Today we honor and celebrate a unique voice in 20th Century American entertainment, Eartha Kitt. She was born in South Carolina in 1927 to a mother of African-American and Cherokee heritage and a poor farmer father of northern European extraction. Facing double discrimination in the South because of her mixed ancestry, she was sent to New York City at a young age.
Kitt began singing with the Katherine Dunham Company at 16 and launched a long, illustrious career. Performing across Europe and North America, she also appeared in numerous films and television programs. She also worked frequently on stage and recorded many albums and singles. Kitt was fluent in four languages and able to sing in seven different languages. She is best known musically for the perennial Christmas classic Santa Baby and her Top 10 hit from 1953, C’est Si Bon. One of her most enduring roles is as Catwoman on the late 1960s Batman TV series, a role she assumed when Julie Newmar was no longer available and quickly made her own.
All too familiar with injustice and discrimination, Kitt was an outspoken activist throughout her career. She suffered significant setbacks in the U.S. when she spoke out against the Vietnam War at a White House luncheon. Responding to a question from First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, she said, “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” The backlash hurt her career for over a decade.
In her later years, Kitt was something of a cult figure and appeared in many movies and TV shows again. She also acknowledged her large gay following and became a vocal supporter of equal rights for the LGBT community. Asked about marriage equality, she said:
I support it because we’re asking for the same thing. If I have a partner and 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?
Brava, Eartha Kitt! This amazing woman died on Christmas, 2008 at the age of 81, leaving behind a powerful legacy of entertainment and civil rights. I only wish I could maker her signature Growl sound.