Eartha Kitt was an American actress, singer, cabaret star, dancer, stand-up comedian, activist and voice artist. She had a distinctive singing style and is best known for her Christmas song “Santa Baby” and for playing Catwoman in the television series Batman.
Kitt was born in 1927 near the town of North in South Carolina. Her mother was of Cherokee and African descent and her father was white. She was ostracised at a young age because of her mixed-race heritage and at the age of eight, Kitt was sent to live with another family when her mother’s new boyfriend refused to accept her due to her relatively pale complexion. When her mother died, she was sent to live with her aunt, Mamie Kitt in Harlem, New York City. Kitt attended the New York School of Performing Arts, and at the age of 16 won a scholarship to study with Katherine Dunham. She began her career as a member of the Katherine Dunham Company and was a part of the troupe from 1943 to 1948. Kitt was a featured dancer and vocalist and toured worldwide with the company. During a performance in Paris, Kitt was spotted by a nightclub owner who booked her as a singer at his club. She gained fame and fans quickly, including Orson Welles who called her “the most exciting woman in the world”.
In 1950, Kitt performed her first starring role as Helen of Troy in Orson Welles’ staging of Dr. Faustus. Two years later, she appeared in the Broadway review New Faces of 1952, in which she sang a sultry rendition of “Monotonous” every night. The show ran for a year, and Kitt’s performance led to a national tour, a 20th Century Fox version of the show entitled “New Faces” in which she performed “Monotonous,” “Uska Dara,” and “C'est Si Bon” and a musical career. In 1954 she released her first album and had a succession of hits including “Love for Sale”, “I Want to Be Evil”, “Santa Baby” and “Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa”. Kitt earned a Grammy nomination for the latter. Around the same time, Kitt published her first autobiography “Thursday’s Child.”.
Kitt continued to record and work in film, television and nightclubs throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s, performing in Mrs. Patterson, Shinbone Alley and Jolly’s Progress on Broadway. In 1958 she starred opposite Nat “King” Cole in the W.C. Handy biopic St. Louis Blues and the following year she earned an Academy Award nomination for her role as Anna Lucas in a film of the same name. In the late 1960’s, Kitt took on one of her most famous roles when she replaced Julie Newmar as Catwoman in the TV show Batman. Kitt made the role her own and her distinctive voice and trademark growl made her portrayal of Catwoman iconic.
Kitt was active in a number of social causes in the 1950’s and 1960’s, leading to her being put under surveillance by the C.I.A from 1956. In 1966, Kitt established the Kittsville Youth Foundation, a a chartered and non-profit organization for underprivileged youth in the Watts area of Los Angeles. She was also involved with a young group in Anacostia in Washington D.C. called “Rebels with a Cause” who were fighting to clean up the streets and establish areas for the youths to go to keep them out of trouble. She testified with them before the House General Subcommittee on Education of the Committee on Education and Labor. She stated that their model could be used for urban areas throughout the U.S. with similar problems and stated as much, the group were awarded the funded needed. Kitt was also a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and in 1968, she spoke out at a White House luncheon about the Vietnam War. Kitt stated that “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.“ and "The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. We don’t have what we have on Sunset Blvd. for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons—and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson—we raise children and send them to war.” Following her comments, Kitt was blacklisted in the U.S. and focused her attention on performing in Europe and Asia.
In 1974, Kitt returned to the U.S. with a triumphant Carnegie Hall concert, followed in 1978, by a starring role in the successful Broadway musical Timbuktu!. She was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance. In 1984, she earned her first certified gold record of her career with the disco song “Where Is My Man”. Kitt built a large fanbase of gay male fans, and gave frequent performances at benefits in support of HIV/AIDS organisations. She was a vocal advocate for LGBT rights and publicly supported same-sex marriage.
Kitt was a prolific performer. She continued to work on various projects including film, tv, performing on Broadway and giving live musical performances. Live theatre was her passion, and in 2001, she was nominated for a Tony and Drama Desk nomination for her role as Dolores in George Wolfe’s “The Wild Party. She also starred in “The Wizard of Oz”, Rogers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella”, “Nine, The Musical” and The New York City Opera production (Lincoln Center) of “Cinderella.” Off-broadway, she starred in “Mimi Le Duck” (2006) and The Westport County Playhouse production of “The Skin Of Our Teeth” (2007). She also made annual appearances in the New York Manhattan cabaret scene at venues such as the Ballroom and the Café Carlyle in her later years. Kitt died in 2008. She won many awards, including three Emmy’s, one of which was posthumous. She is celebrated with a star bearing her name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.