By Jueseppi B.
I could go on for days on this diva….among the very first black Diva’s in my mind. Instead I will just attempt to give tribute to a GREAT American Icon. Ms. Eartha Mae Kitt.
Eartha Mae Kitt (January 17, 1927 – December 25, 2008) was an American singer, actress, and cabaret star. She was perhaps best known for her highly distinctive singing style and her 1953 hit recordings of “C’est Si Bon” and the enduring Christmas novelty smash “Santa Baby“. Orson Welles once called her the “most exciting woman in the world.” She took over the role of Catwoman for the third and final season of the 1960s Batman television series, replacing Julie Newmar, who was unavailable due to other commitments.
Kitt was born Eartha Mae Keith on a cotton plantation in North, a small town in Orangeburg County near Columbia, South Carolina. Kitt’s mother was of Cherokee and African-American descent and her father of German or Dutch descent. Kitt was conceived by rape.
Kitt was raised by Anna Mae Riley, an African-American woman whom she believed to be her mother. Anna Mae went to live with a black man when Eartha was aged 8. He refused to accept Kitt because of her relatively pale complexion. Kitt lived with another family until Riley’s death. She was then sent to live in New York City with Mamie Kitt, who she learned was her biological mother. She had no knowledge of her father, except that his surname was Kitt and that he was supposedly a son of the owner of the farm where she had been born. Newspaper obituaries state that her white father was “a poor cotton farmer”.
Kitt began her career as a member of the Katherine Dunham Company in 1943 and remained a member of the troupe until 1948. A talented singer with a distinctive voice, she recorded the hits “Let’s Do It“; “Champagne Taste”; “C’est si bon” (which Stan Freberg famously burlesqued); “Just an Old Fashioned Girl”; “Monotonous”; “Je cherche un homme”; “Love for Sale“; “I’d Rather Be Burned as a Witch”; “Uskudar’a Gideriken (aka Katibim)”; “Mink, Schmink”; “Under the Bridges of Paris“; and her most recognizable hit, “Santa Baby“, which was released in 1953.
Kitt’s unique style was enhanced as she became fluent in the French language during her years performing in Europe. Her English-speaking performances always seemed to be enriched by a soft French feel. She spoke four languages and sang in seven, which she effortlessly demonstrated in many of the live recordings of her cabaret performances.
In 1950, Orson Welles gave Kitt her first starring role, as Helen of Troy in his staging of Dr. Faustus. A few years later, she was cast in the revue New Faces of 1952, introducing “Monotonous” and “Bal, Petit Bal”, two songs with which she is still identified. In 1954, 20th Century Fox filmed a version of the revue, titled New Faces, in which she performed “Monotonous”, “Uska Dara“, and “C’est si bon“.
Though it is often alleged that Welles and Kitt had an affair during her 1957 run in Shinbone Alley, Kitt categorically denied this in a June 2001 interview with George Wayne of Vanity Fair. “I never had sex with Orson Welles”, Kitt told Vanity Fair: “It was a working situation and nothing else”. Her other films in the 1950s included The Mark of the Hawk (1957), St. Louis Blues (1958) and Anna Lucasta (1959).
Throughout the rest of the 1950s and early 1960s, Kitt recorded; worked in film, television, and nightclubs; and returned to the Broadway stage, in Mrs. Patterson (during the 1954–1955 season), Shinbone Alley (in 1957), and the short-lived Jolly’s Progress (in 1959). In 1964, Kitt helped open the Circle Star Theater inewdh San Carlos, California. In the late 1960s, the television series Batman featured her as Catwoman after Julie Newmar left the role.
In 1968, during the administration of US President Lyndon B. Johnson, Kitt encountered a substantial professional setback after she made anti-war statements during a White House luncheon. Kitt was invited to the White House luncheon and was asked by Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War. She replied: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.”
During a question and answer session, Kitt stated:
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.
Her remarks reportedly caused Mrs. Johnson to burst into tears and led to a derailment in Kitt’s career. The public reaction to Kitt’s statements was extreme, both pro and con. Publicly ostracized in the US, she devoted her energies to performances in Europe and Asia.
She returned to New York in a triumphant turn in the Broadway spectacle Timbuktu! (a version of the perennial Kismet set in Africa) in 1978. In the musical, one song gives a “recipe” for mahoun, a preparation of cannabis, in which her sultry purring rendition of the refrain “constantly stirring with a long wooden spoon” was distinctive.
