Thursday, December 25, 2008

Eartha Mae Kitt, 1927-2008

Actress, singer, and pioneer Eartha Kitt has passed away. She was 81-years-old and would have turned 82 January 17th.

Appearances on Broadway in "New Faces of 1952" and in Hollywood in the spin-off "New Faces" (1954) followed, earning her roles singing with Nat "King" Cole in " St. Louis Blues" (1958) and playing opposite Sammy Davis Jr. in "Anna Lucasta" (1959).
At the same time, she scored several offbeat, multi-lingual hit records, including "C'est Si Bon" (with its French colloquialisms), "Uska Dura" (with its Turkish chant) and a tune that continues to re-surface every Christmas season, "Santa Baby."
But it all came to a crashing halt in 1968, when Ms. Kitt attended a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson and spoke her mind after being asked about contemporary social woes.
"No wonder the kids rebel and take pot," she told the startled crowd. "Boys I know across the nation feel it doesn't pay to be a good guy. They figure that with a record, they don't have to go off to Vietnam."
The comments made the front pages of newspapers across the country, and Ms. Kitt instantly discovered her standing engagements canceled and her phone suddenly silent. The FBI and CIA began investigating her, she learned later, and she spent the next several years working in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Manila.
It took a decade until she was able to re-launch her American career with "Timbuktu," a black version of the musical "Kismet," but she nonetheless spent many of the following years in Europe.

That is from Howard Reich's "Entertainer Eartha Kitt--chanteuse, Catwoman and raconteur--dies at age 81" (Chicago Tribune). It was big news when Eartha Kitt told the truth about Vietnam. Because she was a person of color and because she told it in front of Mrs. Johnson, the costs were greater for her than many others. By 1968, many people were speaking out against the war on Vietnam and doing so publicly. Few would ever be expected to pay the cost that was imposed upon Ms. Kitt. But her speaking out did not just include Vietnam and that might have also had an impact. Before we get to that, this is from David Hinckley's "Versatile, legendary performer Eartha Kitt dead at 81" (New York Daily News):

Born on a cotton plantation in South Carolina, Kitt was sent to New York to be raised by a woman who was called her aunt, but whom she believed to be her mother. She started her career in the 1940s with Katharine Dunham's dance company and made her Broadway debut at 18.
Kitt starred as
Helen of Troy in Orson Welles' 1950 staging of Christopher (Kit) Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus" and reportedly fell into a steamy affair with Welles, who called her "the most exciting woman in the world."
"Santa, Baby" secured her public image as a sex kitten and she followed with a string of slinky pop records through the 1950s, the biggest of which was "C'est Si Bon."
She conquered another medium in the 1960s when she took over the role of the sexy Catwoman in the TV hit "Batman."

Catwoman is among Eartha Kitt's most famous roles. She was not the first or the last woman to play Catwoman; however, she is among the most famous three: Julie Newmar, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Ms. Kitt. (I would rank Ms. Kitt and Ms. Pfeiffer as the best.) Betty is writing about what Ms. Kitt's Catwoman meant to her as a young girl so be sure to visit Thomas Friedman Is a Great Man tonight.

The BBC offers "US singer Eartha Kitt dies at 81" which also has videos and which explains Ms. Kitt also spoke out against South Africa's apartheid regime:

She famously played Catwoman in the Batman television series in the 1960s and was known for her distinctive, feline drawl.
She also had a number of hit songs, including Old Fashioned Girl, C'est Si Bon and Santa Baby.
Eartha Kitt singing Santa Baby
Kitt was blacklisted in the US in the late 1960s after speaking out against the Vietnam War at a White House function.
She also caused controversy when she toured apartheid South Africa in 1974, arguing that she had helped wean the regime by raising awareness of racism.

I find it very strange that U.S. outlets repeatedly omit her speaking out against apartheid. CNN notes:

She worked in film, theater, cabaret, music and on television during her lengthy career. According to Kitt's official Web site, she was nominated for a Tony three times, a Grammy and Emmy twice.
According to the biography on that site, Kitt lived in Connecticut near her daughter and four grandchildren.

And The St. Louis American notes, "She had just taped a PBS special six weeks ago in Chicago, which will air in February. Her single 'Santa Baby', originally recorded in 1954, was certified gold last week." Robert Simonson (Playbill) may come the closest to summing Ms. Kitt up:

Eartha Kitt was many things: a best-selling recording artist; a Tony-nominated stage actress; a sex symbol; a paragon of both high art and high camp; the author of three autobiographies. One thing she was not is unoriginal.