The Eartha Kitt You Don't Know

You may not know it, but there are two Eartha Kitts. First, there's the performer: the Eartha Kitt who stalks the stage, claws bared, purring that she's back in business, that she will survive, and, most importantly, that she wants to be evil.The other Eartha Kitt is the thinker: the Eartha Kitt that, when offstage, speaks in a quiet, intense voice and can hold forth on any topic you might care to name, from racism ("Elvis Presley got all the attention for something that they say he created...but when it was coming from a black face the business thought it was evil music") to rap ("As long as rappers are being derogatory, as far as four letter words, cop hating, and all this women abuse that's in the lyrics...I don't think that black musicians are doing their group any good").Most people are only acquainted with the performer, a woman whose credits are most impressive. Kitt's career spans five decades, 28 albums, three autobiographies, and innumerable appearances in television, theater, and film, a career that displays a remarkable skill for self renewal. She captured American audiences in the '50s with hits like "Usku Dara" and "Santa Baby"; imprinted herself in the minds of the '60s generation with her brief stint as Catwoman in the Batman TV series (she appeared in three episodes in the show's final season); and became a dance rock diva in the '80s with the success of the hit single "Where Is My Man."But though aware of her appeal to a range of age groups, Kitt professes to have little idea of why she's been able to transcend the generation gap. "I didn't think about it, I just did it," she explains. "You can't make people follow you by catering to a particular group; unfortunately, that group grows up. So I don't know how it happened. It's just that it is. And I'm very glad that it is happening -- like it always has been! Young, middle-age, or whatever age it is, that has always been in my audience."Kitt was born and raised on a cotton plantation in South Carolina in the '20s. Kitt's mother, unable to care for her, gave her away to a local family; eventually she moved to New York City to live with her aunt. After attending New York's High School for the Performing Arts, Kitt won a place with the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe, and travelled with them to Mexico and Europe. While in Paris, she struck out on her own as a cabaret artist. When she returned to New York, Kitt took her act to the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel and won over a U.S. audience; by the early '50s, she was signed to RCA.At first, RCA seemed unsure about how to promote Kitt. She already had an act, so she could not be molded by over-eager executives, and it was feared that her Continental flavoring would sound strange to American ears. As a perverse way of proving that she had no commercial appeal, RCA chose to release "Usku Dara," a Turkish folk song she'd been taught while performing in Istanbul, as her first single."I was not considered a typical American recording artist," explains Kitt. "I was Europeanized, because I matured in Europe. So RCA never thought 'Usku Dara' would go. They said, 'She will never become successful, because she's too weird!' They still think I'm weird!" But in this case, Kitt would have the last laugh, for "Usku Dara" would -- perversely enough -- become her first hit.The hits continued until 1968, when Kitt was invited to attend a luncheon at the White House hosted by the First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. The topic was juvenile delinquency. Kitt offered her opinion that perhaps young men felt it was more worthwhile to commit a crime and earn a jail sentence, considering their "reward" for maintaining a clean record was an all-expenses paid trip to Vietnam. Within hours, news reports were announcing that Kitt had made the First Lady cry; within days, her shows were being cancelled across the country.["It certainly gave me something to think about, didn't it?" says Kitt, reflecting on the experience 17 years later. "Because I thought that we were free to exercise our freedom of speech in this country. And when you use this freedom of speech, particularly when you're asked questions from the people whom you think are going to be doing something with your opinions and they use it against you, it gives you something to think about.""So how free can you say the country is?" Kitt continues. "You live under a government that scares the hell out of you. And they cannot say we're not afraid of our government, because we are. And as much as I love the United States, I really can say that I am not much enamored of the government, who treat the people of this country like we were nitwits. And as long as we allow them to treat us like nitwits we are, because we don't fight the situation. We just go along with it."It was not until 1974 that Kitt learned her problems were not simply limited to a string of cancelled dates. It was then that Seymour Hirsch and Jack Anderson, reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post, respectively, uncovered information about files the FBI and CIA had maintained on Kitt since that infamous luncheon (Anderson was instrumental in uncovering similar investigations of John Lennon). After stories about the agencies' harassment of Kitt were made public, she was "welcomed home" to the U.S. with a special engagement at Carnegie Hall.Over the years, Kitt has also found time in her hectic schedule to work with various charities. And instead of simply performing at a benefit or writing out a check, Kitt has taken a hands-on approach, talking directly with people about the issues that concern her. One of those issues is the increasing number of "children having children," something that she sees as contributing to many of the world's problems. "We can alter things by not having so many children," she says. "Women have got to do that. Women, women, women. Only we are responsible for bringing children into the world, and God is responsible for taking them out.""I had meetings with a group of girls in a home in New York," she continues. "And you ask them, 'Why did you have a baby?' 'Well, my girlfriend had a baby.... 'So where is the man whom you had this baby by?' 'I don't know....' 'Why would you have the baby?' 'I wanted something to be my own.' 13 years old! So they're treating the child as though it was a doll baby.""And who takes care of these children? These men who are telling us that we must have a baby, we cannot have an abortion, and we cannot use protection? They don't become responsible for these children. And what is more sinful; to bring a child into the world and let it gradually starve to death, or to get rid of it immediately before it matures? God doesn't come down and hand you a piece of bread in order to feed that child. God helps those who help themselves. Haven't they ever heard of that?"But Kitt also maintains an optimistic outlook toward the future. Things can get better, she says, but only if "we work together, not against one another. As Americans, in general. Not as Afro-American, Jewish-American, Italian-American. As Americans. I don't think of myself as having a color or a creed, or I have to be devoted to this group, that group or some ism or the other. Isms always get you into trouble! I like life too much to belong to an ism. Life and I have been very good with one another."Life's also been keeping Kitt busy of late. "The future takes care of me," Kitt says. "I'm not looking to make big plans for the future. All I want to do is keep working." Recent work has included the release of a new album, Back In Business, last year, a cameo in the film Unzipped, and guest spots in the TV shows New York Undercover and Living Single this past October. And you can also expect Kitt to keep speaking her mind, whatever the consequences."It's not a matter of thinking about, if I don't do this or don't do that I'm going to be hated," she says. "That means you're not going to be honest with yourself. And that's when you start feeling remorseful about not being honest with yourself. Like the saying says, To Thine Own Self Be True. It's the honesty, I think. Basic honesty. Basic logic. Practical. Life is a very practical situation. All you have to do is live it. Don't fight it, just live it!"


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