Singer, actress, dancer
Entertainer Eartha Kitt’s five decades in show business approximate a roller coaster ride with peaks and valleys more considerable than most. The cabaret singer with the saucy delivery and sultry purr escaped a childhood so daunting that, according to People magazine’s John Stark, it made Charles Dickens’s fictitious urchin Oliver Twist’s look good; yet by the time the song stylist had reached her mid-twenties she was headlining at top clubs in the United States and Europe and rubbing elbows with such twentieth-century heavyweights as physicist Albert Einstein and Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Early in her career, director Orson Welles pronounced Kitt “the most exciting woman alive” and cast her in her first dramatic role as Helen of Troy in his award-winning interpretation of Faust; later, the entertainer appeared in less distinguished cinematic vehicles—a downward trend she relates to her highly publicized confrontation with Lady Bird Johnson, former first lady of the United States, over the Vietnam War in 1968. The conflict blacklisted Kitt from performing at home during her prime years and left a seemingly permanent stain on her singing and acting career. Nevertheless, the philosophical performer told Judy Gerstel in the Detroit Free Press: “I’m still very much here, and I feel strongly that the stars are rising for me again.... As long as you are working, that gives you dignity and respect.”
Endured Traumatic Childhood
Kitt was born in rural South Carolina to a 14-year-old black mother and a white father, whose identity she never knew. Her black stepfather was a sharecropper who soon abandoned the family; when Eartha was six, her mother also disappeared, and she and a half-sister survived on berries in the woods or picked cotton in exchange for food and shelter. Kitt’s light skin made her a particular target for taunts and beatings in her hometown. At the age of eight, she was taken in by an aunt, who brought her to Harlem to live. But the aunt mistreated her. “She was a child abuser,” Kitt told Veronica Webb in Interview. “I never knew when she was going to pick up a stool and hit me over the head with it. Not because I was doing anything wrong…. I went to school with black eyes and welts on my bottom, and I figured, Well, I guess that’s the way it was meant to be.”
While her aunt worked, Kitt practiced singing and dancing, talents that won her recognition in school. By age fourteen, she was earning a living as a sewer in a
For the Record…
Born Eartha Mae Kitt, January 26, 1928, in North, SC; daughter of William (a sharecropper) and Anna Mae (Riley) Kitt; married William McDonald (in real estate), 1960 (divorced, 1965); children: Kitt McDonald Shapiro. Education: Studied dance at New York High School for the Performing Arts and piano privately; received Katherine Dunham dance scholarship, c. 1944.
Worked in factory sewing military uniforms, Brooklyn, NY, c. 1942-44; dancer and singer with Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe, touring U.S. and abroad, 1944-49; solo nightclub performer, 1949—, debuting in Paris and headlining at clubs in Europe and U.S.; international stage performer, 1950—, recording artist, 1953—, and actress, 1954—. Performed cabaret act in New York City, Germany, and Australia, 1992. Television performer and film narrator.
Stage performances include Time Runs, 1950, New Faces of 1952, 1952, Mrs. Patterson, 1954, Shinbone Alley, 1957, Jolly’s Progress, 1959, and Timbuktu, 1978; film appearances include New Faces, 1954, Accused, 1957, The Mark of the Hawks, 1958, Anna Lucasta, 1959, Synanon, 1965, Erik the Viking, 1989, Ernest Scared Stupid, 1991, and Boomerang, 1992; television appearances include the role of Catwoman on the series Batman.
Awards: Montreaux Film Festival Golden Rose Award, 1962, for This Is Eartha; named Woman of the Year, National Association of Black Musicians, 1968.
Addresses: Agent —Gurtman & Murtha Assoc, 162 West 56th St., New York, NY 10019.
factory, using her savings for piano lessons; two years later she got her big break when she landed a dance scholarship with the all-black Katherine Dunham Company in New York.
Kitt toured South America and Europe with the company and emerged as one of its solo stars when it was discovered that she could sing as well as dance. She was taught African, Haitian, and Cuban songs, capitalizing on her exotic beauty and facility with languages (born of her youth in New York’s ethnically rich neighborhoods). The entertainer’s blend of sensuality and sophistication made her an instant hit with international audiences; her individual stardom also brought clashes with troupe leader Dunham, however, and the two ended their association in Paris in 1949. Kitt remained and became the toast of that city, performing at major clubs and cabarets there and in other continental capitals.
Kitt’s 1950 dramatic debut in Welles’s Time Runs in Paris drew critical acclaim and established her as a serious actress; she starred in two French films before returning to New York in 1952. After a fitful start, the performer reestablished her nightclub act there, and after appearing in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1952 and its cinematic counterpart, she rose to new heights in popularity: she broke attendance records at New York’s Blue Angel nightclub and the Mocambo in Hollywood. By the mid-fifties Kitt was recording her international repertoire for RCA Victor, and songs like “C’est Si Bon,” “Angelitos Negros,” the Turkish “Uska Darà,” and calypso “Somebody Bad Stole de Wedding Bell” became hits, as did “An Old-Fashioned Girl,” “I Want to Be Evil,” and “Santa Baby.” The entertainer also made frequent television appearances and engaged in additional stage and film work.
Faced Color Barrier
While Kitt prevailed as a variety artist, it was apparent by the 1960s that she was not destined for superstar-dom. The performer suspected that her color and cosmopolitan persona limited her; interviewer Gerstel suggested that “[Kitt] was always considered ‘too high class’ to play black women in dramas about the black experience.” Kitt told Webb, “I didn’t fit in. ‘She thinks she’s white. She doesn’t sing blues. She doesn’t sing jazz.’ I was ostracized by… black people for twenty-five years because they were conditioned by the media into thinking that all black people should be singing the same kind of music.”
Yet, writing about her long, failed relationships with Hollywood scion Arthur Loew, Jr., and cosmetics mogul Charles Revson in her 1989 autobiography I’m Still Here, Kitt determined that she was also “too black” to be accepted into white upper-crust society. Regardless, the performer had a comfortable club following, as well as a number of social and charitable interests that consumed much of her time. That was why she took her 1968 invitation to the White House so seriously, researching the topic for discussion—juvenile delinquency in America—beforehand, concluding that the Vietnam War was much to blame (due to the high proportion of minorities drafted and the deferment of those with criminal records). When Kitt discovered that the luncheon was merely a public relations event with a staged visit by President Lyndon B. Johnson, she confronted Mrs. Johnson with her findings, and news of the clash spread.
