There are many stories of talented people growing up with the guidance and support of family and friends who see that hint of greatness and believe it is something worth investing in. These stories are wonderful and heart warming to hear leaving one with a sense of replenished faith in human kindness. The other side of this is the story of that person who must rise up alone to defeat all odds against them and claw their way out of the worst of conditions to forge a better life for themselves.
Because of circumstances beyond her control during a time in cultural history Eartha Kitt was deemed a mistake and of no value. But this woman would survive and she would work hard her entire life to redefine herself and develop her talents, constantly changing and adapting to the times and seasons. She did this with grace, strength, integrity, and honor never losing sight of the place in this world she had carved out for herself to occupy.
After months of research and studying her incredible life and career I have come away with the greatest of respect and admiration and I would have to say in my opinion she is the most accomplished talent this state has yet produced. A very special Thank you to Kitt Shapiro for giving me permission to create this page and also to Jonathan Thompson and the generous folks at Freedom Forum for allowing the use of their "Speaking Freely" episode with Eartha Kitt.
Exerts from the National Visionary Leadership Project website:
Award-winning singer, actress, author, and activist Eartha Kitt was an international star. Her distinctive voice enthralled audiences for more than 50 years and she was one of only a handful of performers to contend for entertainment's "Triple Crown" with two Emmy Awards and nominations for three Tony Awards and two Grammys. Kitt sang in ten different languages, had performed in over 100 countries and was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Eartha Mae Keith was born on a cotton plantation near the small town of North, South Carolina on January 17, 1927. Her mother Annie Mae Keith was of Cherokee and African descent. Though she had little knowledge of her father, it was reported that he was a son of the owner of the farm where she had been born. Eartha's mother, Annie Mae Keith (later Annie Mae Riley), soon went to live with a black man who refused to accept Eartha because of her relatively pale complexion; a relative named Aunt Rosa, in whose household she was abused, raised her. After the death of Annie Mae, Eartha was sent to live with another relative named Mamie Kitt in Harlem, New York City. There, she was given the chance to take piano lessons and sing at church. Encouraged by a teacher, she was introduced to dramatics to help with her shyness. Kitt found she had a passion to perform. She was accepted into the Metropolitan Vocational High School (later renamed the High School of Performing Arts).
At 16, Kitt auditioned for the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theater. She won a scholarship and landed a role with the Dunham dance troupe as a featured dancer and vocalist. Kitt had a number of firsts with the Dunham troupe, including her Broadway debut in "Blue Holiday" in 1945 and her 1948 film debut in "Casbah."
In 1948, before Kitt's 20th birthday, she performed in the worldwide tour of "Blue Holiday." Suddenly Kitt's exotic looks, which had caused her so much pain, became a distinctive asset. French and English critics singled her out for her unique appearance. Kitt cultivated her stage persona as a sultry and sophisticated femme fatale. In 1950, Kitt quit the Dunham troupe for solo club engagements in Paris. Her show prompted Orson Welles to call her "the most exciting woman alive." Welles cast Kitt as Helen of Troy in a stage production called "Time Runs," an adaptation of "Faust."
Throughout the rest of the 1950s and early 1960s, Kitt worked in film, television and on nightclub stages. In 1951, Kitt returned to New York to perform her nightclub act. The following year she starred in a stage revue titled, "New Faces of 1952." That success led to a recording contract with RCA Victor. A number of hit singles shot up the charts including "Santa Baby" and "I Want to Be Evil."
Kitt starred in the Broadway play, "Mrs. Patterson" in 1954, for which she received her first Tony nomination. Kitt began to make appearances on television variety programs and wrote the first of her three autobiographies, "Thursday's Child," in 1956. In 1958, Kitt made her feature film debut opposite Sidney Poitier in "The Mark of the Hawk." Her film career in Hollywood took off with roles in "St. Louis Blues" in 1958 and "Anna Lucasta" in 1959.
In 1960, Kitt wed William McDonald and the following year gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Kitt. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1960s, Kitt took steps to champion the cause. She demanded a requirement be written into her contracts that she would not perform before segregated audiences. Kitt traveled with a tuxedo, and if needed, would ask her manager to "grab a bus boy," to integrate the audience.
Kitt and her husband divorced in 1965. She continued to appear on television and earned an Emmy nomination for her appearance in "I Spy." In 1967, she played "Catwoman" in the television series "Batman," where her signature purr became world renowned. Kitt also toured the nation and visited youth groups as she traveled. In light of those efforts, in 1968, Kitt was invited to the White House with other representatives of social action programs on the topic of juvenile delinquency. During the luncheon, Kitt stridently voiced her opinion related to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam which reportedly prompted orders for the Secret Service, FBI and CIA to prepare a dossier on Eartha Kitt. Although Kitt was cleared of any subversive actions, her contracts for upcoming engagements in the U.S. were canceled. Kitt continued, however, to work abroad. In 1974, Kitt returned to the United States and gave a smash hit concert at Carnegie Hall. She wrote a second autobiography entitled "Alone With Me," in 1976. And in 1978, President Jimmy Carter invited her back to the White House. That same year, director Geoffrey Holder cast her in his Broadway musical, "Timbuktu," for which she received her second Tony nomination.
In 1981, filmmaker Christian Blackwood trained his camera on Kitt for a documentary film, "All By Myself." In 1989, Kitt composed a third volume of her life story, "I'm Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten," and in 2001, her fourth book, the best-seller "Rejuvenate! (It's Never Too Late)," was published. Also in 2001, Kitt received a Tony and Drama Desk nomination for her role as Dolores in George Wolfe's "The Wild Party." Kitt then starred in national tours of "The Wizard of Oz" and Rogers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella." In December 2003, Kitt wowed audiences as Liliane Le Fleur in the revival of the musical "Nine." In December 2004, Kitt appeared as the Fairy Godmother in the New York City Opera production of "Cinderella" at the Lincoln Center. In 2006, Kitt starred in the off-Broadway production of "Mimi Le Duck."
Although she was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006, Kitt continued to perform. Singing engagements included appearances with The Atlanta Symphony, The Portland Symphony, Detroit's Music Hall, Washington, DC's Blues Alley, Seattle's Jazz Alley, the 51st Annual JVC Newport Jazz Festival and the Miami Beach JVC Jazz Festival. On January 17 2007, Miss Kitt turned eighty years old and marked the occasion at Carnegie Hall with a celebratory concert, JVC Jazz presents "Eartha Kitt and Friends."
Also in 2007, Kitt performed in the movie "Somebody Like You," and lent her sultry voice to "Madagascar Two," released in 2008. She also played "Yzma," the villain, in the Disney animated feature "The Emperor's New Groove" and the Disney Channel series "The Emperor's New School," for which she won Emmy Awards in 2007 and 2008.
Also in 2008, NVLP paid tribute to Kitt during its Wisdom Award Celebration. Kitt was honored for her leadership and contributions to the performing arts, along with dancer/choreographer Carmen de Lavallade; Grammy-winning gospel and soul music recording artist Cissy Houston; and composer, arranger, record and film producer, Quincy Jones. The next day, Kitt met with students from the Schomburg Center Junior Scholars Program in Harlem, New York as part of an NVLP educational outreach program.
On December 25, 2008 Kitt's long battle with cancer ended. She was 81. She is survived by her daughter, Kitt Shapiro and two grandchildren.