January 17, 1927 – Eartha Kitt:
“I fall in love with Myself. And I want someone to share with me.”
Eartha Kitt has precisely the qualities that make for a true Gay Icon: A history of anguish, abandonment and alienation, mixed with a campy and sexually audacious stage act along with the necessary elements of artifice and aggrandizement. Plus, there is that unique, sultry purr of a voice. Plus, she was doing Black Lives Matter, before #BLM.
Born Eartha Mae Keith into a life of profound poverty in the rural South, Kitt’s start in life must have seemed as if it was all stacked against her. She had to endure prejudice from black people and whites because of the color of her mixed-heritage skin. Kitt never knew her father and she was abandoned by her mother at an early age in favor of her darker-skinned 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 special, something great.
Kitt made her way to New York City 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 the most exciting woman in the world.”
Kitt made her Broadway debut in the revue New Faces Of 1952 where she introduced a song that would become one of her most loved signature tunes, Monotonous. In the following 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 it was a huge hit in gay dance clubs, although just last month, the ringtone of her recording of Santa Baby (1953) was a top-seller.
For me, Kitt’s portrayal of Catwoman on the camp fest television series Batman (1966-1969) is one of the best things to watch in the third season. Julie Newmar was great in the role in the early episodes, yet, Kitt brought a more serious and ruthless Catwoman to the whole thing. She lacked Newmar’s statuesque sexiness, and the usual romance between Catwoman and Batman was missed, in part, probably due to the issue of race; she was an African-American and Adam West was decidedly not. This was not suitable for television in the 1960s. Kitt’ss Catwoman drove around in the “Kitty Car”; Newmar’s Catwoman had the less impressive “Catillac”.
I remember my parents and I fighting at the dinner table in 1968, after Kitt expressed her views on the Vietnam War to First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, while a guest 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 and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and 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, and 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 work and she returned to Europe where she was much loved and our war wasn’t. She toured in Europe for several years until the controversy died down in 1976 when a new President, James Earl Carter, invited her to come home. Kitt returned to the USA for a star turn on Broadway in the musical Timbuktu! (1978). Americans were hungry for some Kitt and once again her career took off.
Among her life achievements, Kitt earned three Tony Award nominations, a pair of Grammy Awards and she won five Emmy Awards for her work on the kiddie’s television series Emperor’s New School (2006-2012).
Kitt was always 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 and if 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 and other HIV/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 and the older clones fell in love with Kitt.
Kitt continued to work on stage, screen and television until the end of her life. In the naughtys she returned to Broadway in the very underrated musical The Wild Party opposite Mandy Patinkin and Toni Collette. She starred as the Fairy Godmother in Rodgers And 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 six 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. She was taken by that damn cancer at 81 years old.