Eartha Mae Kitt: January 17, 1927 – December 25, 2008
The incredible Eartha Kitt passed away due to colon cancer on December 25, 2008, in New York City.
Ms. Kitt was an “acquired taste” for many who couldn’t reconcile her personal roots with the persona she carefully developed. She feigned an indescribable accent that many in the United States thought pretentious and intentional. However, few knew much about her accomplishments in entertainment outside of her unique rendition of “Santa Baby,” and her appearances as Catwoman on the hokey “Batman” television series in the 1960’s.
Eartha Kitt rarely held back and was sometimes painfully truthful. Her straight talking offended some, but as a woman who was truly “self made,” she didn’t feel the need to censor her beliefs, her background or her feelings.
I can clearly remember an interview where she was asked why she didn’t date Black contemporaries of her time, i.e., Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, et al., where she looked the interviewer dead in their face and replied (straight-faced), “Well, all the white women had them.” Ka-zing! (For the record, she did date some of these actors, who eventually made their own choices, but never had the same question posed to them.)
This same quick response resulted in her being –in her own words– “blackballed” in the United States by the Johnson Administration. In 1968 when she responded to a question about the Vietnam War from first lady “Lady bird” Johnson, she responded, “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” According to the New York Times, the remark reportedly caused Mrs. Johnson to burst into tears and led to a derailment in Ms. Kitt’s career. Ms. Kitt looked at it more philosophically, and was quoted as saying, “When the people who are responsible for our country ask you a direct question, I expect them to accept a direct answer, not to be blackballed because you are telling the truth.”
Ms. Kitt was “global” before it was considered en vogue, and was able to speak four languages, and sang in seven; she was most fluent in French. She was also one of the original dancers in renowned dancer and anthropologist Dr. Katherine Dunham’s dance company. It was while touring with Dr. Dunham’s company, that Ms. Kitt “jumped ship” in France, a decidedly smart move since her popularity as a cabaret performer flourished in Europe.
Newer generations remember Ms. Kitt in campier roles like Lady Eloise in Boomerang, starring alongside Eddy Murphy. Ms. Kitt is survived by her daughter with real-estate developer Bill McDonald, Kitt Shapiro, and two grand-daughters.
Her original spirit will be sorely missed…