Eartha Kitt has been called “two parts cat and one part woman, sprinkled liberally with dynamite powder.”1 Though she has described herself as “self-reliant, afraid of nothing, even defiant,”2 she has never forgotten the poverty, abuse, and discrimination of her childhood. Kitt has called her life one “of cotton and caviar,” which appropriately characterizes her rise from humble beginnings to her position as one of the most exciting personalities in the entertainment industry.
Eartha Mae Kitt was born in North, South Carolina, to a fourteen-year-old black mother and a white father. She never knew her father, and after her stepfather abandoned the family, Kitt, her mother, and her half-sister wandered from place to place, living with strangers whenever her mother could find work. Kitt wrote of this early period, “Most of the time we lived in the forest, or at least slept there covered with pine straw.”3 When she was six, Kitt’s mother left her with strangers and went off with a man who would not accept Kitt into his family because she was half-white. Two years later, Kitt went to live with an aunt in Harlem; however, Kitt ended up running away several times to escape her aunt’s abuse.
She finally escaped her aunt for good when she obtained a position with Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe. Kitt soon emerged as one of the star soloists of the company, and her beauty, sophistication, and sensuality made her an international sensation. She performed with Dunham’s troupe in Paris; when the company returned to the States, Kitt remained in Paris and began performing in the city’s cabarets and nightclubs. She became the toast of the city, and soon embarked on singing engagements in Turkey, Greece, and Egypt. In 1951, she was cast by Orson Welles as Helen of Troy in his version of Faust, and her performance led to her appearance the following year in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1952. Her singing in New Faces garnered critical acclaim and show-stopping applause every night from the audience.
Soon, she signed a recording contract with RCA Victor and produced hit songs in English, French, and Turkish. She began making movies, appearing in the film version of New Faces (1954), as well as in Accused (1957) with Sidney Poitier, and Anna Lucasta (1958) opposite Sammy Davis, Jr. She also broke into television, playing Catwoman on the Batman series and appearing on several game and variety shows.
Her success came to an abrupt end in 1968, after a fateful luncheon at the White House. In January 1968, Kitt was invited by Lady Bird Johnson to attend the first Woman Doers’ Luncheon with the theme, “Why is there so much juvenile delinquency in the streets of America?” Kitt took the question seriously. She conducted research that revealed that an increase in street crime might be, in part, a result of the Vietnam War. At the luncheon, Kitt became frustrated with the lack of serious discussion about the topic under consideration. When Kitt addressed the group, she expressed her beliefs about a connection between juvenile street crime and the Vietnam War. “Such graphic remarks,” Kitt wrote, “apparently didn’t set too well with the peppermint ice cream dessert.”4
The consequences of speaking out against the Vietnam War at the White House were immediate. Kitt’s club contracts were canceled and she was dropped from her television appearances. For years, Kitt was blacklisted in the entertainment industry; she continued to perform overseas, but could no longer work in the United States. She also became the subject of surveillance by several government agencies, including the CIA. After some time, a journalist revealed the government’s invasion of her privacy in an article under the headline “EARTHA KITT A CIA TARGET!” Kitt’s career began to rebound. She has since returned to the public eye in several movies and live performances.