It speaks a lot to how far ahead of her time Eartha Kitt was (Eartha Mae Keith, 1927-2007), given that she was widely regarded as an “exotic character” even unto her last years, and, in retrospect even now. Kitt reveled in cultivating an image that was equal parts scary, weird, sexy, dangerous, sophisticated, and ribald. Songs like “I Want To Be Evil” and “I’d Rather Be Burned as a Witch” helped create the suspicion that she was. Her name somehow reinforces the qualities she radiated: she was “earthy”. “Kitt” evokes a fox, as well as the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, and the Caribbean evokes voodoo, although she was born in South Carolina and raised in Harlem. Though her true parentage is uncertain it is generally believed that she was of mixed-race lineage, her mother Cherokee and African-American, her father white. It has been suggested that her conception was the result of a rape.
As a teenager she joined the Katherine Dunham company, with whom she danced from 1943 to 1948. This was her springboard to success. With Dunham’s company she danced in the Broadway shows Blue Holiday (1945), Carib Song (1945), and Bal Negre (1946). She also traveled with the company to London and Paris with the show Caribbean Rhapsody (1948). In Paris she had her first solo cabaret show at Carroll’s Niterie. This is where she spotted by Orson Welles, who cast her in his Paris production of Dr. Faustus, her first principal acting role. So, very much like Josephine Baker, Kitt owes her fame to Paris — an African American woman who made it big in the City of Light, who brought some of that aura with her back to America.
It is rumored that Kitt had an affair with Orson Welles during these years, gossip no doubt helped along by photos like this (this one reminds me of a very famous 19th century one featuring Adah Isaacs Menken and Alexander Dumas, which similarly set tongues wagging in its day).
Kitt later denied that she and Welles were ever sexual partners and it doesn’t take a psychological genius to notice that Welles looks uncomfortable in this photo. It was characteristic of Eartha Kitt to boldly make a noise, take what she wanted, pry open doors. In a world where advantages are given grudgingly, just step up and snatch them. It really is the only way. Kitt did it in such a natural, winning, confident way, people were universally charmed, and so there was no stopping her. It has to be acknowledged that this quality of hers was brave and pathbreaking. What she’s doing in this photo could have gotten her killed in the Southern U.S.
And Kitt was about to know her first American fame. She returned to Broadway as one of the stars of New Faces of 1952. This led to a string of hit records: “Uska Dara”, “C’est Ci Bon”, the now-classic “Santa Baby”, “I Want to Be Evil”, “Lovin’ Spree” and “Somebody Bad Stole De Wedding Bell”. Everything about her voice sounds unique on these records, that strange vibrato which I’ve never ever heard anybody else do unless they were imitating her. Her “accent” (if you can call it that, since nobody else on earth pronounces vowels or consonants as she does). She sounds for all the world like a mermaid, or Siren, or Circe. Her voice bewitches you, and will possibly lead to your destruction.
She remained on Broadway through the end of the ’50s, in the shows Mrs. Patterson (1957), Shinbone Alley (1957) and Jolly’s Progress (1959). She appeared in films like The Mark of the Hawk (1957), St. Louis Blues (1958), Ann Lucasta (1958, as the title character), and Saint of Devil’s Island (1961). She began appearing on TV shows like Ed Sullivan and Mike Douglas. Among some people, she may be best known for being one of the three women who portrayed Cat Woman on the tv series Batman. That’s certainly how I first discovered her, and I’m sure I’m not alone, although her true body of work is so extensive that this little anomaly is more justly regarded as a blip.
In 1968 Kitt caused a stink by dressing down LBJ about the Vietnam War at a White House performance. This led to government reprisal (targeted surveillance and a dossier) that was revealed in a 1975 New York Times article, as well as blacklisting by mainstream show business for a time. During this era she was in the racy British comedy Up the Chastity Belt (1971) and the blaxploitation flick Friday Foster (1975) with Pam Grier and Yaphet Kotto.
The Broadway show Timbuktu! (1978) represented her comeback. Towards her later years, she was cast in many high-profile movies, including Terry Jones’ Erik the Viking (1989), Ernest Scared Stupid (1991), Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang (1992), Carl Reiner’s Fatal Instinct (1993), Harriet the Spy (1996), the Ed Wood penned I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998), Disney’s animated The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), and the kid’s movie Holes (2003). Later Broadway appearances (and tours of Broadway productions) included The Wizard of Oz (1998), The Wild Party (2000), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (2000), and Nine (2003).
And throughout the decades she never stopped performing live in nightclubs, cabarets and concert venues, and making records. Interestingly, in spite of all her on-camera appearances, it’s always the records I think of first when I think of Eartha Kitt. That voice!