In 1978, Kitt did the voice-over in a TV commercial for the album Aja by the rock group Steely Dan. She wrote three autobiographies — Thursday’s Child (1956), Alone with Me (1976) and I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten (1989).
In 1984, she returned to the music charts with a disco song, “Where Is My Man“, the first certified gold record of her career. “Where Is My Man” reached the Top 40 on the UK Singles Chart, where it peaked at #36; The song also made the Top 10 on the US Billboard dance chart, where it reached #7. The single was followed by the album I Love Men on the Record Shack label. Kitt found new audiences in nightclubs across the UK and the US, including a whole new generation of gay male fans, and she responded by frequently giving benefit performances in support of HIV/AIDS organizations.
Kitt appeared with Jimmy James and George Burns at a fundraiser in 1990 produced by Scott Sherman, Agent from The Atlantic Entertainment Group. It was arranged that James would impersonate Kitt and then Kitt would walk out to take the microphone. This was met with a standing ovation. Her 1989 follow-up hit “Cha-Cha Heels” (featuring Bronski Beat), which was originally intended to be recorded by Divine, received a positive response from UK dance clubs and reached #32 in the charts in that country.
In 1991, Eartha returned to the screen in the Jim Varney children’s Halloween movie Ernest Scared Stupid as Old Lady Hackmore. In 1992, Kitt had a supporting role as Lady Eloise in the film Boomerang starring Eddie Murphy. In the late 1990s, she appeared as the Wicked Witch of the West in the North American national touring company of The Wizard of Oz. 1995 saw Eartha Kitt appear as herself in an episode of ‘The Nanny’, where she performed a song in French and flirted with Mr Shefield.
In November 1996, she appeared on an episode of Celebrity Jeopardy. In 2000, Kitt again returned to Broadway in the short-lived run of Michael John LaChiusa‘s The Wild Party opposite Mandy Patinkin and Toni Collette. Beginning in late 2000, she starred as the Fairy Godmother in the US national tour of Cinderella alongside Deborah Gibson and then Jamie-Lynn Sigler.
In 2003, she replaced Chita Rivera in Nine. She reprised her role as the Fairy Godmother at a special engagement of Cinderella, which took place at Lincoln Center during the holiday season of 2004. One of her more unusual roles was as Kaa the python in a 1994 BBC Radio adaptation of The Jungle Book.
Kitt lent her distinctive voice to the role of Yzma in Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove, for which she won her first Annie Award, and returned to the role in the straight-to-video sequel Kronk’s New Groove and the spin-off TV series The Emperor’s New School, for which she won two Emmy Awards and two more Annie Awards (both in 2007–08) for Voice Acting in an Animated Television Production. She had a voiceover as the voice of Queen Vexus on the animated TV series My Life as a Teenage Robot.
In her later years Kitt made annual appearances in the New York Manhattan cabaret scene at venues such as the Ballroom and the Café Carlyle. She was also a guest star in The Simpsons episode “Once Upon a Time in Springfield“, where she was depicted as one of Krusty’s past marriages.
Kitt was the spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics‘ Smoke Signals collection in August 2007. She re-recorded “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” for the occasion, was showcased on the MAC website, and the song was played at all MAC locations carrying the collection for the month.
After romances with the cosmetics magnate Charles Revson and banking heir John Barry Ryan III, she married John William McDonald, an associate of a real estate investment company, on June 6, 1960. They had one child, a daughter named Kitt McDonald, born on November 26, 1961. They got divorced in 1965.
A long-time Connecticut resident, Eartha Kitt lived in a converted barn on a sprawling farm in the Merryall section of New Milford for many years and was active in local charities and causes throughout Litchfield County. Subsequently moving to Pound Ridge, New York, then in 2002, Kitt moved to the southern Fairfield County, Connecticut town of Weston to be near her daughter Kitt and family. (Kitt McDonald married Charles Lawrence Shapiro in 1987 and had two children, Jason and Rachel Shapiro.)
Kitt became a vocal advocate for homosexual rights and publicly supported same-sex marriage, which she believed to be a civil right. She had been quoted as saying, “I support it [gay marriage] because we’re asking for the same thing. If I have a partner and something happens to me, I want that partner to enjoy the benefits of what we have reaped together. It’s a civil-rights thing, isn’t it?” Kitt famously appeared at many GLBT fundraisers, including a mega event in Baltimore, Maryland, with George Burns and Jimmy James. Scott Sherman, an agent at Atlantic Entertainment Group, stated “Eartha Kitt is fantastic… appears at so many GLBT events in support of civil rights.”
