Kitt, Eartha Mae

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Kitt, Eartha Mae

January 26, 1928

Born on a farm in the town of North, South Carolina, singer and actress Eartha Kitt and her sister Pearl were abandoned as small children by their mother. They were raised in a foster family until 1936, when Eartha moved to New York City to live with her aunt.

In New York Kitt attended the Metropolitan High School (which later became the High School of Performing Arts), and at sixteen she met Katherine Dunham, who granted her a scholarship with Dunham's dance troupe. Kitt toured Europe and Mexico with the troupe, developing a sexually provocative stage presence and a throaty, sensual singing style. When the troupe arrived in Paris, Kitt was offered a job singing at a top nightclub. Orson Welles saw her perform and cast her as "Girl Number Three" in his 1951 stage production of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. After touring Germany with the production and a brief singing engagement in Turkey, Kitt returned to New York. She performed at La Vie en Rose and at the Village Vanguard, where Leonard Sillman saw her and decided to cast her in his Broadway show New Faces of 1952. Kitt also appeared in the 1954 film version of New Faces. In both versions she sang "C'est Si Bon," "Monotonous," and "Uska Dara," which were recorded for her 1955 album The Bad Eartha.

Kitt performed from the mid-1950s through the 1960s in theaters, nightclubs, and cabarets in the United States and abroad, honing her reputation as a "sex kitten." Her stage appearances included Mrs. Patterson (1954), a musical produced by Sillman, for which she received a Tony Award nomination, and Shinbone Alley (1957). Kitt also appeared in the films St. Louis Blues (1958), The Accused (1957), and Anna Lucasta (1959), which earned her an Oscar nomination. During this period she recorded two notable albums, Bad but Beautiful in 1961 and At the Plaza in 1965. Kitt also made numerous television appearances, including a stint on the 1960s Batman series, in which she played Catwoman.

In 1968 Kitt's career took a dramatic turn when she criticized the war in Vietnam at a White House luncheon hosted by the First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. As a result she lost bookings and was vilified by conservatives and much of the mainstream press and was investigated by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Although Kitt's subsequent appearances in Europe were commonly believed to be the result of her being blacklisted in the United States, in fact she maintained a significant presence in American clubs, film, and

television. In 1972 her political reputation took a sharp turn when she performed in South Africa and publicly complimented her white hosts for their hospitality.

In the late 1970s and 1980s Kitt continued her career as a cabaret singer and occasional actor. Her return to Broadway in the 1978 show Timbuktu earned her a second Tony nomination. She recorded the album I Love Men in 1984 and published two autobiographies during this period, I'm Still Here in 1989 and Confessions of a Sex Kitten in 1991. Kitt also appeared in a variety of marginal Hollywood films, including Erik the Viking in 1989, Ernest Scared Stupid in 1991, Boomerang in 1992, and Fatal Instinct in 1993. A five-compact disc retrospective of her work, entitled Eartha Quake, was released in 1993.

Kitt remained active in the decade following the release of her autobiographies and retrospective. In 1996 she portrayed jazz legend Billie Holiday in a one-woman show, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. In 1998 she portrayed the Wicked Witch in a musical version of The Wizard of Oz, and in 2000 she was cast as the Fairy Godmother in a musical version of Cinderella. Kitt pursues her hobbies of gardening and needlepoint at her Westchester County, New York, home. Despite her "sex kitten" image, she has never had plastic surgery.

See also Dunham, Katherine; Music in the United States


Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America. New York: Carlson, 1993.

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

Kitt, Eartha. Alone with Me. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1976.

Kohn, Martin F. "Mischief and Magic." Detroit Free Press, March 3, 2002.

susan mcintosh (1996)

thaddeus russell (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005