Blacklisted in the U.S.
In her 1976 autobiography, Alone With Me, Kitt recalled how her career in the United States—worth about a million and a half dollars annually—was strangled for nearly seven years by the incident: “Club contracts were cancelled or ‘lost,’ with the contractors refusing to draw up new ones. The television quiz show on which I was a semi-regular never invited me back, and the phones stopped ringing.” Fortunately, the international entertainer was still able to perform and record abroad.
In the mid-1970s, Washington, D.C., columnist Jack Anderson disclosed that the Secret Service and other government intelligence agencies had compiled extensive dossiers on Kitt’s professional and personal activities both before and after the 1968 luncheon. With that revelation the variety performer’s bookings in the United States resumed, but the passage of time, or tastes, narrowed her appeal. When reviewing her 1984 album/Love Men for People, for instance, Michael Small found Kitt’s purrs and snarls “high camp” and “sometimes catchy”; still, he admitted that with lyrics like “‘I just need someone to spank me/I just need someone to bank me/Sugar Daddy/Sugar Daddy,’ she won’t make a pal out of [noted feminist] Gloria Steinem.” Nonetheless, the entertainer still tours widely and appears in such venerable settings as New York’s Hotel Carlyle. She frequently performs a favorite—and appropriately titled—number, the Stephen Sondheim song “I’m Still Here.”
Thursday’s Child (autobiography), Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1956.
Alone With Me (autobiography), Regnery, 1976.
I’m Still Here (autobiography), [New York], 1989, published as Confessions of a Sex Kitten, Barricade Books, 1991.
Eartha Kitt With the Doc Cheatham Trio (recorded 1950), Swing, 1986.
In Person at the Plaza (recorded 1965), GNP Crescendo, 1987.
C’est Si Bon (recorded 1983), Polydor.
I Love Men, Sunnyview, 1984.
My Way: A Musical Tribute to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.,Caravan of Dreams, 1987.
Miss Kitt to You, RCA, 1992.
Thinking Jazz, ITM (German import), 1992.
Love for Sale, Capitol.
That Bad Eartha, RCA.
The Best of Eartha Kitt, MCA.
The Romantic Eartha Kitt, Capitol.
Has also recorded dramatic readings, including Black Pioneers in American History: Nineteenth Century, with Moses Gunn, Caedmon, 1968; Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa, Caedmon, 1968; and Young Brer Rabbit, 1987.
Contemporary Authors, Volumes 77-80, Gale, 1979.
Kitt, Eartha, Alone With Me, Regnery, 1976.
Kitt, I’m Still Here, 1989, published as Confessions of a Sex Kitten, Barricade Books, 1991.
The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Volume 2, Macmillan, 1986.
Detroit Free Press, October 16, 1991.
Ebony, September 1991.
Interview, January 1992.
Jet, January 18, 1988; July 23, 1990.
Newsweek, January 29, 1968.
People, February 4, 1985; February 12, 1990.
Pulse!, December 1992.
Time, February 13, 1978.
Washington Post, January 19, 1978.
Kitt, Eartha 1927–
Eartha Kitt 1927–
Singer, dancer, actress
Eartha Kitt’s life story is one of show business’s most unusual and poignant tales. From an unimaginably humble background in the Deep South, Kitt rose to become the toast of Europe during the glamorous 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 perceived as too “white,” but later earned public support the hard way 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, since no birth certificate exists (her mother was most likely still a teenager, while her father was white), she recalled a hardscrabble life in the sharecropping territory of South Carolina during the 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.
Moved to Harlem
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 the New York Times’s Michael T. Kaufman. In her autobiography, Confessions of a Sex Kitten, she recalled accidentally allowing the farm’s milk cow to stray near a patch of lima beans, poisonous to the bovine anatomy. 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
At a Glance…
Born Eartha Mae Kitt, January 26, 1927, in North, SC; daughter of William and Anna Mae (Riley) Kitt; married William McDonald, June 1960 (divorced, 1965); children: Kitt Shapiro.
Career: Singer, dancer, actress, and stage performer. Worked as a dancer, singer and soloist with the Katherine Dunham dance troupe, 1944-49; debuted as a nightclub singer at in Paris, 1949; played Helen of Troy in Orson Welles’s production of Faust, Paris, 1951. Stage appearances include New Faces (1952), Shinbone Alley (1957), and Timbutku (1978). Movie credits include Accused (1957), Anna Lucasta (1959), Syanon (1965), Ernest: Scared Stupid (1991), Boomerang (1992), and Fatal Instinct (1993). Kitt has also appeared on television and is perhaps best remembered for her recurring role as the Catwoman in the original Batman series.
Awards: Woman of the Year, National Association of Negro Musicians, 1968; Kitt has won Grammy, Tony, and Emmy award nominations for her work.
Addresses: Home—Pound Ridge, NY. Office —Eartha Kitt Productions, 888 Seventh Ave., Floor 37, New York, NY 10106-3799.
I would get and afraid for the calf who, like me, might be left without a mother,” Kitt recollected in her autobiography.
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 in later years she suspected 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.
Won Spot in Dance Company
As Kitt’s situation at home deteriorated, she began to run away. She would stay with various friends or classmates, but sometimes she would sneak into apartment buildings and sleep on the roof. “When I see the homeless now, I empathize,” she told Kaufman in the New York Times. “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, the 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, too—was offered a nightclub singing engagement. She was promptly fired from the company after giving her 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,” she added.
Launched Recording Career
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 a revue called 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 three thousand dollars a week, but that figure jumped to ten thousand 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 oversophisticated, 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.
Unlucky in Love
Kitt sold many records on the RCA label despite that prediction. She performed nearly non-stop 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 even 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.
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 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 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.
