Eartha Mae Keith was born on a cotton plantation in North, South Carolina in 1927. Her mother, Mamie Kitt was of Cherokee and African-American descent; her father of German and Dutch descent. She had a troubled upbringing and was first raised by her mother’s sister Anna Mae Riley then later after her death she was sent to live in New York City where Eartha lived with her biological mother. She never knew her father. Eartha was a talented young girl and attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York however she would frequently skip class to take odd jobs and make ends meet. She joined the Katherine Dunham Company which was an African-American dance group and became one of the Sans-Souci Singers in Dunham's Broadway production Bal Negre in 1946. The group later traveled to Paris in 1950 where they appeared in a night club. There, actor/director Orson Wells spotted Eartha and cast her in his Paris stage production of Dr. Faust where she played Helen of Troy. Wells was so taken with her, he described her as the "most exciting woman in the world". Eartha found she could pick up languages easily and became fluent in French as well as learning many European songs. On her return to the States she appeared in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1952 and sang the show stopper “Monotonous.”
Eartha went on to appear in other Broadway hits including Mrs Patterson, Shinbone Alley and The Owl and the Pussycat. Her distinctive voice soon caught the attention of the recording companies and RCA Victor released her first album in 1954 which included the unforgettable Santa Baby.
Eartha Kitt was the original "sex kitten" along with her famous catlike purr. She became the “femme fatale” of the US and all the more endearing because she spoke French fluently and sang songs like C'est Si Bon (1954), and Under the Bridges of Paris (Sous les ponts de Paris) (1955
She was also the Loletta of song and captured the mood well with her sexy renditions of I Want to Be Evil (1954), and My Heart Belongs to Daddy (1955).
Sadly much of the more unsavoury elements would reflect her personal experiences. Eartha Kitt was a must to appear in celluloid and in 1957 she appeared in The Mark of the Hawk (AKA Accused), starring Sydney Poitier.
A year later Eartha starred opposite Nat King Cole in the biopic of the life of W C Handy called St Louis Blues (1958).
There after Earths Kitt worked steadily on films and TV as well as her live cabaret performances. In 1967 Eartha was chosen to replace Julie Newmar as Catwoman on the popular Batman series. Julie Newmar had played the role very successfully in the first two series but due to other commitments was unavailable. Eartha took the role of Catwomen and made it her own with her daringly sexy and flirtatious performance fulfilling the fantasies of her older fans as well as appealing to a new audience.
Privately Eartha was quite outspoken and took every opportunity to speak plainly about her beliefs. In 1968 at a White House gathering where she was invited to address a group of ladies at a luncheon. Eartha used the platform to express her heart felt anti-war comments about Vietnam. Apparently this upset the then President’s wife Lady Bird Johnson. Expressing sentiments then which called for an end to the War left Eartha branded as a radical and she found working in the US no longer viable. Professionally exiled from the U.S., she devoted her energies to overseas performances for the next four years. In her absence she was investigated by the FBI and CIA, which allegedly found her to be foul-mouthed and promiscuous. Offstage, Eartha was shy and reclusive. She still had demons from her early years and referred to herself as "that little urchin cotton-picker from the South, Eartha Mae". Despite her obvious sex appeal she spent much of her life single with some brief romances with the rich and famous. These included Orson Wells, Irish Comedian, Dave Allen who she met in Sydney Australia, and Charles Revson (founder of Revlon cosmetics). In 1978, Eartha was back on Broadway in the musical Timbuktu and continued to appear in several productions both on Broadway as well as touring, up until 2003. Her recording career took a new lease of life in 1984 with the disco song, ‘Where is my man’, this lead to her touring nightclubs where she met a new generation of gay male fans.
Her last hit single was "Cha-Cha Heels" (featuring Bronski Beat).
Eartha made several guest appearances in movies including Boomerang starring Eddie Murphy; and ‘ And Then Came Love‘ (2007), opposite Vanessa L. Williams.
Throughout the 90s her distinctive voice was in constant demand and she was the voice of Kaa the python in a 1994 BBC Radio adaptation of The Jungle Book; and in 2000 Eartha gave voice to Yzma in Disney's The Emperor's New Groove. She went on to a career of voice over’s in TV animation and commercials.
Eartha Kitt died after a long battle against colon cancer on Christmas Day, 2008 in Weston, Connecticut at the age of 81.
Worth a listen
Santa Baby (1953)
Uska Dara (1953)
I Want to Be Evil (1954)
C'est Si Bon (1954)
Under The Bridges Of Paris (1955)
Let's Do It (1955)
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (1955)
My Heart Belongs to Daddy (1955)
Just An Old Fashioned Girl (1958)
Che Vale Per Me (1968)