About Eartha Mae Kitt
Perhaps best known for her highly distinctive singing style, Eartha Kitt’s 1953 recording of "Santa Baby" is still a favorite today. In the 1960s, Kitt had a recurring role as Catwoman on TV's Batman, but her career waned after she criticized the Vietnam War during a luncheon with Lady Bird Johnson. Orson Welles once called her the "most exciting woman in the world."
Born Eartha Mae Keith, an out-of-wedlock child, on January 17, 1927 in North, South Carolina, Kitt's mother was of Cherokee and African-American descent and her father of German or Dutch descent. At the age of eight, the girl, who was nicknamed “Kitty Charles,” was given away by her mother to live with her aunt Mamie Kitt in Harlem. Her mixed heritage made life difficult for the young woman who endured racism, discrimination and abuse. At age 15, Kitt dropped out of school to work in a Brooklyn factory and started living with friends and squatting in subways. New York’s culture and flair brought out the entertainer in the young woman who, after a friendly dare, auditioned for the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe.
Winning a spot on the troupe provided Kitt with the opportunity not only to showcase her talent, but to also see the world. She toured Europe as a featured dancer and vocalist before turning 20. While performing in a Parisian nightclub, Kitt mesmerized the owner to such an extent that he offered her a solo contract. Becoming the toast of Europe – and mastering the French language to boot – Kitt soon caught the attention of Hollywood power players, including Orson Welles, who called her “the most exciting girl in the world,” and ended up casting her as Helen of Troy in his production of Dr. Faust (1950).
When she moved back to New York City, The Village Vanguard booked Kitt for nightly performances, leading her to being discovered by a Broadway producer who put her in New Faces of 1952, a musical revue and comedy show that also launched the career of Mel Brooks. The audiences loved Kitt’s sultry renditions of her signature songs like “Monotonous” and “Bal, Petit, Bal” and she was able to perform these and many other numbers in a national tour of the show, as well as in the 1954 film, New Faces.
With a voice that so many recognized and adored, Kitt was still at the peak of her Broadway career when she received a recording contract. She began turning out hit records that showcased her good-girl-turned-bad image such as “Love for Sale,” “I Want to be Evil, and the naughty holiday classic “Santa Baby.” Her spoken word album, Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa, released in 1952, earned Kitt a Grammy nomination. It was the first of many honors the star received in her illustrious career; she was one of few entertainers to ever receive multiple Tony, Grammy and Emmy award nominations.
Kitt opened up about her childhood and her rise to fame in her 1957 autobiography, Thursday’s Child. During this time, she returned to the Great White Way in the play Mrs. Patterson, a role that earned the actress her first Tony nomination. She spent the latter part of the decade appearing in films, co-starring with legends like Sidney Poitier in The Mark of the Hawk (1957), Nat King Cole in St. Louis Blues (1958) and Sammy Davis, Jr. in Anna Lucasta (1959). She also appeared in a handful of television shows – from an Emmy-nominated performance in I Spy (NBC, 1965-68) to Mission Impossible (CBS, 1966-1973) before getting a role that defined her career for years to come.
When Batman the series premiered, Adam West played the dark knight while Julie Newmar took on Catwoman. The actress held the role for two seasons until she left the show to film Mackenna’s Gold (1969). Kitt was brought in to play the feline femme fatale, adding her own distinct voice and mannerisms to the comic book villain. Another actress, Lee Meriwether, was the third star to play Catwoman when she starred in the 1966 film version of Batman, yet it was Kitt who left the biggest mark in pop culture because of her trademark – and often imitated – Catwoman growl.
Kitt was also known for being outspoken, particularly when it came to issues she was passionate about – such as the Vietnam War. Invited in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson to a charity lunch at the White House, Kitt was asked by the First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, to discuss her views on juvenile delinquency. The multi-talented performer famously answered, “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” Her remark got Kitt professionally blacklisted in the States for a time, forcing her to find work abroad. Six years after the White House incident, Kitt made a triumphant return to the U.S. stage with a concert at Carnegie Hall. She followed up with her second autobiography Alone with Me in 1976, and delivered another Tony-nominated performance in the 1978 musical Timbuktu! from George Forrest and Robert Wright. Her rendition of the line “constantly stirring with a long wooden spoon” became well known – if only for the star’s distinctive purr.
By the 1970s and 1980s, Kitt became a cultural icon; often being referenced on TV and in film. The famous Monty Python sketch called “The Cycling Tour” centered on an amnesiac who believed he was Clodagh Rodgers, then Trotsky, and finally, Eartha Kitt. She recorded the song “Where Is My Man” in 1984 and got her first Gold record with the disco-heavy tune. The song also exposed the artist to a new fan base – gay males – and she welcomed them with open arms, frequently performing concerts that benefited HIV/AIDS organizations. Kitt had another minor pop hit in 1989 with the song “Cha-Cha Heels.” That same year, the artist released her third book, I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten. The late 1980s also saw Kitt beginning to act more regularly in features, most typically in exotic or outlandish turns in films including The Serpent Warriors (1986), Ernest Scared Stupid (1991) and the Eddie Murphy vehicle, Boomerang (1992).
But it was the stage where Kitt felt the most at home, performing for most of the 1990s and 2000s in national touring productions of The Wizard of Oz (as the Wicked Witch of the West) and Cinderella (as the Fairy Godmother). She returned to Broadway in 2000 for the short-lived The Wild Party, and again in 2003 when she replaced fellow Broadway legend Chita Rivera in Nine. Although her acting appearances on film and television waned later in her career, Kitt lent her famous voice for several animated projects. Everyone immediately recognized her raspy purr as Kaa the python in a 1994 BBC Radio adaptation of The Jungle Book, and as Vexus in My Life as a Teenage Robot (Nickelodeon, 2003-08). Her most memorable animated role, however, was playing the villain Yzma in Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove (2000). Kitt reprised Yzma a few years later in the DVD follow-up Kronk’s New Groove and in the spin-off series, The Emperor’s New School (Disney Channel, 2006-08), a performance that won her an Emmy award in 2008.
Kitt, who was married to Bill McDonald from 1960 to 1965, had one child, Kitt Shapiro. She resided in Connecticut near her daughter and two grandchildren Justin and Rachel. In 2007, Kitt celebrated her 80th birthday with a concert at Carnegie Hall titled “Eartha Kitt and Friends.” On December 25, 2008, the world mourned the loss of the true legend when Kitt passed away from colon cancer at the age of 81.