Some women invite obsession. There are women who inspire worship from both sexes. Well, I’m obsessed with Eartha Kitt. (OK, I’m obsessed with a lot of people, but Eartha Kitt is way up there.) Like a lot of people of my generation, I first became aware of Eartha as the coolest, cat-est, badass-est Catwoman on TV’s Batman. Bruce Wayne/Batman had such a stick up his ass that even little girls couldn’t help but root for the bad guys when they were girls. While Julie Newmar knows her way around a leotard, and she’s certainly slinky and sexy, something about her just said bratty mean girl…who’s willing to kill people and destroy cities and stuff. Like the most beautiful girl in school who rolls her eyes when anybody says anything, her genetic superiority arouses her coquettish cruelty. On the other hand, Miss Kitt is more fierce than kittenish. Julie’s Catwoman could be an expensive escort but Eartha’s will gracefully knee you in the groin if you try slipping her a Benjamin. (Lee Meriwether as Catwoman in the movie…meh.)
I don’t like coy in my Catwomen. Eartha’s ferocity and sass shine through her Lurex and gold unitards, and her own voice is purr-fectly feline. Her saunter wasn’t just sexy, it also implied she could kick anyone’s ass. Plus, her crimes were more catty than bratty. (Remember when she gave everyone a bad hair day? OK, that’s catty and bratty. But genius. She’s not just diabolical, she’s smart. She comes up with actual clever strategies, no crazy Rube Goldberg-y antics or sloppy schemes. She cleverly escapes by running into a women’s dressing room knowing the two too-goody-two-shoes will close their eyes. You don’t see the Penguin coming up with that shit, do ya?) She totally owns not just Batman but the Joker as well. She’s an inventor: she comes up with the Catgun and a rope that tightens with body heat. Eartha’s Catwoman is a canny thief with poise and elegance. Still, there’s an underlying sense of joy; she gets a kick out of besting Batman. As vixen villains go, her purrrr-fect French growl puts her at the top. Other villains are fun and funny, but Catwoman is by far the smartest criminal, and absolutely the best-dressed. As if all that weren’t enough, did I mention Eartha was 40 when she played Catwoman? Yes, #blackdontcrack, but she’s also a model for how mature women can put away their coquettish tricks and just rock it the like a boss.
Yes, I looked up to Ms. Kitt as the OG Boss Bitch, but my admiration really grew when I learned about Eartha the real-life hero. No less a connoisseur than Orson Welles called her the “most exciting woman in the world” and she lent her name and fame to important causes, often at a great cost to her career. I love Eartha Kitt the performer, but I’m especially impressed by her fearless activism.
It’s easy to see why she would empathize with victims and the voiceless. Eartha Mae Keith was born on a Southern cotton plantation in 1927. Her mother, Annie Mae Keith, was of African and Cherokee descent, and Eartha never knew her father. Her light complexion bolsters reports that, like me, she was the product of rape, either by the son of the plantation owner or a local doctor. As a child Eartha was abused by relatives and ostracized because of her biracial appearance. At eight-years-old, little Eartha was sent to live up north in Harlem with an aunt, Mamie Kitt. (Some believe Mamie was actually Eartha’s biological mother.) She attended Metropolitan Vocational High School which would one day be renamed the High School of Performing Arts. (Cue Irene Cara singing Fame.) Though shy, Eartha had a distinctive flair, and on a dare, she auditioned for and won a spot in the influential Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. By the time she was 20, her in-born talent and unique panache led to her becoming a featured dancer and singer in the company. On tour with the troupe, in Paris she was spotted by a nightclub owner who booked her as a vocalist. Her individual style launched her international career. (The aforementioned smitten Orson Welles cast her as Helen of Troy in his production of Dr. Faustus. Not too shabby.)