Caused a Stir in the Press
In 1968, Kitt was invited to the “Women Doers’ Luncheon” at the White House hosted by Lady Byrd Johnson, President Lyndon Johnson’s wife. It was publicized as a serious discussion on juvenile delinquency, but Kitt found it to be a showy, staged event whose attendees exhibited little concern for the nation’s problems. In preparation for the event, Kitt—who gave dance workshops in Watts—had met with a mothers’ group in a poor section of Los Angeles. They had explained to her just how the Vietnam War and the draft negatively impacted children in impoverished neighborhoods. Young men who were ineligible for deferments were fodder for the war machine. Going to college was one way to earn a deferment—or coming from a well-connected family—and thus a disproportionate number of minorities came back from a one-year tour of duty in Southeast Asia in body bags. However, as the mothers pointed out, young men with criminal records were not eligible to serve in the armed forces, and this was a certain factor in the recent rise in inner-city crime. When it was Kitt’s turn to speak at the luncheon, she declared that “Vietnam is the main reason we are having trouble with the youth of America,” Kitt remembered in Confessions of a Sex Kitten.
Though a limousine had taken her to the White House, it was nowhere to be seen and Kitt was forced to call a cab when the luncheon was over. On the ride back she heard on the radio that she had made the First Lady cry. Her remarks made headlines, and she was excoriated in the press. She lost friends—some prominent people conceded that what she had said was correct, but she acted rudely by saying it inside the President’s house. Her phone stopped ringing, the contracts Kitt had already inked for singing engagements simply “disappeared,” and she was left without work. “Some kind of plague had hit my house and I became an untouchable,” Kitt recalled in Confessions of a Sex Kitten. In a 1996 interview published in BlackLines, Kitt told reporter Catey Sullivan, “I was rejected artistically, emotionally and personally. I remember thinking, my own mother had given me away and now my country didn’t want me either.”
She did earn respect from some factions, however. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called to thank her, and she found a new audience with America’s youth of both races, who wholeheartedly supported her and even sported “Eartha Kitt for President” buttons. But Johnson had directed the Central Intelligence Agency to keep tabs on her, and an extensive dossier was compiled. She even suspected that her phone was tapped. It was not until the mid-1970s that political columnist Jack Anderson helped publicize the extent of the CIA’s surveillance of Kitt; the dossier even provided details of her love life.
Cast in Timbuktu
From 1968 to 1974 Kitt earned a living by performing in Europe. Her American comeback came when she was cast in the 1978 musical Timbuktu. It had long been her dream to return to Broadway, but she confessed to still being nervous about the Johnson flap before opening night. Timbuktu, however, was a great success and when it played in the nation’s capital, Jimmy Carter made a point of inviting her back to the White House. In the late 1970s Kitt also returned to a recording career, cutting a disco record with Jacques Morali that launched her new status as a gay icon. During the eighties, 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 Ebony. “I don’t trust diamonds and gold. I know how to survive in the dirt,” she continued.
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, the 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 entitled 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.
Though well into her sixties, Kitt still tours forty weeks out of the year. Her daughter Kitt Shapiro serves as her manager, and she remains as energetic as she was fifty years before as a Katherine Dunham dancer. Her legendary slinky, cat-like nature is still a draw for new fans, but age has seemed to mellow Kitt somewhat. She displays a Zen-like philosophy to life’s travails, and in particular about her own remarkable past. “I don’t wallow in the manure that was thrown on me,” Kitt told Sullivan in BlackLines “I use it as fertilizer for my life, and my life is extremely interesting,” she added.
At the Plaza, 1965.
Bad But Beautiful, 1976.
At Her Very Best, 1982.
C’est Si Bon (recorded 1983), Polydor.
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.
Primitive Man, 1992.
I’m Still Here, 1989.
Live in London, 1990.
Best of Eartha Kitt (compilation), MCA, 1990.
Miss Kitt to You, RCA, 1992.
Thinking Jazz, ITM, (German import), 1992.
Love for Sale, Capitol.
The Romantic Eartha Kitt, Capitol.
Back in Business, 1995.
Thursday’s Child (autobiography), Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1956.
Alone with Me (autobiography), Regnery, 1976.
Confessions of a Sex Kitten (autobiography), Barricade Books, 1989.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 3, Gale Research, 1993, pp. 121-123.
BlackLines, April 1996.
Ebony, December 1957, pp. 83-92; October 1993, pp. 112-116.
Essence, January 1993, p. 56.
Jet, January 16, 1995, p. 63.
New York Times, September 11, 1993, sec. A., p. 25; January 8, 1995, sec. WC, p. 11.
Village Voice, February 1993, p. 92.
Kitt, Eartha 1927-2008
Kitt, Eartha 1927-2008
Full name, Eartha Mae Kitt; born January 17, 1927, in St. Matthews (some sources cite town of North), SC; daughter of Anna Mae Riley; some sources cite father's name as William Keith–Fields; other sources cite stepfather's name as William Kitt (a sharecropper); foster daughter of Mamie Lue Riley; married William McDonald (in real estate), June 6, 1960 (divorced, c. 1965); children: Kitt McDonald Shapiro. Education: Attended High School of the Performing Arts, New York City. Avocational Interests: Reading, gardening, exercise.
Addresses: Agent— Marcia Hurwitz, Innovative Artists Talent and Literary Agency, 1505 10th St., Santa Monica, CA 90401. Publicist— Andrew Freedman Public Relations, 9127 Thrasher Ave., Los Angeles, CA90069.
Career: Singer, dancer, actress, voice artist, and writer. Eartha Kitt Productions, New York City, principal. Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe, soloist in tours of the United States, Mexico, and Europe, 1948; niggalelub singer around the world, beginning 1949; singer at U.S. venues including Village Vanguard and various jazz festivals; niggalelub proprietor in Paris, France; spokes-person for UNICEF; appeared in commercials. Sewed military uniforms at a clothing factory in Brooklyn, NY, c. 1942–44.
