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Women's History Month: Profiling singer/performer Eartha Kitt

By SheriDan Robinson
On March 21, 2022

Be it through song or her acting abilities, Eartha Kitt always made an impact.
On Jan. 17, 1927, Eartha Mae Kitt was born in St. Matthews, South Carolina.
Kitt’s mother, Annie Mae, was said to have been raped at the age of 16 by the cotton plantation’s owner's son. In her early life, Kitt helped her mother pick cotton in the fields. Mixed girls were called “yellow gal” during the time and were considered to be the cause of harsh weather and bad luck. This superstition is said to have made her feel unloved by her Black family and ignored by her white family.
Eventually, it’s alleged that Kitt’s stepfather said he did not want a “yellow gal” in his house so her mother arranged for her to live and work for another Black family.
At the new house Kiff is said to have suffered abuse from the other children, with allegations of rape, being tied to trees, and whipped when her when their parents would leave. In 1935, a local church found out about the abuse and reportedly called “the woman of the North” to save Kitt from the cruelty.
At 8 years old, she moved to Harlem, New York. Kitt reportedly believed “the woman of the North” was her aunt, Kitt later found out it was her birth mother. Kitt thought she was tall, majestic, and Kitt admitted to being a little scared of her.
Kitt started piano lessons from a man that lived in their apartment and was introduced to many young artists like “The Nicholas Brothers.” While learning the piano and singing, Kitt reportedly still suffered a lot of abuse in this household as well.
“I used to get on the subway and ride from one end of Manhattan to the other, hoping the conductor wouldn’t see me, so I wouldn’t have to go home,” Kitt said.
In high school, she went to Metropolitan Vocational High School, which is now known as the High School of Performing Arts. In 1943, at 16, a friend dared her to audition for Katherine Dunham's dance troupe. The dance was improvised, but Dunham is said to have loved it and gave Kitt a full scholarship with the dance company. In 1948, Kitt moved to France, where she became a nightclub performer. Then in 1950, Kitt took the role as Helen of Troy in “Dr. Faustus,”  which was produced by Orson Welles. Welles described Kitt as the “most fascinating woman in the world,” and he reportedly became her mentor because of his broad knowledge of various topics.
In 1952, she was cast in the Broadway revue “New Faces of 1952” by Leonard Sillmans. The show was transformed into a movie production, where she performed a song called “Busca Dada.” While she performed, a racist hollered at the stage, “What is this, an educated (n-word)". Kitt said those comments never bothered her because she likes to take in both sides of commentary. She never finished high school, but she spoke seven languages, sang in 11 languages, and said she learned through life experiences.
In 1954, she released “C’est Si Bon,” which is sung in French, along with “I want to be evil” and “Santa Baby.” Santa Baby is still remade by artists today. In 1957, she released her first autobiography, titled “Thursday’s Child.”
Around this time, she began to take an activist role and became close friends with Martin Luther King Jr.
The next few years, she had many acting roles, which increased her popularity.
In 1960, she married John McDonald, and they shared a child named Kitt McDonald, born in 1961. Eartha always introduced her daughter as Eartha and Kitt because she felt her daughter was completion of her. She also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 1956, Kitt founded the Kittsville Youth Foundation, which encouraged cultural and educational enrichment in Los Angeles. Eartha’s most known role was “Catwoman” on the “Batman” television show during its 1967-68 season. Kitt was the second actress and first African American to play this role and said she felt that was the luckiest thing that ever happened to her.
Kitt was invited to the White House in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson for the protest of the Vietnam War. President Johnson considered her words as an attack and opened CIA AND FBI investigations against her, ultimately ending up with Kitt being blacklisted by Hollywood.
She moved to France and stayed there for eight years to work until she got a chance to perform at Carnegie Hall.
In 1978, Kitt returned to Broadway for a show called “Timbuktu,” and the crowd reportedly stood and cheered for minutes, for her return.
Kitt worked on Disney movies in her later years, in the movies “Holes” and “The Emperor’s New Groove.”
She received the “Daytime Creative Arts Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program” and many other nominations.
Kitt died on Dec. 25, 2008, from colon cancer. Kitt McDonald reportedly said she left this world screaming because she loved life so much.

Eartha Mae Kitt

 

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