Born in the South of the US on a cotton plantation and raised in Harlem, the self professed sex kitten was one of the most distinctive entertainers in the history of cabaret, stage and film. Jennifer Butler takes a look at Eartha Kitt.

Born on January 17 1927 , Eartha Kitt was raised by a woman called Anna Mae, who she believed was her mother. The singer later said her father was the son of a plantation owner and had been conceived by rape. She was named Eartha after a year’s good crop. She lived in poverty until her mother met a new husband who rejected Kitt because she was a mixed race child.

Described by Orson Welles as the most exciting women in the world when she played Helen of Troy in Dr Faustus, Kitt’s most famous part came as the exotic feline, Catwoman in the Batman television series from 1967-8.

Originally, Kitt began her career as a member of the Katherine Dunham Company and made her film debut with them in Casbahin 1948. A talented singer with a raspy voice enriched with sultry tones, her hits included songs such as I Want to Be Evil, Just an Old-Fashioned Girl, C’est si bon and Santa Baby which was released in 1953. She possessed a strong, independent personality which matched her growling vibrato voice that lingered around the theatre long after she had finished singing.

Her fierce personality erupted at the height of her fame at a White House luncheon party given by Lady Bird Johnson, the president’s wife, in 1968. Kitt was asked by Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War and erupted into a doomed speech. Kitt replied: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kid’s rebel and take pot”. She was promptly blacklisted and effectively forced to work abroad, particularly Europe.

eartha-kittThis helped Kitt’s unique style as she took hold of the French language and a dozen others, creating her trademark grrr-owl from rolling her r’s. “I began in England to be Eartha Kitt more than I did anywhere else,” she said. In 1984 she returned to the music charts with a disco song, Where is my Man, the first certified gold record of her career.

In her later years she continued to work on both stage and screen. She co- starred with comedian Eddie Murphy in the film Boomerangin 1992, and she lent her distinctive voice to Yzma in Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove in 2007.

Kitt also became an advocate for homosexual rights and publicly supported same sex marriage, believing it a human right to be allowed to be with whoever you wanted. Sadly her personal life was not smooth sailing. Her ‘sex kitten’ allowed her to have liaisons with the wealthy and successful, but they never lasted. Her only marriage, to a property developer millionaire in 1960, had ended in divorce. The couple had a daughter called Kitt.

Eartha summed up her life in six words: rejected, ejected, dejected, used, accused, abused.  Eartha Kitt died on Christmas Day in 2008 after battling colon cancer.

2 Responses

  1. Leah

    I had the pleasure of seeing Miss Kitt perform on her last tour. She still had “it” and was as gracious as could be when we paid tribute after the show. And she still had a fellow proffer jewelry!