Awards, Honors: Antoinette Perry Award nomination, 1955, for Mrs. Patterson; named woman of the year, National Association of Negro Musicians, 1960; received star on Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1960; Golden Rose First Place Award, best special of the year, Montreux Film Festival, 1962, for Kaskade; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding single performance by a leading actress in a drama, 1966, for "The Loser," I Spy; Antoinette Perry Award nomination, 1978, for Timbuktu!; Image Award nomination, outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1996, for Living Single; Joseph Jefferson Award, c. 1996, for Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill; Antoinette Perry Award nomination and Drama Desk Award nomination, both best actress in a musical, 2000, for The Wild Party; Annie Award, outstanding voice acting by a female performer in an animated feature production, International Animated Film Society, and Black Reel Award nomination, best supporting actress in a theatrical film, both 2001, for The Emperor's New Groove; Daytime Emmy Awards, outstanding performer in an animated program, 2007, 2008, and Annie Awards, best voice acting in an animated television production,2007, 2008, all for The Emperor's New School; Wisdom Award, National Visionary Leadership Project, 2008; nominated for Grammy Awards, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Dancer with Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe, Blue Holiday, Belasco Theatre, New York City, 1945.
Member of Village Friends, Carib Song (musical), Adelphi Theatre, New York City, 1945.
Dancer with Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe, Bal Negre (dance revue), Belasco Theatre, 1946.
Helen of Troy, Time Runs, Paris, 1950.
Member of ensemble, New Faces of 1952 (revue; also known as Leonard Sillman's "New Faces of 1952"), Royale Theatre, New York City, 1952.
Theodora "Teddy" Hicks, Mrs. Patterson, National Theatre, New York City, 1954–55.
Mehitabel, the cat, Archie and Mehitabel, Broadway Theatre, New York City, 1957.
Shinbone Alley (musical), Broadway Theatre, 1957.
Jolly Rivers, Jolly's Progress, Longacre Theatre, New York City, 1959.
Mrs. Gracedew, The High Bid, Guildford, England, then Criterion Theatre, London, 1970.
Bunny Novak, Bunny, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, England, then Criterion Theatre, 1972.
Princess Sahleem–La–Lume, Timbuktu! (musical), John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC, then Mark Hellinger Theatre, New York City, both 1978.
New Faces of 1952 (revival), Equity Library Theatre, New York City, 1982.
Eartha Kitt in Concert, London Theatre, 1989.
Yes (solo show), Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1994.
Homeless woman, Sam's Song (benefit performance), All Souls Unitarian Church, New York City, 1995.
Billie Holiday, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, New Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago, IL, 1996.
Dolores, The Wild Party (musical), New York Shakespeare Festival, Virginia Theatre, New York City, 2000.
Fairy godmother, Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella," Theatre at Madison Square Garden, New York City, 2001, then New York City Opera, Lincoln Center, 2004.
Liliane La Fleur, Nine (musical), Roundabout Theatre Company, Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York City, 2003.
Mimi le Duck (musical), New World Stages, New York City, 2006.
The Skin of Our Teeth, Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, CT, 2007.
Appeared as Carlotta Campion, Follies (musical), London production.
Dancer, Bal Negre, Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe, European cities, 1946–47.
Helen of Troy, Time Runs (also known as Orson Welles'" Faust"), European cities, 1951.
Doris W., The Owl and the Pussycat, U.S. cities, 1965–66.
A Musical Jubilee, U.S. cities, 1976.
Princess Sahleem–La–Lume, Timbuktu! 1979-80.
Woman of the world, Blues in the Night, southern U.S. cities, 1985.
The wicked witch of the west, The Wizard of Oz, U.S. cities, 1998.
Fairy godmother, Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella, U.S. cities, 2000–2001.
(Uncredited) Dancer in Katherine Dunham group, Casbah, Universal, 1948.
New Faces of 1952 (revue; also known as New Faces), Twentieth Century–Fox, 1954.
Renee, The Mark of the Hawk (also known as Accused and Mark of the Hawk), Universal, 1958.
Gogo Germaine, St. Louis Blues, Paramount, 1958.
Title role, Anna Lucasta, United Artists, 1959.
The Saint of Devil's Island (also known as Seventy Times Seven), Film Productions International, 1961.
Betty Coleman, Synanon (also known as Get off My Back), Columbia, 1965.
(Uncredited) Singer, Uncle Tom's Cabin (also known as Cry Sweet Revenge, La capanna dello Zio Tom, La case de l'Oncle Tom, Cento dollari d'odio, Cica Tomina Koliba, and Onkel Tom's huette), Kroger Babb and Associates, 1965.
Narrator, All About People, 1967.
Scheherazade, Up the Chastity Belt (also known as The Chastity Belt and Naughty Knights), EMI Films, 1971.
Madame Rena, Friday Foster, American International Pictures, 1975.
All by Myself (documentary; also known as All By Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story and Eartha Kitt—Ganz allein), 1982.
Snake princess, The Serpent Warriors, 1986.
Voice of Meteorite Betty, The Pink Chiquitas, Shapiro Entertainment, 1986.
Naomi, Dragonard (also known as Master of Dragonard Hill), 1987.
Mrs. Swartz, Living Doll, 1990.
Freya, Erik the Viking (also known as Erik viking), Orion, 1991.
Old Lady Hackmore, Ernest Scared Stupid, Buena Vista, 1991.
Lady Eloise, Boomerang, Paramount, 1992.
First trial judge, Fatal Instinct, Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer, 1993.
(Uncredited) Herself, Unzipped, Miramax, Buena Vista, 1995.
Agatha K. Plummer, Harriet the Spy, Paramount, 1996.
Voice of the spirit in the wood, Ill Gotten Gains, Spats Films, 1997.
Cult leader, I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (also known as Ed Wood's "I Woke Up Early the Day I Died," and I Awoke Early the Day I Died), Cinequanon Pictures International, 1998.
Voice of Yzma/Yzma Kitty, The Emperor's New Groove (animated), Buena Vista/Walt Disney Pictures, 2000.
The Making and Meaning of "We Are Family" (also known as We Are Family), 2002.
Herself, The Sweatbox (documentary), Buena Vista, 2002.
Herself, Standard Time (also known as Anything but Love), Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2003.
Madame Zeroni, Holes, Buena Vista, 2003.