Back in New York City, Eartha was booked at The Village Vanguard, and then selected to work the sultry in the infamous Broadway New Faces Of 1952. Her sexy, straight-faced rendition of “Monotonous” led to a recording contract. Kitt had a few hits, the best known today being “I Want to Be Evil”, “Santa Baby” and “C’est Si Bon”. The 1950s saw her publishing her first autobiography, Thursday’s Child, and appearing in several Broadway shows. She appeared in movies too, including the title role in Anna Lucasta and St. Louis Blues with Nat King Cole. The woman performed in 100 countries, sang in 10 languages and earned herself a star on “The Hollywood Walk of Fame.” There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that had America not been such a racist shit show, Eartha would have been the super-est of superstars.
Still, things were going along pretty well (she was nominated for an Emmy for an appearance on the show I, Spy), but performing wasn’t all Eartha was passionate about. A member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and an avid anti-war activist, at a 1968 White House luncheon, Eartha told First Lady Ladybird Johnson:
“You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot. The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. We don’t have what we have on Sunset Blvd. for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons – and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson – we raise children and send them to war.”
Well, Mrs. Johnson literally burst into tears.* The CIA, with apparently nothing better (or less icky) to do, sprang into action, branding Eartha a “sadistic nymphomaniac” (those are the best kind!) and created a defamatory dossier on Kitt. (The CIA actually had her under surveillance since 1956. Our tax dollars hard at work, people.) Virtually blacklisted, her career in the States ground to a halt and she worked mostly in Europe and Asia for the following decade.
She wasn’t exiled for long though. She made a triumphant return to Broadway, receiving a Tony nomination in the 1978 original production of the musical Timbuktu! There were accolades at Carnegie Hall, three more books**, and many more Broadway and off-Broadway successes. Eartha could shine in front of live audiences in venues large and small. While I would have liked to have seen here in an intimate cabaret setting, she knocked’em dead with appearances with symphony orchestras from Atlanta to Portland, jazz festivals across America, and myriad one-woman shows. She got raves in England at theaters and when she headlined the Cheltenham Jazz festival. The 21st century used her distinctive purr to grace animated movies in voice-over work for Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) and Holes (2003). On her 80th (!) birthday in 2007, Eartha headline a jazz show at Carnegie Hall called, Eartha and Friends. (Like the old saw goes, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice” — 80 years will do that.)
Eartha Kitt died a year later on Christmas day in 2008. Her much beloved daughter, Kitt Shapiro, continues to honor her mother with a biography and in social media. (I follow her on Instagram at @kittshapiro – plus there’s an Eartha Kitt fan page, of course.) I enjoy her songs and what performances I can dig up on YouTube, but what really gets to me is less the talent and more the woman herself. It’s not that much different than when little me swooned to her you-can’t-catch-me Catwoman. It wasn’t just her nails that were sharp, she was sharp – and tough, and cool, and poised and intelligent, beautiful, everything I wanted to grow up to be. It was rare to see black women featured on TV when I was little, and I think Catwoman being black made her all the more impressive. I was young buy not naïve; I knew it wasn’t easy to rise to the top in Gotham City or any city if you were black. I didn’t know from Selina Kyle, I only imagined what my Eartha Kitt Catwoman must have overcome to best Batman, and it inspired me. When I got to know more about Eartha, I was bowled over by her courage as an abused little girl, her bravery at The White House, and came to admire her wit, wisdom and tenacity. To this day, I can Google her and enjoy scrolling through all the photos illuminating her style, energy and élan. The animal prints! The turbans!
Though a huge mid-century star, for a variety of reasons she’s not so well-known today. I hope that when people hear the original “Santa Baby” each December, they’ll be curious enough to look up Eartha Kitt and learn her incredible story and the extent of her talent and super-duper “damery”.
An example of some of her unique down to Eartha-ness:
*She did return to the White House under jollier circumstances. In December 2006 she returned to Washington and lit the National Christmas Tree alongside President and Mrs. George W. Bush.
**Alone With Me (1976), I’m Still Here: Confessions Of A Sex Kitten” (1989) and a very successful book on fitness with a positive attitude, Rejuvenate! It’s Never Too Late (2001).