January 17, 1927– Eartha Kitt had precisely the qualities that make a true Gay Icon: a history of anguish, abandonment & alienation, mixed with a campy & sexually audacious stage act with the necessary elements of artifice & aggrandizement. Plus, there is that unique, sultry purr of a voice.
Born Eartha Mae Keith into a life of profound poverty in the rural South, Kitt’s start in life must have seemed as if life was stacked against her. She had to endure prejudice from black people and whites because of the mixed-heritage color of her skin. Kitt never knew her father and she was abandoned by her mother at an early age in favor of her darker hued siblings. Raised by another family that barely noticed her, she grew up with low self-esteem, but Kitt had the drive to surpass her surroundings and achieve something great.
Kitt made her way to NYC where she became a member of the prestigious Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Her work as a soloist in the company captured the attention of Orson Welles, who cast her in his production of Doctor Faustus. Welles fell in love with her proclaiming:
“Eartha Kitt is most exciting woman in the world.”
Kitt blossomed into a Broadway performer in the revue New Faces Of 1952 where she introduced a song that would become one of her signature tunes, Monotonous. In that decade, Kitt had six Top 10 Hits, including Uska Dara (1953), C’est Si Bon (1954) and I Want To Be Evil (1955). They totally dug Kitt in Britain too, where she had Top 10 Hits with Under The Bridges Of Paris (1954) and Just An Old Fashioned Girl (1956). Where Is My Man? (1983) was her only certified Gold Record and a huge hit in gay dance clubs, although just last month, the ringtone of her recording of Santa Baby went certified gold.
I remember my parents and me fighting at the dinner table in 1968, after Kitt expressed her views on the Vietnam War to First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, at a White House luncheon. She had been asked asked what she thought of the war and Kitt dared to give a genuine, forthright opinion:
“You send the best of this country off to be shot & maimed. No wonder the kids rebel & take pot. The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. 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 to die,& I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson… we raise children and send them to war.”
Her remarks brought the First Lady to tears. The public reaction to Kitt’s statements was extreme, and the media exploited Kitt’s opinions. For the next decade she was blacklisted in her own country for speaking her mind. Kitt remained determined to do the work and she returned to Europe where she was much loved and the war wasn’t. She toured in Europe for several years until the controversy died down in 1976, when a new President, Jimmy Carter, invited her to come home. Kitt returned to the USA for a star turn on Broadway in the musical Timbuktu!. Americans were hungry for some Kitt and once again her career took off.
Among her life achievements, Kitt earned nominations for 2 Tony Awards, 2 Grammy Awards and she won 5 Emmy Awards for her work on the television series Emperor’s New School.
Kitt was proud of the label of Gay Icon. Kitt:
“After my blacklisting, it was the Gay community that welcomed me back with open arms.”
She was an early supporter of Marriage Equality, which she thought of as a civil right:
“I support gay marriage because we’re asking for the same thing. If I have a partner & something happens to me, I want that partner to enjoy the benefits of what we have reaped together. It’s a civil-rights thing, isn’t it?”
Kitt appeared at many LGBTQ fundraisers and she spent a great deal of her time dedicating herself to working with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis & other AIDS charities. Her 1989 single Cha-Cha Heels recorded with Bronski Beat, was thumping away at the dance clubs during the worst years of the plague and the club kids fell in love with Kitt.
Kitt continued to work on stage and screen until the end of her life. In the aughts she returned to Broadway in The Wild Party opposite Mandy Patinkin and Toni Collette. She starred as the Fairy Godmother in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella at Lincoln Center, and she replaced Chita Rivera in the long-running musical Nine on Broadway.
Kitt was a fighter and a force of nature. Describing her own life in 6 words, she said:
“Rejected, Ejected, Dejected, Used, Accused, and Abused”.
Regret wasn’t one of those words. Kitt took her final curtain call on Christmas Day 2008 at her Connecticut home surrounded by her daughter and her grandchildren, taken by that damn cancer at 81 years old.