Voice of Yzma, The Emperor's New Groove 2: Kronk's New Groove (animated), Buena Vista Home Video, 2005.
Ms. Nettie, On the One (also known as Preaching to the Choir), Codeblack Entertainment, 2005.
Mona, And Then Came Love, Fox Meadow Films, 2007.
Television Appearances; Series:
Kaskade, [Sweden], 1962.
The Celebrity Game, 1964–65.
The Hollywood Squares, NBC, 1966–68.
Hollywood Squares (also known as H2 and H2: Hollywood Squares), syndicated, 2003.
Voice of Yzma, The Emperor's New School (animated), The Disney Channel, 2006–2007.
Television Appearances; Miniseries:
Herself, Romeo und Julia 70, 1969.
Paula, To Kill a Cop, NBC, 1978.
Herself, Brown Sugar, 1986.
Lola Dede, Feast of All Saints (miniseries; also known as Anne Rice's "The Feast of All Saints"), ABC, 2001.
Television Appearances; Movies:
Lady, Lieutenant Schuster's Wife, ABC, 1972.
Television Appearances; Specials:
Show Biz, NBC, 1955.
The Eartha Kitt Show, syndicated, 1969.
The Unforgettable Nat "King" Cole, The Disney Channel, 1989.
A Broadway Christmas, Showtime, 1990.
(Uncredited) James Dean and Me, 1995.
(In archive footage) The Real Las Vegas, 1996.
"Nat King Cole: Loved in Return," Biography, Arts and Entertainment, 1998.
Ageless Heroes, PBS, 1998.
(In archive footage) It's Black Entertainment, Showtime, 2000.
Voice of Emerald, Santa Baby!, Fox, 2001.
Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Celebration, CBS, 2001.
Inside TV Land: African Americans in Television, TV Land, 2002.
"Catwoman: Her Many Lives," Biography, Arts and Entertainment, 2004.
Ultimate Super Heroes, Ultimate Super Villains, Ultimate Super Vixens, Bravo, c. 2004.
"James Dean: Sense Memories," American Masters, PBS, 2005.
"The World of Nat King Cole," American Masters, PBS, 2006.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
Toast of the Town (also known as The Ed Sullivan Show), multiple appearances, between 1952 and 1963.
Singer, The Colgate Comedy Hour (also known as Colgate Summer Comedy Hour, Colgate Variety Hour, and Michael Todd Revue), 1954.
Person to Person, 1954.
What's My Line?, 1954, 1959, 1961.
Your Show of Shows (also known as Sid Caesar's Show of Shows), 1954.
Title role, "Salome," Omnibus, CBS, 1956.
Singer, The Nat King Cole Show, 1956.
Theodora "Teddy" Hicks, "Mrs. Patterson," BBC Sunday Night Theatre, BBC, 1956.
Queen, "Heart of Darkness," Playhouse 90, CBS, 1958.
Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the London Palladium (also known as Sunday Night at the London Palladium), 1960, 1962.
"The Wingless Victory," Play of the Week, syndicated, 1961.
Sally Carrington, "Member of the Family," The Sunday–Night Play, 1962.
Guest panelist, Pantomime Quiz (also known as Mike Stokey's Pantomime Quiz and Stump the Stars), 1963.
Angel, "The Loser," I Spy, NBC, 1965.
Honoria De Witt, "Who Killed the Rest?" Burke's Law (also known as Amos Burke, Secret Agent), 1965.
Danielle Taylor, "A Horse Named Stravinsky," Ben Casey, 1965.
Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life (also known as Not So Much a Programme ... ), 1965.
Blackpool Night Out, 1965.
Tina Mara, "The Traitor," Mission: Impossible, CBS, 1967.
Second Catwoman, "Catwoman's Dressed to Kill," Batman, ABC, 1967.
Second Catwoman, "The Funny Feline Felonies," Batman, ABC, 1967.
Second Catwoman, "The Joke's on Catwoman," Batman, ABC, 1968.
The Pat Boone Show, 1968.
The Barbara McNair Show, 1970.
Frost on Sunday, 1970.
Russell Harty Plus, 1972.
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, NBC, 1972, 1973.
Carrie Blaine, "A Pocketful of Posies," The Protectors, 1974.
Amelia, "Tigress," Police Woman, 1978.
Narrator, "Is This a House for a Hermit Crab?" Reading Rainbow, PBS, 1983.
Priestess Chata, "Whatever Works," Miami Vice, NBC, 1985.
Entre amigos, 1986.
(In archive footage) Que noche la de aquel ano, 1987.
"Adventures in the Skin Trade," Forty Minutes, 1990.
Guest host, It's Showtime at the Apollo (also known as Showtime at the Apollo), 1992.
Isabel Lang, Jack's Place, ABC, c. 1992.
Sister Rowena, "Moths to a Flame," Matrix, USA Network, 1993.
(In archive footage) Victor Borges Tivoli 150 aar, 1993.
"Batmantis," Space Ghost Coast to Coast (also known as SGC2C), Cartoon Network, 1994.
Voice of Mrs. Franklin, "Going Batty," The Magic School Bus (also known as Scholastic's "The Magic School Bus"), PBS, 1995.
Mrs. Stubbs, "Student Affairs," New York Undercover (also known as Uptown Undercover), Fox, 1995.
Jacqueline Richards, "He Works Hard for the Money," Living Single (also known as My Girls), Fox, 1996.
Herself, "Pup in Paris," The Nanny, 1996.
(Uncredited) Voice, "The Tart with Heart," The Nanny, 1996.
"Eartha Kitt," Lauren Hutton and ..., 1996.
The Pat Bullard Show, syndicated, 1996.
The RuPaul Show, VH1, 1996.
The Rosie O'Donnell Show, syndicated, 1997, 2000.
Voice of first lioness, "Flood Warning," The Wild Thorn-berrys (animated), Nickelodeon, 1998.
The Roseanne Show, syndicated, 1998.
Albertine Whethers, "Field of Dweebs," The Famous Jett Jackson, The Disney Channel, 1999.
"Superheroes," VH–1 Where Are They Now?, VH1, 1999.
