Ever conscious of racial discrimination, Kitt overcame barriers of prejudice, sometimes militantly, and championed unpopular causes for the downtrodden.
Actress, singer. Kitt was born on January 17, 1927, in St. Matthews, the daughter of John and Anna Mae Kitt. Her black mother was just fourteen years old, and Kitt claimed never to know the identity of her white father nor her own birthday (a group of Benedict College students uncovered her birth certificate in 1997). When Kitt was four years old, her mother’s boyfriend forced Anna Mae Kitt to abandon her daughter. Eartha Kitt was abused by the family she went to live with and taunted by her peers for her light skin color. But she and her younger half-sister, Pearl, survived until Eartha was moved to Harlem at age eight to live with her aunt Mamie, who also turned out to be abusive. A teacher spotted Kitt’s talent, however, and helped her earn admission to Metropolitan High School (later the New York School of Performing Arts).
Kitt ran away from home at age sixteen to join the all-black Kathleen Dunham dance troupe, which toured South America and Europe. She left the dancers and turned her sultry voice to cabaret singing in 1949, singing in Paris and then in major European and American cities. The feisty Kitt, projecting the image of a “sex kitten,” first drew critical acclaim on the stage in Paris in Dr. Faustus, a 1951 adaptation of Faust by Orson Welles, who called her “the most exciting woman alive.” Later she starred in movies and recorded such teasing pop song hits as “C’est Si Bon” and “I Want to Be Evil.”
Ever conscious of racial discrimination, Kitt overcame barriers of prejudice, sometimes militantly, and championed unpopular causes for the downtrodden. In a highly publicized incident in January 1968, she spoke out against the Vietnam War at a White House luncheon sponsored by Lady Bird Johnson. The outburst angered President Lyndon Johnson and triggered a Central Intelligence Agency report that labeled her a “sadistic nymphomaniac.” Her career suffered badly in America for several years, but she was popular abroad and regained her fans when she returned to America in 1978.
Kitt’s stage credits included Dr. Faustus (1951), New Faces of 1952, Mrs. Patterson (1954), Shinbone Alley (1957), Timbuktu (1978), and Blues in the Night (1985). Among her films were New Faces (1953), Accused (1957), St. Louis Blues (1957), Anna Lucasta (1958), Mark of the Hawk (1958), Saint of Devil’s Island (1961), Synanon (1965), Up the Chastity Belt (1971), and two French movies. Kitt also made numerous television appearances, including playing the role of Catwoman in the Batman television series.
Kitt is known for the seductive, purring style she employed in such albums as In Person at the Plaza and My Way, a Musical Tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., both in 1987. She taught her- self to sing in ten languages, including Turkish and Hebrew. She was named Woman of the Year in 1968 by the National Association of Negro Musicians and remains one of the few performers to earn nominations for Tony, Grammy, and Oscar awards.
Kitt authored Thursday’s Child (1956), Alone with Me (1976), I’m Still Here (1990), and Confessions of a Sex Kitten (1991). She married the real estate mogul William McDonald on June 6, 1960. They divorced in 1965. She has one daughter, Kitt McDonald. After more than fifty years of entertaining, she continued to sing, act, dance, and write into the twenty-first century.
Kitt, Eartha. Confessions of a Sex Kitten. New York: Barricade, 1991.