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Reintroducing Eartha

[whitespace] Eartha Kitt From Catwoman to Vietnam dissident and now the Wicked Witch of Oz

David Boyer gets surprisingly candid with the surprisingly complex Eartha Kitt



Eartha Kitt is not who you think she is. She's a mother and grandmother, born in 1927 into the poverty and racism of South Carolina. She's the child of a white man--whom she never met--and a black cotton-picker who gave her away at age 3. When she was 8, she was taken in by her aunt in Harlem, where she was first introduced to modern conveniences like indoor plumbing, radios and telephones.

Not a particularly glamorous beginning for a woman who, in the course of her 50-plus-year career, has become the epitome of glamour, sophistication and female sensuality. But the innately intelligent and hard-working Eartha Kitt (née Eartha Mae) was destined to do more than survive. She has not only an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time but is also able to seize ripe opportunities. In her teens, she stumbled upon--and nailed--an audition for choreographer/teacher Katherine Dunham's dance troupe. This led to performances throughout the U.S. and Europe and a career-making introduction to Orson Welles.

By the mid-1950s, the poor, unwanted Eartha Mae fully inhabited the Eartha Kitt persona. She shared the screen and stage with, among others, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr. and Ed Sullivan. She had hit records, including "Santa Baby," "I Want to Be Evil" and "C'est Si Bon." And in 1967, she cemented her fame with a now-legendary star turn as Catwoman on the Batman TV series. Today, at age 71, Kitt is the reigning diva of New York's bustling cabaret scene and, for the next nine months, can be seen on stages throughout North America playing the Wicked Witch to Mickey Rooney's wizard in Oz.

But what happened in between these career peaks? In January 1968, her life and career were forever changed by an invitation to the Lyndon Johnson White House for an all-women's luncheon with Lady Bird Johnson. The topic: a discussion about the state of youth in America. The reality: a publicity stunt.

"I thought I was invited to the White House to give my opinion about the problems in the United States at that time, and why the young people were so angry," Kitt says. But when she pointed to the Vietnam War, she became one of the first to come out publicly against the conflict and landed herself on the front page of every newspaper in the country.

"I was thrown out of the country, practically," Kitt explains. "Johnson put out the news that I was a 'bad girl' by being rude and all that. And it wasn't true. It was his way of defacing me in the eyes of the American people. He put me out of work."

Apparently, it was not only the work of LBJ but the Central Intelligence Agency as well. And in 1975, the Washington Post broke the story with a 120-point headline that screamed, "EARTHA KITT A CIA TARGET!" The accompanying story revealed an extensive investigation of Kitt's life and a CIA file filled with half-truths, gossip and slander.

For almost 10 years, Kitt was considered too controversial by the American entertainment industry. Opportunities and engagements dried up, and she was forced to find work in Europe, where her reputation remained untainted.

"I didn't bother to defend myself," says Kitt. "I thought the truth would come out eventually, and it has come out and is coming out more and more as to what actually happened."

Thankfully, the Johnson affair is behind her, and Kitt has a new generation of fans weaned on Batman reruns. "I'm in more demand now than when I was a young girl," Kitt notes.

Perhaps that's why Metropolitan was scheduled for a quick 15-minute phone interview recently (to be followed by another 15 minutes once she arrived in San Francisco for Oz's engagement at the Orpheum Theater). But the 15 minutes turned into an hour and 15. And if you read on, you'll see that by the time the conversation ended, Kitt had dished and dissected everything from Hillary Rodham Clinton to homosexuality.

Eartha on the resurgence of cabaret

It's about time. Cabaret, to me, is one of the best forms of live entertainment outside of live theater. Live performances really get down to the truth of the matter. When you're on stage, you're on your own, and you can't fake it. That's why, for me, the greatest rewards come from live performances.

Eartha Kitt Eartha on being Catwoman

That was the best role I've ever played, because it was mischievous. The Batman series was a lot of fun. They were beautifully choreographed like dances. It wasn't brutal, it was all tongue-in-cheek. And that's what my whole act has been about, what my whole life has been about. I like playing wicked, naughty girls, but not really bad girls. But the way I look, they always put me in that [bad girl] category. They said, "Well, you don't look like a Miss Goodie,' " which is fine ... but that's not me. I only play those roles, I don't live them. I've lived a very basic, sane life. At least, I thought it was basic and sane. I'm not saying I'm a saint, but I don't go about my life "living it up" so to speak.

Eartha on excess

I think overdoing things--like buying so many things that you become enslaved to them--is excessive. Because you've got the money to buy it, you buy and buy and buy things that you think are going to give you power, but that doesn't give you power. I think being happy within yourself is what power is.

Eartha on the media

I think most of it has gotten--well, to give you the bottom line, I think it has gotten very trashy. They think people are stupid. They think people just want to be entertained and don't want anything to think about. They don't realize people are not stupid. ... But there's also a lot of good stuff out there. Like live theater, [which] I think is sticking closer to a valuable kind of entertainment than television and movies. I don't mind doing movies, but I prefer doing it in front of a real live audience.

Eartha on the new Godzilla

They should have left it alone when they made that old film about the big gorilla who went on top of the Empire State Building. It's all hype--you know that film [Godzilla] was probably terrible. The bigger the publicity, the more you better look out for something that is not all there. Word of mouth is always better than any kind of advertising.