- Feature Films
- Casbah (1948)
- New Faces (1954)
- St. Louis Blues (1958)
- Anna Lucasta (1959)
- Saint of Devil’s Island (1961)
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1965)
- Synanon (1965)
- Up the Chastity Belt (1971)
- Friday Foster (1975)
- All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story (1982) (documentary)
- The Serpent Warriors (1985)
- The Pink Chiquitas (1987)
- Dragonard (1987)
- Master of Dragonard Hill (1989)
- Erik the Viking (1989)
- Living Doll (1990)
- Ernest Scared Stupid (1991)
- Boomerang (1992)
- Fatal Instinct (1993)
- Unzipped (1995) (documentary)
- Harriet the Spy (1996)
- Ill Gotten Gains (1997)
- I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998)
- Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story (1998) (direct-to-video)
- The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) (voice) (Yzma)
- The Making and Meaning of We Are Family (2002) (documentary)
- The Sweatbox (2002) (documentary)
- Anything But Love (2002)
- Holes (2003)
- Preaching to the Choir (2005)
- Kronk’s New Groove (2005) (voice) (direct-to-video) (Yzma)
- And Then Came Love (2007)
- Short subjects
- All About People (1967) (narrator)
- I Spy – “Angel” (1965)
- Mission: Impossible (1967) (Tina Mara, Season 1, Episode 27)
- Batman (recurring cast member from 1967 – 1968)
- The Eartha Kitt Show (1969)
- Lieutenant Schuster’s Wife (1972)
- The Protectors – Episode – A Pocketful of Posies (1973)
- To Kill a Cop (1978)
- A Night on the Town (1983)
- Living Single (1995)(As herself)
- New York Undercover (1996)
- The Nanny (1996)
- The Feast of All Saints (2001) (miniseries)
- Santa Baby! (2001) (voice)
- My Life as a Teenage Robot: Vexus (recurring from 2003 – 2007)
- The Emperor’s New School: Yzma (2006 – 2008)
- Wonder Pets: Cool Cat (1 episode, 2009)
- The Simpsons (season 21, Once Upon a Time in Springfield) (2010) 
- Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child: The Snow Queen (voice)
- Miami Vice “Whatever Works” 1985
- Blue Holiday (May 21–26, 1945) (Broadway)
- Carib Song (September 27 – October 27, 1945) (Broadway)
- Bal Negre (November 7 – December 22, 1946) (Broadway and European tour)
- Time Runs (1950)
- Dr. Faustus (1951) (Paris and European tour)
- New Faces of 1952 (May 16, 1952 – March 28, 1953) (Broadway)
- Mrs. Patterson (December 1, 1954 – February 26, 1955) (Broadway)
- Shinbone Alley (April 13 – May 25, 1957) (Broadway)
- Jolly’s Progress (December 5–12, 1959) (Broadway)
- The Owl and the Pussycat (1965 – 1966) (national tour)
- The High Bid (1970) (London)
- Bunny (1972) (London)
- A Musical Jubilee (1976) (national tour)
- Timbuktu! (March 1 – September 10, 1978) (Broadway and national tour from 1979 – 1980)
- New Faces of 1952 (Revival) (1982) (Off-Off-Broadway)
- Blues in the Night (1985) (national tour)
- Follies (1987) (London) (replacement for Dolores Gray)
- Eartha Kitt in Concert (1989) (London)
- Yes (1994) (One Woman Show) (Edinburgh)
- Sam’s Song (1995) (Benefit Concert) (Unitarian Church of All Souls)
- Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (1996) (Chicago)
- The Wizard of Oz (1998) (national tour)
- The Wild Party (April 13 – June 11, 2000) (Broadway)
- Cinderella (2001) (Madison Square Garden)
- Nine (replacement for Chita Rivera from October 5 – December 14, 2003) (Broadway)
- Mimi le Duck (2006) (Off Broadway)
- All About Us (April 10-28, 2007) (Westport Country Playhouse)
Next in the “One A Day” Black History Month Series is……….The Buffalo Soldiers
Filed under: Art, Black History, Celebs & Fame, History, Race, Women's Causes | Tagged: Batman, blackhistorymonth, Eartha Kitt, Eartha Mae Kitt, Julie Newmar, Kitt, Orson Welles, Santa Baby | 16 Comments »