Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Eartha Kitt
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Published December 2, 2009

Miss Eartha Kitt

The Sultry Kitt

The Tantalizing Kitt

The Magnificent Kitt



 By Yussuf J. Simmonds

Eartha Kitt

“Though small in physical stature, she was a giant in the entertainment community and beyond”


As a light-complexioned Black woman, Eartha Kitt experienced turmoil in her early life, not totally sure of the true identity of her mother or her father.  That was a terrible ordeal for a young Black girl notwithstanding the normal burdens that Black women in the South – and the North – had to bear in 1927, the year she was born on a cotton plantation in Orangeburg County near Columbia, South Carolina as Eartha Mae Kitt.  She was initially raised by one Anne Mae Riley whom she believed was her biological mother.


 Then she found out that her mother Mamie Kitt was of African American and Cherokee descent; and her father was a white cotton farmer of either German or Dutch descent.  There were unsubstantiated rumors concerning her birth and the quality of her parents’ relationship but she did not have a normal childhood upbringing.  She lived with different families until she was a teenager.  There is not much information about her education but she was extraordinarily intelligent.  (The opportunity to travel worldwide early in life was an added bonus of immense importance).  


One of those families with whom Kitt was sent to live was an aunt in Harlem, New York.  There she attracted the attention of, and auditioned for, the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe where she was accepted as a dancer and a vocalist while still a teenager. This began her career and was a great relief for Kitt who, as a light-skinned Black, caught hell from “both sides of the racial divide”: to Blacks, she was too light, bright and almost white; to Whites, she was still one of ‘them’, a nigger.  (Katherine Dunham, herself was light-skinned – of mixed raced parents – so she intimately understood that Kitt’s social and racial discomfort was a then normal part of the society structure).


Kitt went on a worldwide tour with the troupe and made her film debut in 1948 as part of the group in Casbah. During a performance in Paris, she was booked as a featured singer in a nightclub where her performance caught the attention of Orson Welles.  He was so impressed by her talent that in 1950, he casted Kitt as Helen of Troy in his stage production of Dr. Faustus.  As a cabaret performer, her talent also included acting, dancing and singing; the latter led to a recording contract and numerous hit songs. Her young career began to rapidly move forward with hits including Champagne Taste, Je cherche, Just an Old Fashioned Girl, Let’s Do It, Love for Sale and Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa which earned her a Grammy nomination.


Being fluent in French and other languages, Kitt used her multi-lingual talent to enhance her cabaret performances and dazzle her European audiences.  Just as her nightclub performance in Paris had led to her role in Dr. Faustus, after Kitt returned to New York, as she was performing at that Village Vanguard in 1952, a Broadway producer tapped her for a revue in New Faces.  It ran for a year and she introduced two of her signature songs: Monotonous and Bal, Petit Bal. The following year, she continued her upward mobility with the Christmas song, Santa Baby, which became her most recognizable hit to date.

Her performances in New Faces were show-stopping and gut-wrenching that it led to a national tour and in 1954, a film version.  It was a natural fit for Kitt and she again performed Monotonous, in addition to C’est Si Bon and Uska Dara.  She published her first autobiography, Thursday’s Child, and returned to Broadway to do Mrs. Patterson for which she received her first Tony Award nomination.  Then in 1957, she did The Mark of the Hawk with Sidney Poitier; in 1958, St Louis Blues with Nat King Cole; and in 1959, Anna Lucasta with Sammy Davis, Jr.


As the 1960s began, Kitt’s work enveloped her many talents: films, television, stage and nightclubs.  She had already performed in over 100 countries and had sung in many different languages.  In 1960, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a sign of recognition in the world of entertainment and in 1964, Kitt helped open the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, California, a performing arts venue which catered to the Who’s Who in entertainment.  The name was literally based on its description: a theater featuring a rotating circular stage which gave both the audience and the performer a full front view throughout the performance.  None of its seats was more than 50 feet from the stage.  (The venue lasted until 1993).


Television was still in its infancy and was deemed highly competitive with the movies.  Entertainers, news reporters and advertisers were still feeling their way through the maze and television series, shows and guest appearances were the “in-thing” among entertainers.  Kitt was no exception; her star was shined as brilliantly as her contemporaries.  One of her many roles in 1966 was a guest appearance on I Spy with Bill Cosby, for which she received an Emmy nomination.  The following year she became a regular as Cat-woman on the Batman series where she developed her trademark growl.  That became one of her signature roles on television and by which she was loosely type casted.


There were reported relationships with cosmetics tycoon, Charles Revson, banker, John Barry III, and producer/director Orson Welles which Kitt vigorously denied.  However, she was married to John W. McDonald, a real estate company associate with who she produced a daughter named Kitt McDonald.  Kitt seemed to shun the Hollywood scene and made her home in Connecticut.   