Eartha on the difference between San Francisco and Manhattan

San Francisco is, and always has been, a highly sophisticated city. It's a culturally minded city, which I like very much. It's more European than any other city in the United States. Manhattan is very international. We have a lot of immigrants in Manhattan--that changes things like food and dress. And it seems that people come to Manhattan because they think that if you make in New York--like the song says--if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.

Eartha Kitt

Eartha on home

It's wherever I am. I wrote a song, "Wherever I Hang My Heart is Home." Although I do miss my little abode, my little house in upstate New York--growing my own food and mingling among my own little things. I go home to rejuvenate. And go out to work so that I can afford to go home and have that little rejuvenation.

Eartha on gays

They have the same problem I had. That's why I have empathy for gay people. Because we know the feeling of rejection. And I don't think anybody should be rejected because of difference of style of living, as long as you're not hitting me over the head or telling me anything in the world goes. And I think your private business is your own. And I must say, too, that I have always been grateful to the gay world. When the heterosexual world didn't know where the hell I was and what happened to me, it was the gays who were looking for my records all the time and imitating me, and that has kept my name alive.

Eartha on aging

I love it. I think it's wonderful, because I made it. I have been able to take care of myself--as a woman of color--and make it as an artist. And I am constantly thinking, How am I accepting myself now as an old lady? You know, 71 years old is not 26 years old. But there's nothing one can do about aging, so why not live with it and accept and admire the fact that you've put all of these years into life and now have some kind of knowledge that you wish you had when you were 26. And I keep hearing about people who have had tucks here and tucks there--and I'm not saying I never will, because no one ever knows--but I'm not at that point where I feel I have to take away that map of life to make another couple of dollars. I say, Don't fight it, darling, accept it.

Eartha Kitt We Are Family: Eartha Kitt (right) spends some quality time with her daughter, Kitt, and grandchildren.

Jesse Frohman



Eartha on being a mother and a grandmother

I think it's the best thing that ever happened to me, because now I can say I have a unit that is mine that I helped bring into the world and that I am responsible for and responsible to. It gives me the feeling that I am not a selfish person, because there's nothing in the world that makes you feel selfiess like having a family or having somebody that you really feel responsible for.

Eartha on being a celebrity

I love my work, I take my work seriously, but I don't take Eartha Kitt seriously. And I have had a lot of fun being Eartha Kitt. But I know the difference between Eartha Kitt the character onstage and that which is me at home. I'm not walking around all the time with high makeup on and eyelashes on and my hair all done up and wearing the wigs. I go out as me and I'm not interested in looking like Vogue unless I'm going to an affair where they expect you to look like something representative anyway.

Eartha on children's toys

I didn't have any toys when I was a kid, and I wanted toys very badly. When I got my first doll, it was the greatest sensation in the world. It was a doll that I could hug and cuddle and play with and dress up and dress down and make things for. But now, they con you into it. You have to have a Barbie doll ... and it's going to be worth big amounts of money as long as you don't play with it. And my little grandson, who's now 7 years old, has this little computer thing in his hand, and he's playing with it all the time. And he says, "Look, Nana, look--I nuked 'em." Everything is for destruction. I like giving toys to the kids that are going to be constructive and make them think and make them realize you use your brain instead of your two little fingers. But my thing is to give them as much money as I can--that the government will allow me to give--for their education so they don't have to worry about how much the schools are going to be in the future.

Eartha on Hillary Clinton

I can't wait to see what's going to happen when he's not president anymore. It's going to be fascinating. But what else can the woman do? The public's eye all over the world is on her, and I don't think she'd be half as respected as she is now if she walked away from the situation. I think Hillary's doing a good job standing by her man. And even if she's not the type of woman to bake cookies, I think she is eating crow. And you have to admire her for that. ... The thing about this whole situation, as far as I'm concerned, is if he's going to be a womanizer and do the kinds of things he's being accused of doing, I wish he wouldn't do it in the White House because I am paying rent for that place.

Eartha Kitt Eartha on the "voice"

Even if I was able to describe it, I wouldn't, because it seems to be very unique, and there's no reason to describe it. I might find the recipe and screw the whole damn thing up. It's working for me, so why play with it? I play with it enough as it is because of the connotation behind the "voice." It has been known as an evil voice, and I've lost commercials because of it. But it certainly is working in the cabs in New York; people seem to be in love with the voice. I get fan mail that says my voice is very soothing to them, and it makes them feel wonderful. And I like that.

Eartha on luck

I think things happen because you deserve them. And I have a feeling that I have never done anything wrong to anybody. And what I've gotten out of life, the gods probably intended me to have. It sounds corny, but if you are a deserving person, the gods will reward you. I really believe that.

Eartha on her childhood

I do know the difference between Eartha Kitt and Eartha Mae. Eartha Mae is that little girl who never found love and is still looking for it. That little girl is hurting all the time. Sometimes somebody can say something to me, and immediately I feel hurt, and I have to really quickly analyze why I'm feeling hurt. It's not Eartha Kitt who is being hurt, it's that little urchin Eartha Mae who was never wanted by anybody. She's still scrambling to survive--I think she always will. And I hope that, finally, at the end of the day, she has earned her position as being an accepted person.

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From the July 27-Aug. 9, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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