Friday, December 26, 2008
Eartha Kitt, 1927-2008: The Original Material Girl
Something in a young chanteuse from South Carolina saw the genius in changing her name ever so slightly. Eartha Mae Keith became Eartha Kitt — discarding an ordinary surname for one of inspired felinity. It heralded the sex kitten who purred the lyrics to her lightly naughty hit singles of the early '50s; whose sophisticated persona in films and on Broadway barely concealed her claws; and who would achieve camp renown as the prowling, growling Catwoman on the '60s Batman TV series.
But Kitt's persevering through a life that began hard and was never less than challenging — her ability to thrive in good times and survive all the other times — demanded the strength and resilience of a creature sturdier than a house cat. A tiger, perhaps. When she died on Dec. 25 at 81 in Connecticut, she had been enticing and educating the public for more than 60 years. Kitt succumbed to colon cancer on Christmas day, just as thousands, perhaps millions of old-timers were playing some Yuletide CD containing her seasonal ode to seduction, Santa Baby.
She rose to celebrity from the direst of circumstances. Born in South Carolina, in 1927, the spawn of an African-American and Cherokee woman who had been raped by the white owner of a plantation, Eartha Mae was jettisoned by her mother at eight. Sent to an aunt in Harlem, she quit school at 15 and lived for a time in subways — an all-too-familiar blueprint for emotional disintegration.
Dubbed the "most exciting woman in the world" by Orson Welles, Kitt's career spanned six decades, from her start as a dancer with the famed Katherine Dunham troupe to cabarets and acting and singing on stage, in movies and on television.
She won two Emmys, and was also nominated for several Tonys and two Grammys.
Kitt was featured on the cover of her 2001 book, "Rejuvenate," a guide to staying physically fit, in a long, curve-hugging black dress with a figure that some 20-year-old women would envy. She also wrote three autobiographies.
She persevered through an unhappy childhood as a mixed-race daughter of the South, and made headlines in the 1960s for denouncing the Vietnam War during a visit to the White House.
Her first album, "RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt," was released in 1954. It featured songs such as "I Want to Be Evil," "C'est Si Bon" and the saucy gold digger's theme song, "Santa Baby," which is revived on radio each Christmas.
The following year, the record company released "That Bad Eartha," which featured "Let's Do It," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."
After becoming a hit singing "Monotonous" in the Broadway revue "New Faces of 1952," Kitt appeared in "Mrs. Patterson" in 1954-55. (Some references say she earned a Tony nomination for "Mrs. Patterson," but only winners were publicly announced at that time.) She also made appearances in "Shinbone Alley" and "The Owl and the Pussycat."
She was the sexy Catwoman on the popular "Batman" TV series in 1967-68, replacing Julie Newmar, who originated the role. A guest appearance on an episode of "I Spy" brought Kitt an Emmy nomination in 1966.
In 1996, Kitt was nominated for a Grammy in the category of traditional pop vocal performance for her album "Back in Business." She also had been nominated in the children's recording category for the 1969 record, "Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa."
Kitt also acted in movies, playing the lead female role opposite Nat King Cole in "St. Louis Blues" in 1958. She more recently appeared in "Boomerang" and "Harriet the Spy" in the 1990s.
"Generally the whole entertainment business now is bland," she said in a 1996 Associated Press interview. "It depends so much on gadgetry and flash now. You don't have to have talent to be in the business today.
"I think we had to have something to offer, if you wanted to be recognized as worth paying for."
Kitt was plainspoken about causes she believed in. Her anti-war comments at the White House came as she attended a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson.
"You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed," she told the group of about 50 women. "They rebel in the street. They don't want to go to school because they're going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam."
For four years afterward, Kitt performed almost exclusively overseas. She was investigated by the FBI and CIA, which allegedly found her to be foul-mouthed and promiscuous.
"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 told Essence magazine two decades later.
In 1978, Kitt returned to Broadway in the musical "Timbuktu!" — which brought her a Tony nomination — and was invited back to the White House by President Jimmy Carter.
In 2000, Kitt earned another Tony nomination for "The Wild Party." She played the fairy godmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" in 2002.
As recently as October 2003, she was on Broadway after replacing Chita Rivera in a revival of "Nine." She also gained new fans as the voice of Yzma in the 2000 Disney animated feature "The Emperor's New Groove," and won two Emmys for her voice work in "The Emperor's New School."
Kitt was born in North, S.C., and her road to fame was the stuff of storybooks. In her autobiography, she wrote that her mother was black and Cherokee while her father was white, and she was left to live with relatives after her mother's new husband objected to taking in a mixed-race girl.
An aunt eventually brought her to live in New York, where she attended the High School of Performing Arts, later dropping out to take various odd jobs.
By chance, she dropped by an audition for the dance group run by Dunham, a pioneering African-American dancer. In 1946, Kitt was one of the Sans-Souci Singers in Dunham's Broadway production "Bal Negre."
Kitt's travels with the Dunham troupe landed her a gig in a Paris nightclub in the early 1950s. Kitt was spotted by Welles, who cast her in his Paris stage production of "Faust." That led to a role in "New Faces of 1952," which featured such other stars-to-be as Carol Lawrence, Paul Lynde and, as a writer, Mel Brooks.
In 1960, she married Bill McDonald but divorced him after the birth of their daughter, Kitt.
While on stage, she was daringly sexy and always flirtatious. Offstage, however, Kitt described herself as shy and almost reclusive, remnants of feeling unwanted and unloved as a child. She referred to herself as "that little urchin cotton-picker from the South, Eartha Mae."
R.I.P to the original Material Girl.....Eartha Kitt