Voice of Snow Queen, "The Snow Queen," Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child (animated), HBO, 2000.
June, "Jim Gets an Apartment," Welcome to New York, CBS, 2000.
June, "The Car," Welcome to New York, CBS, 2000.
(Uncredited) Herself, "Medium Rare," Oz, HBO, 2001.
Voice of Queen Vexas, "Hostile Makeover," My Life as a Teenage Robot (animated), Nickelodeon, 2003.
Larry King Live, Cable News Network, 2005.
(In archive footage) "Las Vegas: An Unconventional History, Part 1," The American Experience, PBS, 2005.
Voice of fortune teller, "Dope and Faith," American Dad! (animated), Fox, 2007.
Loose Women, ITV, 2007.
Breakfast, BBC, 2008.
Also appeared in episodes of The Charles Grodin Show and Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.
Television Appearances; Awards Presentations:
The 27th Annual NAACP Image Awards (also known as the NAACP Image Awards), Fox, 1996.
The 54th Annual Tony Awards, CBS and PBS, 2000.
Presenter, The 2nd Annual TV Land Awards (also known as TV Land Awards: A Celebration of Classic TV), TV Land and Nickelodeon, 2004.
Television Appearances; Other:
Drei Manner spinnen, 1962.
The Other Americans, 1969.
A Night on the Town, 1983.
Desperately Seeking Roger, 1991.
RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt, 1953.
That Bad Eartha, RCA, 1953.
(With others) To Wish You a Merry Christmas, RCA Victor, 1954.
Down to Eartha, 1955.
Thursday's Child, RCA Victor, 1956.
Eartha Kitt, Singer, 1956.
(With others) St. Louis Blues, RCA Victor, 1958.
The Fabulous Eartha Kitt, 1959.
Eartha Kitt Revisited, 1960.
Bad but Beautiful, 1962.
Eartha Kitt in Person at the Plaza (also known as At the Plaza), 1965.
The Best of Eartha Kitt, MCA, 1975.
At Her Best, 1982.
The Best of Eartha Kitt, 1983.
I Love Men, Sunnyviews, 1984.
My Way: A Musical Tribute to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1987.
I'm a Funny Dame (also known as A Funny Dame), 1988.
Eartha Kitt in Person at the Plaza, 1988.
Diamond Series (compilation), 1988.
I'm Still Here, 1989.
Greatest Hits, Laserlight, 1989.
Live in London, 1990.
Songs, RCA, 1990.
The Best of Eartha Kitt (compilation), MCA, 1990.
Thinking Jazz, ITM, 1991.
Primitive Man, 1992.
Eartha Kitt/Doc Cheatham/Bill Coleman with George Duvivier & Co., DRG, 1992.
"Miss Kitt" to You, RCA, 1992.
Where Is My Man (Special Remix), Unidisc, 1993.
Eartha Quake, Bear, 1994.
I Don't Care, Magnum, 1994.
Back in Business, DRG, 1994.
Standards: Live, 1995.
Eartha in New York, ITM, 1995.
The Best of Eartha Kitt: Where Is My Man?, Hot Productions, 1995.
Sentimental Eartha, See for Miles Records, 1995.
That Seductive Eartha, 1996.
My Way: Musical Tribute to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Basic, 1996.
My Heart Belongs to Daddy, Camden, 1998.
My Greatest Songs, BMG International, 1998.
The Best of Eartha Kitt, MCA International, 1999.
Purr–fect: Greatest Hits, 7–N Music, 1999.
Purr–fect: The Eartha Kitt Collection, Spectrum, 2000.
Excellent and Decadent, Polygram International, 2001.
Heavenly Eartha, RCA Bluebird, 2002.
That Bad Eartha/Down to Eartha, Collectibles, 2002.
God Bless the Child, Neon, 2002.
Night & Day, Mastersong, 2002.
Platinum and Gold Collection, BMG Heritage, 2003.
I Love Men, Solo, 2004.
In Person at the Plaza, Brentwood, 2004.
18 Sizzling Tracks, Kala, 2004.
I Want to Be Evil, Mastersong, 2004.
Shinbone Alley Broadway Cast, Legend, 2004.
She's So Good: The Best of Eartha Kitt, BMG, 2005.
Live from the Cafe Carlyle, DRG, 2006.
Thinking Jazz, West Wind, 2006.
The Very Best of Eartha Kitt, Mastersong, 2006.
You Can Call Me Miss Kitty, Golden Stars, 2006.
Mastercuts, Maa, 2007.
Eartha Kitt, Fast Forward, 2007.
Other albums include Black Pioneers in American History, Volume 1: 19th Century, Caedmon; Folk Tales for Children: Africa, Caedmon; Love for Sale, Capitol; Mrs. Patterson (original cast recording), RCA Victor; NewFaces of 1952 (original cast recording), RCA Victor; The Romantic Eartha Kitt, Capitol; and Young Brer Rabbit, Stemmer House; performed with others in The Fifties Collection, Hi Energy, Hipsters' Holiday, Home for Christmas, Lounging at the Nick at Niteclub, and the sound track for Mixed Nuts. Singles include "Where Is My Man," Warlock, 1991; also recorded "C'est Si Bon, "Polydor, and "Santa Baby." Several of Kitt's singles have been featured in films.
Herself, Eartha Kitt: The Most Exciting Woman in the World, Kubicek and Associates, 1994.
Voice of Bagheera, The Jungle Book: Mowgli's Story (animated), 1998.
Voice of Yzma, Emperor's New Groove (video game), 2001.
Host, The Many Faces of Catwoman, Warner Home Video, 2005.
Freya, Behind the Director's Son's Cut, Twentieth Century–Fox Home Entertainment, 2007.
Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa, Caedmon, 1968.
Black Pioneers in American History: Nineteenth Century, Caedmon, 1968.
Young Brer Rabbit: And Other Trickster Tales of the Americas, Stemmer House Publishers, 1987.
Young Brer Rabbit, Stemmer House Publishers, 1991.
Shells of North American Shores: East Coast Seashells from Canada to the Florida Keys, by Katherine Shelley Orr, Stemmer House Publishers, 1991.