At the height of the Vietnam War in 1968, an event in Kitt’s life and career took a dramatic turn.  On an invitation to a White House luncheon hosted by the then First Lady, she was asked a question about the war.  Her response was totally unexpected: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed.  No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.”  The First Lady reportedly burst into tears and Kitt was publicly ostracized; reaction was immediate and extreme.  Support for her was very minimal the same way the public was beginning to react to the war. But her sin was not only what she said but where she said it.  


That comment reverberated against her for years to come; she was blacklisted and unable to work in the United States.  (A Black woman being ‘blacklisted’ was ironic).  However, her status abroad, particularly in Europe and Asia, as a top entertainer remained intact and her life in exile was tolerable and comfortable.  There were many racial and political ramifications relative to Kitt’s time abroad where she performed almost exclusively overseas.  One of her performances abroad was before an enthusiastic crowd in Moscow.

Decades after the incident, Kitt said in a magazine interview, “The thing that hurts, that became anger, was when I realized that if you tell the truth — in a country that says you’re entitled to tell the truth — you get your face slapped and you get put out of work.”  Kitt had been investigated by agencies of the U.S. government but nothing of a seditious or criminal nature was ever discovered against her. 


It was not coincidental that Kitt triumphantly returned to the U.S in 1974 (the year the president resigned due to the Watergate fiasco) with a concert at Carnegie Hall.  Two years later, she published a second autobiography Alone With Me and in 1978, she received a second Tony Award nomination for the Broadway musical Timbuktu.  That same year, she was invited back to the White House – the first time since 1968 – by the then current occupant, President Jimmy Carter.


During the 1980s, disco music was the craze and in 1984, Kitt came out with Where Is My Man.  It went gold on the music charts, the first gold record of her singing career, reaching the Top 40 in the United Kingdom chart and the Top 10 on the U.S. Billboard chart.  Her career seemed to be undergoing a rebirth; she was being rediscovered by a new generation of fans.  Somewhat energized, she followed her gold record with an album, I Love Men.  In 1989, Kitt recorded Cha-Cha Heels and her third autobiography, I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten.


Now back in the entertainment network, Kitt opined that entertainers were becoming bland because they were depending more and more on gadget and flash.  Furthermore, she believed that real talent was lacking in the entertainment business.  She had a supporting role in Boomerang with Eddie Murphy in 1992, and as Kaa, the Python in a BBC Radio adaptation of the Jungle book two years later. She received a second Grammy nomination in 1996 for Back in Business, an album in the pop vocal category and also appeared in Harriet the Spy.  Kitt ended the decade/century touring as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.


As the 21st century began, Kitt was nearing six decades in the entertainment business, described as a sultry singer and an international star.  She returned to Broadway in the Wild Party and a Disney animated feature of The Emperor’s New Groove.  She also released a best-selling book on fitness and positive attitude, Rejuvenate in 2001.  The book reflected her image as a picture of vitality via her versatile performances, dancing and acting on stage.  The next year, played the fairy godmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.  In 2003, Kitt did Nine on Broadway and reprised a special engagement of Cinderella in 2004 at Lincoln Center, New York.


Age did not seem to deter her performance schedule as Kitt, in her 70s, appeared on stage in 2006 in the musical Mimi le Duck.  She again returned to the White House in 2006 and lit the national Christmas tree in 2006.  And in 2007, she returned to the screen in And Then Came Love with Vanessa Williams; did The Skin of Our Teeth for the Westport Playhouse production; and recorded Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.  But it was the spin-off television series, The Emperor’s New School that finally got Kitt two Emmy Awards during the 2007-2008 period.


When she turned 80, Kitt gave a concert at Carnegie Hall, Eartha Kitt and Friends, and a month later, she returned to London, after 15 years to headline the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.


In her final years, Kitt continued to make solid appearances, so much so, she had become a fixture on the Manhattan cabaret circuit; she was actively involved in local charities throughout Litchfield County, Connecticut; and became a staunch advocate for homosexual rights and same sex marriage – a carryover from her 1960s activism – which she defined thus: “It’s a civil rights thing, isn’t it?”


Kitt died on Christmas Day 2008 from colon cancer.  She left a legacy and an impressive list of accomplishments that included awards, nominations, films (television and screen), records, stage plays and live performances.  


Categories: Legends

Get the Los Angeles Sentinel App!


LA Sentinel
in your pocket:

© 2017 Los Angeles Sentinel All Rights Reserved • A Bakewell Media Publication

Contact UsAboutMedia KitCorrections & Misprints

Terms of ServicePrivacy Policy

LA Watts TimesTaste of Soul

Close / I'm already on the list

Subscribe Today!

Don't be limited anymore! Subscribe Now »

** Existing subscribers, please Login / Register for Digital »

Subscribe to The Los Angeles Sentinel for only $5.99 $3.99 per month, with 1 month free!

Relax in comfort each week as you read the printed newspaper on your own time, delivered weekly to your home or office. This subscription also includes UNLIMITED DIGITAL ACCESS for all of your devices. Includes FREE shipping! One easy payment of $3.99/month gets you:

Subscribe Now »