight, and when brought to her aunt's apartment, saw electricity and an indoor toilet for the first time. Yet her aunt was abusive, and in many ways life in Spanish Harlem was no easier than it had been down South.

Nevertheless, Kitt quickly left behind her humble beginnings by exhibiting an aptitude for learning. She learned several languages while living in Spanish Harlem. She excelled in school, and also sang in a choir and took piano lessons. One day a sympathetic teacher gave Kitt bus fare and sent her to audition at New York's High School for the Performing Arts. Kitt was accepted, one of only six African Americans there at the time. Again, she excelled in her new and challenging setting, despite the sometimes precarious nature of her home life. Another kindly teacher gave her a ticket to a Broadway play and told her not to come to school the next day. Kitt was so moved by the experience she cried at the end.

As Kitt's situation at home deteriorated, she began to run away. She would stay with various friends or classmates, or sneak into apartment buildings and sleep on the roof. "When I see the homeless now, I empathize," she told Kaufman. "I know there but for the grace of God go I," she continued. Kitt managed to find work as a seamstress, and dropped out of her prestigious high school, though she was threatened with juvenile hall. One day, Kitt went to see a movie and was impressed by the famed Katherine Dunham Dance Company on screen, the first African-American corps de ballet. She decided she wanted to join it, and lucked into an audition not long afterward when one of the dancers happened to stop her in Harlem and ask for directions. Kitt won a spot—she was just sixteen—that paid a rich sum of $10 a week. With the Dunham troupe she toured Mexico, South America, and Europe and appeared in the movie Casbah, a musical adaptation of Casablanca. The prominence of belonging to such an acclaimed dance company afforded Kitt a wealth of opportunities, and she began dating playboys and celebrities. When the Dunham Company was performing in Paris in 1949, Kitt—by now a soloist—was offered a nightclub singing engagement. She was promptly fired from the company after giving two weeks' notice, but was a hit with her new audience at Carroll's, a swanky Paris nightclub.

Kitt became a Parisian sensation overnight. Critics raved about her sultry, unusual voice and slinky stage demeanor. Orson Welles cast her in his avant-garde stage production of Faust as the mythic beauty Helen of Troy. "I asked Orson at one point in the rehearsal who this character was," Kitt recalled in her autobiography. "What kind of woman is she? How old is she? 'Don't ask stupid questions, you stupid child,' Orson told me. 'I chose you to play this part because you are the most exciting woman in the world. You represent all women of all ages. You have no place or time.' This confused me more than ever," Kitt remembered, "so I just played myself."

Kitt's cabaret repertoire came to include several foreign-language songs, of which two—the French "C'est si bon" and "Usku Dara," a Turkish song, became her signature tunes. She also appeared in two French films. Still, her name was relatively unknown in the United States, and she hoped to conquer Broadway. She was selected as part of the revue New Faces of 1952, and the show was a hit. Again, she was the subject of a great deal of media attention, and with this success she began a recording career with RCA. Back in New York, she lived on her own for the first time in her life in a studio on Riverside Drive. The building had an unwritten "whites-only" rule, but two of Kitt's friends were tenants and signed over their lease in private to her when they moved.

Kitt's glamorous celebrity lifestyle continued uninterrupted in the United States. She dated a British aristocrat as well as Porfirio Rubirosa, the famed raconteur. At one point she was earning $3,000 a week, but that figure jumped to $10,000 after a scandal in the papers. It was claimed that Kitt had offended the royal family of Greece at a performance at Los Angeles's Mocambo nightclub, but it was simply a misunderstanding over another part of the show that had nothing to do with her. Headlines trumpeted the mayor's denunciation of Kitt. The star also faced the subtle disapproval of the African-American community, with whom her cosmopolitan cabaret act did not catch on. She was viewed as a bit over-sophisticated, someone who "acted white." Kitt's unusual act did not always find favor with industry types, either. The person who signed her to her first recording contract was fired because of it; it was said that Kitt's voice was "too weird to sell records," according to Ross Wetzsteon in the Village Voice.

Kitt sold many records on the RCA label despite that prediction. She performed nearly nonstop during this era, appearing back in Paris, in Las Vegas, and again on Broadway in such plays as Shinbone Alley and Mrs. Patterson. When she appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show the host instructed her to wear pants, saying, "Every time you wear a dress we get letters from the Catholics saying you are too sexy," Kitt remembered in her autobiography. During this era she fell in love with Arthur Loew, Jr., heir to the movie-theater chain, and the two lived together for a time. Gossip columnists treated the interracial relationship kindly—Loew's personality and drinking habits were said to have improved considerably under Kitt's watch—but he was the only Loew son and his mother was viciously opposed to the relationship.

Kitt also dated Sammy Davis, Jr. and Charles Revson, founder of Revlon—the lipstick shade "Fire and Ice" is rumored to be named for her—and was pals with actor James Dean. In 1960 she married Bill McDonald, a mentally unbalanced man she had dated casually; he had threatened to kill himself if she would not marry him, and she succumbed since she felt he would make a good father to the child she wanted so badly. She later described her daughter, Kitt, as "the only good thing" about her five-year marriage, she told a writer for Ebony. McDonald took over as Kitt's accountant, sold properties without her permission, and refused to pay child support after they separated. Kitt raised her daughter alone in Bel-Air and London.

In a long list of acknowledgments at the beginning of Alone with Me, Kitt included: "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 to leave it." The series of events which precipitated that sentiment began in January, 1968, with her participation, by the invitation of First Lady Mrs. Lyndon Johnson, in the first "Woman Doers' Luncheon" at the White House. The topic for discussion at the meeting was to be "Why is there so much juvenile delinquency in the streets of America?" It was a subject in which Kitt took a very personal interest. Over the years, she had helped organize numerous antipoverty and anticrime groups; she had visited ghettos and talked with their residents wherever she worked; she had formed dance workshops in Harlem and Watts. She accepted the White House invitation with "a grave sense of personal commitment," paying her own transportation expenses to attend.

