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The life and times of Eartha Kitt, a true American hero

Eartha Kitt made a tremendous impact on popular culture. While we all know the singer for her 1953 single ‘Santa Baby’, Kitt did so much more than just that. Her life started off in the worst way possible, but the budding artist would quickly escape the clutches of her family and go on to follow her own path, becoming an icon in the process.

Born on a cotton plantation in South Carolina in 1927, Kitt mother was of Cherokee and African descent. From early in her life, Kitt had little knowledge of her father, and it was reported numerous times that he was the son of the white farm owner and that she had been conceived by rape. When Eartha was young, her mother went to live with a man who wouldn’t accept the child because of her pale complexion, so instead, she went to live with her Aunt Rosa, at whose house she suffered horrific mental and physical abuse.

At the age of seven, Eartha witnessed her mother’s death, and for the rest of her life, she was convinced that her mother had been poisoned after watching the family perform a strange voodoo ceremony that was specific to people who had been murdered. After her mother’s premature death, and with her young life shattering around her, Eartha went to live with a relative in New York, and it was here where she began to flourish. She attended the High School of Performing Arts, and in 1943, she began her singing career as part of the Katherine Dunham Company. Years later, after honing her craft, when the company were on tour in Europe performing in Paris and London, Kitt broke away and set about forging a solo career. For the rest of her life, Kitt would see Britain as a second home for herself and her daughter. 

Fast forward to the 1950s and Kitt started to enjoy artistic success and fame. Her hits included ‘Let’s Do It’, ‘Champagne Taste’, ‘I Want to Be Evil’ and of course, ‘Santa Baby’. She cultivated a unique style, one which was augmented by the fact that she could speak fluent French after years of touring Europe. It is said she spoke four languages, including German and Dutch, and sang in a total of 11 languages over her career. She became so iconic that Diana Ross of The Supremes said that she based her entire look and sound on Kitt’s. 

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Famously, in 1950, renaissance man Orson Welles gave Kitt her first leading role as Helen of Troy in his on-stage adaptation of Dr. Faustus. From there the two would form a long-standing association, which led to speculation that the pair had an affair during her 1957 run in Shinbone Alley, which Kitt always flat out denied. “I never had sex with Orson Welles,” Kitt told Vanity Fair in 2001: “It was a working situation and nothing else”.

Over the rest of the 1950s and ’60s, Kitt worked in a variety of films, TV shows and nightclubs, and would intermittently return to Broadway. In 1956 she released her autobiography, Thursday’s Child, which inspired David Bowie’s 1999 track of the same name. In the late ’60s, Kitt would make one of her most iconic appearances as Catwoman in Batman, after Julie Newmar left the show. She also made a cameo in a 1967 episode of Mission: Impossible ‘The Traitor’.

In 1968, with the world at her feet, Kitt ascended to truly iconic status after making defiant anti-Vietnam War statements during a lunch with incumbent President Lydon B. Johnson. When asked by First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, about the war, Kitt said: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot”.

Then, during a Q&A session, she argued: “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.”

Notoriously, her comments caused Lady Bird to break down in tears. After this episode, Kitt’s career in the US would hit a roadblock. Afterwards, it was found that the CIA branded her “a sadistic nymphomaniac” in a defamatory dossier unearthed by legendary journalist Seymour Hersh in 1975. Hersh published an article on the dossier in The New York Times, and it was found to have contained comments about Kitt’s sex life, family history and ill thoughts about her from former colleagues. Understandably, Kitt was incensed by such an invasion of privacy and disrespect and declared: “I don’t understand what this is about. I think it’s disgusting”.

(Credit: Alamy)

After the trauma of the incident, Kitt committed to performing in Europe and Asia, needing to get away. Eventually, though, her career did pick up again. Interestingly, in 1978, she did a voice-over for a TV commercial for Steely Dan’s masterpiece, Aja. Then, over the next two decades, she released a handful of music and appeared in films such as Eddie Murphy’s 1992 outing Boomerang

As rings true to the extent of her life, Eartha Kitt never stood still and, in 2000, she gave another stellar performance as the evil Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove, a role which is now timeless. Her distinctive voice gave Yzma a palpable essence of evil, which made her one of Disney’s most enduring. She reprised the role in the 2005 sequel, Kronk’s New Groove. Kitt also starred in the 2003 classic Holes, as the evil Madame Zeroni, a role which she shined in, harking back to the voodoo roots of her family. 

Aside from being a genius creative, Eartha Kitt was also an unwavering campaigner for various causes. Aside from being anti-Vietnam War, she also committed herself to various youth causes, including helping the D.C. grassroots organisation Rebels with a Cause. She also campaigned against poverty and on behalf of women’s and LGBT issues. 

In the years that followed, Kitt appeared at many LGBT events over and gained a large gay following because of it. In 1992, Kitt explained: “We’re all rejected people, we know what it is to be refused, we know what it is to be oppressed, depressed, and then, accused, and I am very much cognizant of that feeling. Nothing in the world is more painful than rejection. I am a rejected, oppressed person, and so I understand them, as best as I can, even though I am a heterosexual.”

A true legend, Eartha Kitt made a mark on the world that will not be forgotten. She took the pain of her early life and used it for just causes, as well as inspiring so many iconic performers. 

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