Singer and actor Eartha Kitt has died at the age of 81. Famous for her sultry voice and cat-like growl, she had been performing in nightclubs and on stage and screen for decades. Her purring, growling singing style first made her a star at the age of 22 -- until a political controversy in the 1960s destroyed her career in the United States for a time. She was a woman who could never be mistaken for anyone else.
Film director Orson Welles called Eartha Kitt the most exciting woman in the world. Another admirer described her as "an arrangement to unhinge men's minds." Her appeal rested in her silky, electrifying voice, her cat-like face and body, and startling directness. On stage, she played the vamp, a sex tigress who stalked her audience. Off stage, she was a deeply private woman, who spent her time gardening and caring for her many cats and dogs. She married only once, briefly, and raised a daughter alone.
Eartha Mae Kitt was born into a poor, black family in rural South Carolina around 1928. She was the child of a rape; her mother was only 14 years old. Eartha Mae was told her father was a white landowner in the area. When she was eight years old, her mother married a man who did not want Eartha around -- "the little yellow girl," he called her. Eartha ended up in New York with an aunt, and she often said the abandonment marked her forever. Underneath her glamorous stage persona, she said, was her real self, Eartha Mae, who didn't want to be seen.
"Because I was given away. I don't know who would accept me and who would not accept me, who's going to slap my face in a minute, or who was going to reject me. I was always hiding, and, I think, in very many ways, I still am hiding, because I don't want to be rejected. Rejection has made me into a person that does not want to be seen anywhere, except when I am all made-up and go out as Eartha Kitt -- then I feel okay. Even sometimes at that stage, depending on how people approach me, if I have not really gotten into the "Eartha Kitt-ism," then I am in between characters of Eartha Mae and Eartha Kitt, and I am still scared...," she said.
REPORTER: "And Eartha Mae, what are you then?"
KITT: "I'm at home, in my house or digging in the dirt, or doing something that is very close to the earth, because that is where I know how to survive. And au naturel. I am not into every time I go outside of my house, I have to have on makeup and be paraphernaliaed like Eartha Kitt. I like to be myself."
When she was 16, Kitt won a place in a well-known African-American dance company led by Katherine Dunham. As the troupe toured Europe, Kitt's gift as a singer was discovered. Her droll, sexy nightclub act became a sensation in Paris. For some songs, she reclined on a red velvet couch. She had an ear for languages, and could sing in eight or nine.
When Kitt was cast in the Broadway revue, "New Faces of 1952," she was suddenly famous back in her own country, too. Her records went to the top of the charts, and Kitt became one of the highest-paid entertainers of the time. She appeared on Broadway, made movies and starred as the original, definingly sinuous "Catwoman" in the Batman television series.
But in 1968, just as Eartha Kitt's career was at its peak, it crashed -- and all because of a remark at a White House luncheon. The president's wife, Mrs. Lyndon Johnson, had invited Eartha Kitt with a group of other women to discuss the problem of youth crime. When Mrs. Johnson asked her guests for their thoughts, Kitt raised her hand and spoke out against the war in Vietnam, where young black men were serving and dying in disproportionate numbers. Mrs. Johnson reacted with shock, blinking back tears, and the incident made headlines.
REPORTER: "What you said to Mrs. Johnson upset her very much. How do you feel about that?"
KITT: "What I said to Mrs. Johnson upset her? I don't know why it should upset her, I was telling her the truth."
Years later, it was disclosed that President Johnson had immediately ordered investigations of Kitt by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. The entertainment industry responded to the inquiries by informally blacklisting her. Nightclubs no longer would hire her, and contracts were canceled or lost.
KITT: "1974 -- I found out that, much later that I was ostracized in the United States by President Johnson."
REPORTER: "Tell me how that worked? You were blacklisted, for 11 years or 10 years, you couldn't work in the United States?
KITT: "Nobody would accept a contract from me. The venues do not want the CIA or the FBI on their doorstep. That's it, and you're out of work."
During most of the next 10 years, Eartha Kitt could find work only abroad. Not until the late 1980s did her American career begin to revive -- with parts in several Hollywood movies, and in 1996, a Grammy nomination for her first recording in years. She was nearly 70 years old then, a grandmother -- and still appearing nightly in demanding performances, her voice a little deeper, her cat-like face and body little changed.