Voice of Kaa, The Jungle Book, BBC, 1996.
Thursday's Child, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1956.
Alone with Me: A New Autobiography, Henry Regnery, 1976.
I'm Still Here, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1989, published as Confessions of a Sex Kitten, Barricade Books, 1991.
Young Brer Rabbit (juvenile), Stemmer House Publishers, 1987.
(With Tonya Bolden) Rejuvenate! (It's Never Too Late), Scribner, 2001.
Contemporary Authors, Volumes 77–80, Gale, 1979.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 16, Gale, 1997.
Contemporary Musicians, Volume 9, Gale, 1993.
Kitt, Eartha, Alone with Me: A New Autobiography, Henry Regnery, 1976.
Kitt, Eartha, I'm Still Here, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1989, published as Confessions of a Sex Kitten, Barricade Books, 1991.
Kitt, Eartha, Thursday's Child, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1956.
Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992.
Ebony, October, 1993, pp. 112–114.
Entertainment Weekly, March 25, 1994, p. 61.
Essence, January, 1993, pp. 56–58.
Forbes, December 2, 1996, pp. 270–271.
Independent, October 3, 1992, p. 6.
Jet, May 27, 1996, pp. 54–55; January 29, 2007, p. 54.
Library Journal, June 15, 1997, p. 110.
New York Times Magazine, March 9, 1997, p. 66.
People Weekly, January 30, 1995, pp. 6–8; November 4, 1996, p. 51; December 23, 1996, p. 30; July 21,1997, p. 106; October 25, 1999, p. 131.
Starlog Yearbook, 1993, p. 74.
Eartha Kitt Official Site, http://www.earthakitt.com, September 16, 2008.
Eartha Kitt Interview (taped interview), 1957.
Eartha Kitt, Struggle for Stardom (radio special), National Public Radio, 1980.
All by Myself (documentary film), 1982.
An actress, cabaret performer, and All-American success story, Eartha Kitt (born 1927) has entertained audiences around the world over the course of a career that has lasted more than 60 years and shown few signs of slowing down.
Kitt is perhaps best known for a stint as Catwoman in the 1960s television series Batman, but her career has gone through many different stages, both before and after that TV appearance. In the years after World War II she became a nightclub-singing star in France. She appeared in plays and films, and she notched several hit recordings in the 1950s, singing in various languages. After a much-publicized attack on the Vietnam War, delivered in person at the White House in 1968, Kitt returned to Europe, for she found doors closed to her in the American entertainment industry. But her career was revived in the 1980s, and, well past an age when most performers would have been long since retired, she kept her exotic yet by then familiar face in the spotlight with high-profile theatrical experiences and near-constant touring.
Faced Extraordinarily Difficult Childhood
For much of her life, Kitt did not know for certain where or when she had been born, but research by students at Benedict College in the 1990s unearthed a birth certificate from St. Matthews, South Carolina, dated January 17, 1927. Her name was Eartha Mae Kitt-Fields. Kitt's father, whom she never knew, was white, and her part-Cherokee mother, struggling to survive at the height of the Depression, moved from place to place, doing chores and odd jobs wherever she could. Finally Kitt's mother met a man who asked her marry him, but he rejected Kitt because of her mixed-race background. Her mother's response was to leave her in the care of a local family, who abused her physically. The abuse was matched by kids in the area, who tied her to a tree and threw rocks at her. "I was told I was an ugly duckling, a yellow gal, even lower than the 'N' word," Kitt recalled to Leslie Gray Streeter of the Palm Beach Post. "I was not accepted by anybody on either side."
When she was about ten, Kitt was called to New York City by a woman she was told was her mother's sister. She heard that her mother had died, but, she told Karen S. Schneider of People, "I didn't even cry." It was in New York's Pennsylvania that she saw electric lights and indoor plumbing for the first time. Things did not immediately improve for Kitt; her aunt mostly ignored her, and Harlem school kids were as harsh as those in South Carolina had been. But teachers began to respond to Kitt, who always did well in school—she had a passion for reading and later enjoyed contemplating the works of philosophers such as Plato and Nietzsche. One gave her a ticket to see the play Cyrano de Bergerac, and she walked through Central Park afterward, wishing that she could have a career in which she enjoyed the adulation that the show's star, Jose Ferrer, had received. Another steered her in the direction of New York's High School for the Performing Arts, the incubator of numerous show-business careers. "But what really opened me up was a beautiful Black woman who was a member of my Harlem church," Kitt recalled to Pamela Johnson of Essence. "One day she put her hand on my shoulder—it felt so spiritual. Then she said I was born with the hand of God on my shoulder. It gave me a spark inside, a fire that started burning in me."
Hoping to get away from her aunt, Kitt ran away from home several times. She got a job sewing clothes in a Harlem sweatshop and succeeded in living on her own and in eluding juvenile law enforcement officers. She was inspired to act on her performing ambitions after she saw the Katherine Dunham Dance Company—the first African-American troupe to gain a major reputation in the world of ballet—in a movie. After a lifetime of bad luck, Kitt received a break when one of the company's dancers stopped her on a Harlem street to ask for directions; Kitt parlayed that chance encounter into an audition and won a place in Dunham's troupe for a salary of ten dollars a week.
To the 16-year-old Kitt, it was a fortune. Her life began a dizzying upward spiral as the well-regarded company traveled around the Americas and Europe after the war. Dunham picked her for solos, and the athletic, exotic-looking Kitt found herself the object of attention from well-heeled men. The company toured France and England in 1947, and Kitt received rave reviews. "They didn't call me a beautiful woman," she told Schneider. "It was 'the beautiful creature.'" Kitt decided to capitalize on her growing fame; she resigned from the Dunham company in 1949 or 1950 and was booked into an upscale Paris nightclub.
