Monday, January 16, 2017

Eartha Kitt Day

On First Official Eartha Kitt Day,
South Carolina Celebrates a Child of the Land, a Citizen of the World
by Frederick Ingram (c) 2017
South Carolina native Eartha Mae Kitt, the petite chanteuse, agile wit, and seasoned world traveler who blossomed on the stages of New York, London, and Paris, and broke barriers against age and race in Hollywood, described herself as “a sophisticated cotton picker” (Alone with Me, 1976).

Star of stage and screen, a international celebrity who visited 92 countries, she has remained relatively unsung in her native state, until the first official Eartha Kitt Day, this Tuesday, January 17, 2017, 90 years after her birth near the tiny town of North, South Carolina.
Most Exciting

Eartha Kitt was, as Orson Welles described her, “the most exciting woman in the world.” He spotted her in a Paris nightclub, following of course in the footsteps of Billie Holiday, whom she later played in her 1996 one-woman show Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. (Another grand dame of black letters, and dancer herself, Maya Angelou, would be offered the chance to succeed Kitt in the New Faces touring revue, but had to decline due to contractual obligations.) Welles was captivated enough to cast Kitt as Helen of Troy in his 1951 stage production of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Within a few years Kitt had stepped from making $10 a week dancing to commanding $3,000 a week as her star rose, propelled in part by tales of off-stage romances with millionaires.

I remember my own mom once pointing her out on television. One glimpse of that incredibly intense gaze, and lithe rasp, and there was never any mistaking her for anyone else. “That’s Eartha Kitt.” I felt instantly intrigued, amused, and most definitely on guard.

Everything about the woman was catlike; she was of course a natural as the villanous Catwoman in the 1960s television version of Batman, but her feline essence was far from superficial. Her interviews give the impression of someone whose reasoning can’t be tamed; she goes wherever the hell she wants, when she wants. Of course she had that famous surname, which she bestowed upon her daughter (and longtime manager), Kitt McDonald Shapiro, the product of her short-lived marriage with a California real estate salesman.

Who else could really own a memoir titled Confessions of a Sex Kitten (1991), released two years after I’m Still Here. Her snarls and growls in time lent themselves to campiness, but that was just another angle for her to work.

A Rose in Spanish Harlem

What’s in a name? Eartha, said to be given in thanks for a good harvest. She was raised literally in touch with the ground, too poor to even own any shoes. She remained a lifelong gardener, but only returned to her native North on a couple of occasions. She even raised chickens in Beverly Hills. “I trust the dirt,” she told Psychology Today (September/October 2006). “I don’t trust diamonds.”

After an aunt in New York City took her in, Kitt found the path for cultural development, and on to Broadway. At 16 she toured the world in the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the first African-American corps de ballet, though she jumped ship in Paris to hit the glamorous cabaret scene.

She charmed with delightfully hypergamous anthems such as “Santa Baby” and “C’est Si Bon.” Listening to her multilingual banter on a live recording of the latter (thank you Pandora Radio), her wit strikes you as lightning fast and electrifying. The woman had mad language skills. Her 1953 hit “Uska Dara” (a cover of Eydie Gorme) is in Turkish for heaven’s sake.

Notwithstanding the title of her 1955 collection The Bad Eartha, no doubt a play on Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), Kitt maintained an appeal that was very intense and sensual, but not lurid, though the Ed Sullivan Show made her wear pants instead of a dress to try to tone down her sensuality. “I don’t sing naughty songs. Innocence is one of the most exciting things in the world,” she said.


Her entertainment career, illustrious as it was, is only part of the story. Kitt was an outspoken speaker of truth. At a carefully stage-managed “Woman Doers’ Luncheon” to discuss juvenile delinquency, she famously brought Lady Bird Johnson to tears with her indictment of the Vietnam War. “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel ….” Her thrust was that the criminal arrests were a way for them to avoid enlistment. She was an advocate for urban youth; one of several communities she would lend her voice.

The date was January 18, 1968. Perhaps Eartha was emboldened by her own birthday the day before. Did she have any idea the extent to which the FBI and CIA were stalking peaceniks such as John Lennon and Martin Luther King, Jr., slain just three months later by creepy Deep South, deep state forces? Did she know her own sleepy hometown had a covert operations airfield, a 10,000-foot airfield hosting who knows what activity under cover of darkness?

Her name had already been in FBI records for attending civil rights marches. “The thing that hurts, that became anger,” she later told Essence (1988), “was when I realized that if you tell the truth—in a country that says you’re entitled to tell the truth—you get your face slapped and you get put out of work.” That lesson certainly holds true in the current war on whistleblowers. Even her friends PNGed her.

Apart from Batman, her career in the United States was indeed derailed for a decade until her Tony-nominated performance in Timbuktu! She was able to return to the White House again in 1978, at the invitation of President Jimmy Carter. In the meantime she made a controversial trip to apartheid South Africa (and Rhodesia) where she was feted, according to Life magazine (June 2, 1972), as an “honorary white.” However, she also challenged her hosts there by dancing with the servants and made it a point to tour shantytowns. “Not coming would mean not knowing what it’s like here—and not caring.” Predictable, one-dimensional, safe … these were not her attributes.

She later became something of a gay icon, with new hits on the pop charts, and AIDS awareness advocate (her original cabaret d├ębut had been at Paris’s famed lesbian nightclub Carroll’s). In another one of her nine lives, she became an exemplar of the sensuous older woman, reveling in the sex kitten role well into senior citizen–hood and challenging Hollywood stereotypes in the process.

Scars Run Deep

Kitt’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score must have been pretty high. Her father ran off early and died soon after; she witnessed her mother die in a poisoning she attributed to “voodoo.” She was forced to pick cotton, cutting her tiny fingers on the bolls. Is this cruelty so necessary in forging such a great character? Perhaps it is like the sand that prompts oysters into producing their lustrous jewels (Kitt actually had a younger sister named “Pearl”). “The cotton years … made the caviar years far more savory,” she said.

Deep scars still lingered underneath the surface. Kitt remained haunted by the mystery of her true father, the man who raped and disowned her mother, just 14 years old at Eartha’s birth. Locals officials did her wrong, as they so casually do in these creepy Southern towns, even redacting her birth certificate, as she found later in life. Few such secrets survive the age of genetic genealogy, however; her genes are probably not finished singing yet.

As a “high yellow,” Kitt had also been shunned by blacks who resented her lighter skin.  “I had reddish hair and I was too light. Everybody called me ‘that yellow girl’ and nobody wanted me, Negro or white.” Kitt though, was a genetic jewel. Part Cherokee (like Tina Turner, another sharecropper’s daughter), the story of her DNA entwined threads from Africa, America, and Europe. It was a key part of her mystique. “You represent women of all ages. You have no place or time,” Orson Welles told her.

Later in life she considered England a second home and ultimately settled in Connecticut, a nice place but an expensive one. She continued to vamp it up till age 80, even releasing acclaimed DVDs before colon cancer took her offstage for the last time. She died on Christmas Day, 2008.

A Life Worth Remembering

We need to study her life to learn how she managed to thrive under adversity. Eartha Kitt should be taught in schools. Thank you Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg) for your persistence in making Eartha Kitt Day a reality, a deal that seems a real no-brainer in retrospect, which in some way rights a historical wrong by claiming Eartha as our own. I think we all have something to learn from this legendary talent and wit, a uniquely American original, a rare celebrity worth celebrating.
(c) 2017 Frederick C. Ingram

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