Before she went, Kitt talked with a group called the Mothers of Watts about the discussion topic. Their feeling was that the war in Vietnam was a direct cause of street crime among the young in several ways: the drain on the economy, the disproportionate number of minorities being sent to war, and—worst of all—the fact that those with criminal records were deferred while the law-abiding young men were drafted. Kitt wanted to raise the issue of Vietnam, among many others, at the luncheon.

"But," as she said, "things got a little out of hand—to say the least." She described her growing chagrin at the lack of seriousness among many guests and the careful staging for a "surprise" visit by President Johnson. "I was most definitely getting upset," Kitt recalled. "I hadn't flown from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to watch a show." As she wrote in Alone with Me: "With God as my witness, I had no intention of launching a diatribe against the war in Vietnam. But the reaction to my statements precluded my saying much more." A writer for Newsweek quoted her remarks to Mrs. Johnson as follows: "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 [crime] record they don't have to go off to Vietnam. . . . No wonder the kids rebel and take pot, and Mrs. Johnson, in case you don't understand the lingo, that's marijuana."

Kitt described the effect of this incident on her career. "After the White House luncheon and the press it received, I became persona non grata in my own country . . . club contracts were cancelled or 'lost' with the contractors refusing to draw up new ones. The television quiz show on which I was a semiregular never invited me back and the phones stopped ringing." Finally, in 1974, she began once more to get nightclub bookings in the United States. In the Washington Post, Lon Tuck explained, in 1975 "Kitt learned through newspaper reports that an upshot of that incident was the assembling of a Secret Service dossier filled with gossip about her personal life, but concluding she was no immediate threat to the Republic." Later, when Jack Anderson's Washington, D.C., office disclosed the extent to which government intelligence agencies had investigated Kitt's activities, both before and after the 1968 luncheon, the recovery of her career was accelerated.

In the late 1970s Kitt returned to a recording career, cutting a disco record with Jacques Morali that launched her new status as a gay icon. During the 1980s she spent time on her extensive estate in Connecticut, where she tended to a large garden that kept the health-conscious dancer's kitchen well-stocked with fruits and vegetables. "I trust the dirt," Kitt told a writer for Ebony. "I don't trust diamonds and gold. I know how to survive in the dirt." In her book Rejuvenate: It's Never too Late!, she provides more of her philosophy of life, especially as it relates to women entering middle age.

Kitt returned to film in the early 1990s, appearing in Ernest: Scared Stupid and as a romantic interest in Eddie Murphy's Boomerang. She played herself in Fatal Instinct, a Carl Reiner spoof from 1993, and appeared in Unzipped, a documentary look at fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. She released yet another album of songs, Back in Business, in 1995, and portrayed a homeless woman in a benefit play titled Sam's Song, performed at New York's All Souls Unitarian Church. Kitt also returned to the cabaret circuit, performing at Manhattan's Cafe Carlyle in 1993 and appearing in the one-woman show Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill in 1996.

Tuck observed that throughout Kitt's conversations and writings there remains a strong consistency: "She describes her life as a success story, in which disaster, for a citizen of the world, has been only a temporary setback." In Kitt's own words: "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."



Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 16, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Contemporary Musicians, Volume 9, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.

Kitt, Eartha, Thursday's Child, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1956.

Kitt, Eartha, Alone with Me, Regnery (Washington, DC), 1976.

Notable Black American Women, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.


Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 21, 2001, Wendell Brock, "A Formidable Villainess Gets to Play Nice: An Interview with Eartha Kitt," p. G1.

Black Issues Book Review, May, 2001, Yasmain Broady-Soya, review of Rejuvenate!: It's Never Too Late, p. 61.

BlackLines, April, 1996.

Book, November-December, 2001, Kristin Kloberdanz, "A Purrfect Philosophy: For Eartha Kitt, Reading Is the Cat's Meow," p. 28.

Booklist, April 1, 2002, Whitney Scott, review of Rejuvenate!, p. 1347.

Chicago Defender Accent, November 18, 1978, p. 12.

Collier's, June 11, 1954, pp. 33-39.

Cue, November 27, 1954.

Detroit Free Press, September 17, 1978.

Detroit News, March 1, 2002, Lawrence B. Johnson, "Under Eartha's Spell, Kitt's Life Is Its Own 'Cinderella' Story," p. 1.

Ebony, December, 1957, pp. 83-92; October, 1993, pp. 112-16.

Essence, January, 1993, p. 56.

Good Housekeeping, October, 2000, "A Mom Is Just a Mom," p. 170.

Jet, January 16, 1995, p. 63.

Modern Maturity, March-April, 2001, Ponchitta Pierce, "Eartha, Moved," p. 28.

Negro History Bulletin, October 19, 1955, p. 10.

Newsweek, January 29, 1968.

New York Times, September 11, 1993, p. A25; January 8, 1995, p. WC11.

Outsmart, July, 2001, Blase DiStefano, "Eartha Kitt Purr-severes: The Feline Feminist Talks about Her Two Lives As the Child and the Woman."

Publishers Weekly, April 2, 2001, "Tip-Top and Long-Lasting," p. 61.

Time, February 13, 1978.

Village Voice, February, 1993, p. 92.

Washington Post, January 19, 1978.


Eartha Kitt Web site, (November 13, 2003).


All by Myself (documentary film), 1982.*