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Kitt, Eartha Mae (1928-2008)

Seventy-Nine-Year-Old Eartha Kitt Performing in London, 2007
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Eartha Mae Kitt was born on January 26, 1928, in North, South Carolina.  Her sharecropper parents abandoned Kitt and her half-sister as young children, forcing them to live with a foster family until they moved to New York City, New York to live with their aunt in 1938.

Until the age of fourteen, Kitt attended Metropolitan High School in New York City where she was recognized for her talents in singing, dancing, baseball, and pole-vaulting.  She met Katherine Dunham when she was sixteen, and toured Mexico, South America, and Europe as a dancer in Dunham’s troupe.  Kitt remained in Paris after the tour, entertaining audiences across the world with her provocative dancing and singing.  

Kitt was offered her first role in the theater in 1951 when Orson Welles cast her as Helen of Troy in his stage production Faust.  Kitt won critical reviews for her performance, which led to her role in Leonard Stillman’s New Faces Broadway revue.  She released a best-selling Broadway album after the show to kick off her record career.  

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Kitt performed for sold-out crowds in cabarets and nightclubs throughout the United States and abroad. In 1953 she released the popular Christmas song "Santa Baby." Two years later she starred in the Broadway play Mrs. Patterson, earning a Tony nomination for her performance.  Kitt also starred in several movies during this period, and earned an Oscar nomination for her 1959 role in Anna Lucasta.  In 1960 Kitt was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Later in the decade she was widely known for her role as Catwoman in the TV series Batman.

Kitt was married to William McDonald from 1960 to 1965; they had one daughter named Kitt.  

General attitudes toward Kitt declined after a controversial speech the star delivered at a White House luncheon in 1968.  Her speech linked America’s racial and social problems to the war in Vietnam.  Negative reaction to the speech reduced performance opportunities for the star, and most of Kitt’s subsequent work was done overseas.  

In the 1970s and 1980s, Kitt worked mainly as a cabaret entertainer, and sometimes as an actor.  She returned to recording in the 1980s, producing more than a dozen albums in a decade.  Kitt earned her second Tony nomination in her 1978 return to Broadway in the all-black version of Geoffrey Holder’s Kismet, Timbukto.  Her popularity as a gay icon was enhanced when she released her 1984 album I Love Men.  Kitt released a five-CD collection, Eartha Quake, in the 1990s, and also performed in London, UK and New York.

Kitt’s unconventional freedom of expression and sexuality during a time when black America was still struggling under segregation made her a successful and intriguing star.  While at times a controversial figure, Kitt managed to maintain a successful career that spanned several decades, and she became an African American icon in the entertainment world.

Eartha Kitt died in her Connecticut home on Christmas Day, 2008.  She was 81. 

 

Sources:
Lisa E. Rivo, “Eartha Mae Kitt,” Africana: Encyclopedia of The African and African American Experience, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Contributor:

University of Washington

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