Cast by Orson Welles
Kitt quickly became the talk of the town. She had picked up bits of foreign languages while living in Harlem, and she had no trouble mastering French. Her voice was not conventionally beautiful, but it had an odd timbre that probably worked to her advantage, for it complemented her exotic looks. Some observers compared her with Josephine Baker, an earlier American performer who had found success in Paris. Among the throngs that showed up to catch her act was legendary film director Orson Welles, who was in the process of casting a production of Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus. He tabbed Kitt to play the role of Helen of Troy. Welles also starred in the play, and he got carried away when he reached the lines "Helen, is this the face that launched a thousand ships? Helen, make me a mortal with a kiss": "Crunch, right into my bottom lip," she told Charles Osgood of CBS News. "The blood is seeping down my chin, and [Welles] has a hold of me so I can't get away…. And when I ran into him afterwards, and asked, why did you bite me? He said, 'I got excited.'" If Kitt was confused by such events, they also filled an emotional need. "Orson Welles called me the most exciting woman in the world," she told Ed Condran of New Jersey's Bergen County Record. "It was so nice to be accepted."
Returning to the United States. in 1952, Kitt won a part in the Broadway revue New Faces. She signed a recording contract with the RCA label, and by the mid-1950s she was well on her way to replicating her French success. Two songs she had added to her act in Paris, "C'est si bon" and the Turkish-language "Usku dara," became hits in the United States once more, and "I Want to Be Evil" furthered her sex-kitten image. She was one of just a few black vocalists to receive regular radio airplay outside of the urban rhythm-and-blues format prior to the rock and roll era. Kitt made two films in France, but mostly she stuck to the stage in the United States, for serious roles for black actors were rare. "I couldn't compromise on playing quote unquote nigger parts," she told Ebony's Richette Haywood. "We're here to carve a path for others, and if you don't take challenges you are not going to make it better for those people who are going to come behind you." In 1958 she had a major success on Broadway in Shinbone Alley, and she did appear in a film that year; costarring opposite actor Sammy Davis Jr. in the African-American family drama Anna Lucasta and becoming romantically involved with Davis.
Attention from gossip magazines may have helped Kitt's career by raising her profile, but her romantic life was not happy. In addition to Davis she dated Charles Revson, the founder of the Revlon cosmetics line, and Arthur Loew Jr., a member of the family that owned the Loews chain of movie theaters. The latter romance was perhaps the closest Kitt came to a mutually rewarding relationship, but any talk of marriage was scotched by Loew's family, which disapproved of the interracial pair. Finally, in 1960, Kitt married Bill McDonald. The couple had a daughter, Kitt, but soon divorced amid Kitt's allegations that her husband, who installed himself as her accountant, had handled her financial affairs dishonestly.
In the 1960s, Kitt rose to national entertainment prominence. She appeared in Bill Cosby's early television series I Spy and on Mission: Impossible, and she cracked the talk/variety show that defined the middle-American mainstream, The Ed Sullivan Show. Her biggest success was a stint as Catwoman on Batman, a role that was played by a series of actresses. Although Kitt was only involved with the show for a short time in 1967, she was identified with the part for decades afterward. The only weak spot in Kitt's popularity, ironically, was among African-Americans, some of whom perceived her as a product of the white-dominated entertainment industry.
Shut Out After War Critique
A major African-American leader came to Kitt's defense, however, as she was enveloped by controversy in 1968. Invited to a White House luncheon by Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson, Kitt thought about the women she had met while giving dance workshops in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles; they told her that it was primarily poor people who were being sent to fight in Vietnam, while well-off college students avoided the war through student deferments. Kitt in turn told the assembled dignitaries at the White House that the Vietnam War was to blame for growing civil unrest in the U.S. "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot," she was quoted as saying by Schneider. During the firestorm of criticism that followed, the Reverend Martin Luther King called her and said she should be recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize. The antiwar student counterculture of the day also came to Kitt's defense, and "Eartha Kitt for President" buttons were seen on college campuses.
Signed contracts for performances quickly evaporated, however, and Kitt was not even allowed to appear on Hollywood Squares, a well-known haven for careers on the way down. She was effectively blacklisted in the United States and did not work there again until 1978. Kitt was investigated by the Central Intelligence Agency (which once issued a report calling her a sadistic nymphomaniac) and suffered losses of friends and money. But she was unrepentant. "This country has given all Americans IOUs: freedom of speech, freedom from oppression, freedom from hunger, etc.," she told Haywood. "Then I tell the truth, and I get my face slapped…. If you don't want my honest opinion, then don't ask me the question." Kitt kept her career going with performances in Europe, and, having faced criticism from conservatives in the United States, she took more from liberals when she appeared in apartheid-era South Africa in 1974. She was unrepentant about that, too, pointing to the humanitarian projects she had funded with proceeds from the show.
In 1978 Kitt was rehabilitated in the U.S. with an appearance in the Broadway musical Timbuktu, and President Jimmy Carter invited her to sing at the White House. Though she was at an age when most performers slow down, she climbed back to popularity. A disco recording, "Where Is My Man?" (1983), added a homosexual contingent to her fan base, and she began to find stage and film roles. Cameos in Ernest: Scared Stupid (1991) and in Eddie Murphy's Boomerang (1992) kept her camp-sexy image before the public, and she stayed in shape with an exercise-and-raw-juice regime that allowed her to pull off her act convincingly. In 1996 she appeared in the one-woman show Lady Day, a biographical treatment of the life of jazz singer Billie Holiday. Major stage successes came with appearances as the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz in 1998, and as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella (2001). She supplied the voice of the sorceress Yzma in the film The Emperor's New Groove, and in 2005 she was still going strong, touring and taking over for the late cabaret singer Bobby Short with a recurring engagement at the Hotel Carlyle in New York City. Eartha Kitt seemed indestructible—and indeed she had to have been, considering some of the trials she had faced.
Kitt, Eartha, Confessions of a Sex Kitten, Barricade Books, 1991.
Kitt, Eartha, with Tonya Bolden, Rejuvenate! (It's Never Too Late), S. & S. Audio, 2001.
Book, November -December 2001.
Ebony, October 1993.
Essence, January 1993; July 2003.
Palm Beach Post, November 21, 2005.
People, July 21, 1997; October 25, 1999.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), May 27, 2005.
Variety, April 6, 1998.
"Eartha Kitt: Orphan Turned Star," CBS News, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/08/28/Sunday/main798791.shtml (December 20, 2005).