by Elizabeth Ahlfors
The outstanding thing about Eartha Kitt was that beneath the onstage glamour, she really was not Eartha Kitt at all. She was Eartha Mae. Eartha Kitt was the diva, the actress, the original Catwoman, the charismatic chanteuse at the Café Carlyle. Eartha Mae was a sharp, bright woman who spoke seven languages, took what was dealt her in a tough childhood and formed a life and career that suited her. She learned about hardships early and developed the strength and fierceness to prove, “I could do something constructive to prove that I was a worthwhile person.” She became the inimitable but often imitated Eartha Kitt, but she never forgot to remain Eartha Mae.
She died of colon cancer on Christmas Day with her only daughter, Kitt Shapiro by her side. Just a few years ago, she commented, “Life has really been marvelous. I don’t think I would have done anything differently.”
Eartha Kitt was born of mixed racial parentage on a cotton farm in South Carolina. Her father left when she was very young. Her mother left soon after. “I don’t remember my mother; I didn’t even know she existed.” Eartha Mae was given to live with various families and, at age eight, to avoid being “beaten and abused,” she was sent to “the lady up north,” who was referred to as her“aunt.” Living in Harlem, she learned to play piano a bit, sang in the choir, acted in plays, and eventually attended the New York School of Performing Arts. Eventually Eartha Mae went on her own, leaving school and working as a seamstress.
“I was never struck by the music. As far as being a blues singer, or jazz singer, or pop singer, I had none of those ideas at all. I was struck by the theater, but I didn’t start out to be anything in the theatre.” On a dare, she auditioned and was accepted into the Katherine Dunham Ballet Company. “I had no intention of being in any part of show business, but music was there along with dancing and drumming and anything else they needed.” With the company, Eartha was suddenly touring the country and the world, where she learned she had an affinity for languages.
Eartha remained in Paris as a nightclub singer, and in 1950, she was cast by Orson Welles in a play, Dr. Faust. A big break came when she was cast on Broadway in New Faces of 1952. A recording career followed with hits like “C’est Si Bon” and “Uska Dara,” appearances in leading nightclubs, film roles in St. Louis Blues and Anna Lucasta, and in the ‘60s, a television role as Catwoman on the Batman series. Revlon named a popular lipstick, Fire and Ice, after her.
On Broadway, she was nominated for three Tonys—for Mrs. Patterson, Timbuktu!, and The Wild Party. She was also nominated for two Emmys and two Grammys.
“I don’t think anyone can teach you how to sing; that’s something you’re born with, but then you have to use it (correctly). I am very cognizant of how I phrase; I phrase according to the way I feel about the words and the music underneath those words. That’s the way I choose songs. I have to have some kind of relationship, emotionally or comedy-wise, with those words in order to adopt that song to my interpretation.”
In the club acts, most recently her annual appearances at the Café Carlyle, Eartha was known for relentlessly aiming her songs toward specific audience members—sometimes young, usually older, always male. She remained svelte and limber, still kicking high in her eighties.
Eartha was an activist and was blackballed in this country after speaking out about the Vietnam War during a White House luncheon in 1968. Her career shut down, contracts were pulled, friends disappeared. The CIA kept a dossier on her and she moved to Europe for ten years until returning to star in Timbuktu! Quietly, she established Kittsville, a community center in Los Angeles to help keep children off the streets. She established two schools for black children in South Africa by selling her autographs. She adopted the lady who had brought her up Harlem. Eartha had a tough shell around her but believed, “The glass is going to be full. Maybe not 100 percent, but 99 percent full, and I don’t let anyone take that feeling of positiveness away from me.”
She had one husband, the father of her only daughter, Kitt. Her daughter married, had four children, and managed her mother’s career. Eartha Kitt—the performer—provided Eartha Mae with a comfortable home in Westport, Connecticut, minutes from her daughter’s family. She was surrounded by memorabilia collected from travels through the years: posters, photographs, and her own needlepoint tapestries and rugs. “Needlework is relaxing, it’s therapeutic, and I love the idea of being able to actually see how my time has been spent.
“I don’t live big. I do believe in living comfortably but I’m not interested in showing off.” She said, “I don’t follow an organized religion—I live according to the rhythm of life. I go along with whatever the cards are dealing for me at that time.”
Family and close friends will love and remember Eartha Mae. The world will remember the distinction and excitement of Eartha Kitt.
Category: Hall of Fame