Eartha Kitt: Lady and Legend
Eartha Kitt has been able to take everything the world hands her and turn it into gold. From growing up an orphan and ending up with a full-paid scholarship to the Katherine Dunham dance troupe – auditioning on a friend’s dare – to her year playing Catwoman to Adam West’s “Batman,” she has, to quote Jon Bon Jovi, “seen a million faces and rocked them all.” In a time in the music business when, as she puts it, “you have to have all of these fireworks and extra things happening outside of you doing what you do,” she is her own pyrotechnics.
She is known for her witty gold digger repartee, flirting with married men at her concerts, but inspires women as well. She says of performing one of her most famous songs: “Once in a while if I’m singing a song, like ‘I’m an old fashioned’ girl wanting an old fashioned millionaire, a woman with the biggest diamond in the world will suddenly thrrrrrrrrrrow her hand up and show me her diamond. Well, I can say, I’m still earning mine.”
Unlike Kitt’s cabaret-act persona, singing about wanting a yacht in songs such as “Santa Baby,” she is not materialistic and is fueled instead by growing up an orphan, Eartha Mae, in South Carolina in the nineteen-thirties. “Eartha Mae never wanted to be anything else but that hiding rag doll,” Kitt says. “And I think that she is very happy that there is somebody there who can make a living for her.”
Stephen Sondheim, having thrown her a rap song at an audition, was surprised at her mandibular prowess and lingual versatility. “Oh!” he said, “I didn’t know that you knew how to speak so clippingly on the tongue.” She told him that she has studied Shakespeare, an unsurprising fact when she talks to you, her voice as graceful and disciplined as her earliest theatrical endeavor, ballet. That voice growls, purrs, and twitters, and has sung in many languages, the most famous being French.
Vocally, Kitt is influenced by firecrackers Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf, and also brings that passion to world affairs. “Something has to change so that we can try to get along,” she says. “We have gotten to a point where we have to rely on somebody else’s oil and somebody else’s diamonds, and somebody else’s minerals that we want. If they have something that ‘we’ want in order for us to survive a little bit better according to our thinking, we don’t go over there and say, ‘let’s make a deal.’ We attack! Or we subdue the people to a point where the only way they can survive is to dig the dirt in order to get what it is that you’re looking for.”
Kitt has many strong, erudite ideas about the difficulties of the world and what might be done to improve them, and was even blacklisted during the Johnson administration for giving her honest opinion (when asked) about the American youth during the Vietnam War, at one of Ladybird’s luncheons. Her natural and remarkable ebullience, however, always brings her back into the spotlight, as well as back to her philosophy of the subtly life-altering properties of live theatre. Having recently taken her ten-year-old granddaughter to see ‘Hairspray,” she explains, “She LOVES it because it has a fantastic message where everybody’s singing and dancing, giving the same message, between the two groups, and wondering why we can’t get along. Why can’t WE dance like that? Well, we can’t dance like that because that’s the black music. And the black people are saying well, you can’t dance like a white person because that’s the white music. When everybody stands up and is applauding, for the cast, and for the story, and for the message, it’s not that they’re hitting anybody over the head. It’s being done so subtly that people are understanding more and more through LIVE theatre, that we have to get along. This is the way we have to do it because we have to sing each other’s music, dance each other’s dance, and hug each other’s bodies.”
As intimidating as she can be, with her monumental presence and legendary status in show business, Kitt is terribly gracious, practical, and down to earth. “I don’t want to live longer, I just want to live better during the years that I have. And I want to have a quality life, which has always been the case, thank God, and thanks to my fans, [who have] helped me do that.”
Many of Eartha Kitt’s songs are about finding a man, like the lovely “Je Cherche un Homme.” Ironic, perhaps, that she is content to live man-less in her Connecticut home, with her daughter and granddaughter also on the property. It’s fun to picture them singing “We Are Family,” while picking vegetables from the garden and walking the dogs.