Nobody Wanted Me, Negro or White: Eartha Kitt 1927-2008

Eartha-KittSometimes, the date of your death colors how you are remembered. Eartha Kitt's on Christmas Day meant “Santa Baby” was singled out as her trademark song, but the one that rather summarized her better was “Old Fashioned Girl.” Kitt embodied a somewhat dated aspect of womanhood: mysterious, mercurial, and malevolent, a strange collision of muse and minx. No mere bauble, she could prove merciless. A hapless BBC interviewer in the early '80s was floundering through his difficult encounter with her. In desperation he asked what, above all, stood out as the worst experience of her long career. Shooting him one of her famously withering feline glances, she purred with implicit disdain, “Being interviewed by you!”

Eartha Mae Keith was born in South Carolina on January 17, 1927. Miscegenation was despised and she encountered fierce intolerance. Referred to as “that yellow girl,” an outsider on both sides of the racial divide, she suffered accordingly. “I had reddish hair and I was too light. Nobody wanted me, Negro or white!” Her father abandoned her, and then her mother, and by the age of eight she was sent to Harlem to live with her aunt, who also threw her out. Kitt found work as a seamstress, but appearances in school productions, and singing in the church choir, betrayed a natural gift for performance.

A chance encounter on a New York street set her on the path she'd tread for the rest of her life. A dancer with the teacher and choreographer Katharine Dunham asked her for directions, a conversation developed, and she suggested Kitt try for an audition. This resulted in a scholarship, after which she toured with Dunham's troupe, and by 1950 she was working in Paris to tremendous acclaim at a lesbian club called Carroll's, which was managed by a former girlfriend of Marlene Dietrich. In the year Kitt spent there, she met Orson Welles, with whom she had a relationship. He gave her the role of Helen of Troy in his production of Doctor Faust and was later to describe her as “the most exciting woman on earth.” Another former lover, the millionaire playboy Porfirio Rubirosa referred to her more succinctly as “fire and ice.”

Once recognition came Kitt's way, success seemed to be hers for the asking. After performing at the sophisticated New York club The Blue Angel on 55th St, a favorite haunt of Truman Capote, her standing on the cabaret circuit continued to grow. On Broadway, she appeared in numerous productions throughout the 1950s. Her role in Mrs. Patterson, concerning a young girl from the Deep South who lives in a fantasy world, allowed her to play a variety of roles, including a wealthy white woman -- controversial casting in that era. Her screen debut came in 1958 as Sidney Poitier's wife in The Mark of the Hawk, and the following year she starred with Nat “King” Cole in St. Louis Blues, which also featured Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey, though it was Kitt who stole the best reviews. She played a homecoming prostitute in her next film, Anna Lucasta, which also starred Sammy Davis Jr. By 1967 she proved a tremendous, and with hindsight, lasting success in the television series Batman. Her role as Catwoman allowed her to harness her femme fatale, sex kitten persona to camp excess.

A successful recording artist, an actress on stage and screen, and a highly respected cabaret artist, it seemed that her stardom was assured. But her spontaneous outburst in the midst of a speech by Lady Bird Johnson at a White House luncheon reduced the First Lady to tears, after which Kitt was effectively blacklisted in the U.S. for a decade. The reason for her overspill of rage was Vietnam. “I am a mother and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my gut...and then you send him to war. No wonder kids rebel and take pot.” Although she had no idea of the detriment her protest would have on her career, she later admitted, she insisted she would still have made it. Kitt provoked further outrage in 1974 by touring South Africa, but she used the money she generated during that integrated tour to open two schools for black youngsters. She was nothing if not a wily pragmatist.

Settling in London in the early '70s, she appeared with British comedy legend Frankie Howerd in the tawdry Up the Chastity Belt (released as Naughty Knights in the U.S.) as his vampy foil, and in some respects this period of exile saw her drift into the role of purring caricature. By the Eighties her sojourns into disco rendered her a woman in the guise of a drag queen. I witnessed her at that time in a tawdry basement dive, accompanied by a tinny backing tape and wearing a glittery dress; her antics on a stage whose minuteness did her no favors consolidated this downfall. Despite her being in a different part of the song to her soundtrack, she performed with bored conviction, this disdain even more thinly veiled afterwards as she signed picture postcards of herself for a nominal fee.

The late '80s saw Kitt return to the classy settings, and the seriousness, that she had almost scuppered. In London in her role in Sondheim's Follies, she gave a tremendous poignancy to “I'm Still Here,” his martyr's anthem to resilience. Her album Back in Business was nominated for a Grammy in 1995, and she appeared on Broadway as the witch in The Wizard of Oz in 1998. In the final year of her life, despite being diagnosed with colon cancer, she was a stupendous draw at London's Shaw Theatre, still stylish, still seductive, and still there.

One of the final links to an era that has all but gone, Kitt exuded a mysterious allure Given she was the product of a time, aspects of which we now look upon with deserved distaste; that she was vilified, abused, and mistreated because of her racial origins, her achievements are all the more remarkable. Ever candid that Eartha Kitt was a persona, and the exotic qualities for which she was famous, an act, she stated that the frightened girl from South Carolina still inhabited her core. Kitt constructed that illusion well, wearing it with sublime conviction till the very end. - Rob Cochrane

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Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, his biography of the rock singer Jobriath, will appear soon via SAF.

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