Becoming an Icon: Eartha Kitt Edition

Eartha's History

Birth

At age 16, Anna Mae was raped by her slavemaster’s son and birthed Eartha Kitt in Saint Matthews, South Carolina on January 17, 1942.

Family

Eartha Kitt did not have the ideal family being that her father was the son of a slavemaster and a rapist. The concept of the family would remain foreign to Eartha throughout her adolescence. Eartha Kitt was born with a fair complexion that warranted false prejudices within the Southern black community. Back then, it was believed that “yellow” people brought bad luck. Fairer-skinned black people endured hate from both sides of the table because of racism and colorism. Colorism ran so deep in the South that Kitt’s stepfather forced Anne Mae to send Kitt away to live with another black family in South Carolina. Kitt was tossed around by the ones that were supposed to love her. Soon enough, the black family she was living with started to abuse her until the local church stepped in and helped Kitt find a safe home. As a result of the abuse and neglect Kitt experienced early on, she learned the significance of resilience, independence, and integrity that later manifests into her professional career. Note, Kitt was only an eight years old girl when these atrocities plagued her life. Kitt moved to Harlem, New York with a woman she believed to be her aunt, later the woman would tell her that she was her mother and abuse her.

INFLUENCES

Eartha Kitt moved to Harlem, New York with her aunt. Influences serve the artistry to musicians and creators throughout their lives. Kitt owed much of her success to the artists that put artistry first over sales. In her early childhood, Kitt had a deep admiration for the Nicolas Brothers. The Nicholas Brothers was an African American duo that gave eye-catching performances with their acrobatic and tap dancing styles. In her early career (1950), her co star made mentor, Orson Welles, taught Kitt all things drama and theatre.

Development

As a young girl, Kitt would ride the train for hours to avoid her aunt because she abused and neglected Kitt. At age 16, Kitt attended the Metropolitan Vocational High School which was a performance arts school although Kitt never finished school, she became well educated through traveling the world. Kitt sang in eleven different languages and spoke seven languages. Kitt was a world learner because she would immerse herself in the world around her, and she always took the time to learn about the people and culture. 

 

As for her personal life, she dated the song of MGM Studio President, Arthur Lowe Jr. The couple wanted to marry each other, but Lowe’s father detested the relationship because Kitt was black. Lowe Sr. did not want a “negro heir” to the family estate, and threatened to cut off Lowe Jr. In the end, Lowe Jr. suggested that he would marry someone else and Kitt should be his mistress.  Kitt rightfully refused. Again, Kitt’s skin color becomes the origin of her pain and rejection. However, Kitt found love again, in 1960, with John McDonald, a Korean war veteran and real estate investor. Together, the two had a beautiful baby girl named Kitt McDonald. Eartha loved her daughter with all her being. Kitt channeled all the hurt and pain from her life into love, and she gave that love to her daughter in the form of friendship that was filled with support, passion, and honesty. Unfortunately, Kitt and McDonald’s marriage did not last, and they divorced in 1965.

 

Kitt dedicated her life to personal, emotional, and professional growth, she passed on December 25, 2008, from a two-year battle with colon cancer.

Professional Career

early career

 In 1943, Kitt still in high school, following a dare set up by her friends, she auditioned for the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. Eartha improvised most of her performance, and brought all the passion and spunk that is Eartha Kitt into her performance. Katherine Durham was thoroughly impressed with Kitt, and awarded Kitt a full scholarship to the company. The up and coming flame that was Kitt, made a name for herself at the company. In 1948, her efforts in the company led her to perform for the Queen of England. In the awe of everything the rest of the world had to offer, she left the dance company and moved to France.

MID CAREER

At the young age of 20, Kitt was eager to show off her capabilities to the theater world. In 1950, she joined the production Dr. Faustus, and played the character of Helen of Troy, alongside Orson Welles. Welles, a famous American actor and beloved costar, described Kitt as the “most fascinating woman in the world.” The two remained lifelong friends after Dr. Faustus. In 1952, Kitt returned to the US and was cast in Broadway’s New Faces. Kitt was showcasing her singing and acting abilities in front of the world, and audiences could not get enough of Kitt. Kitt would stun in her live performances, but she soon was subjected to racism. For instance, a racist heckler would shout profanities and a racial slur at Kitt, but she rose above the hate and continued to perfect her craft on the live stage. Kitt being the artist she is, released her debut album, RCA Victor presents Eartha Kitt. Songs included in the 1954 album, “C’est si bon”, “I Want to be Evil”, and “Santa Baby” which went RIAA Certified Gold. In 1957, Kitt wrote her first autobiography titled Thursday’s Child.

LATE CAREER

In the late 1950s, Kitt accepted numerous major movie roles that secured her place as one the best to ever do it. Later, she starred in Mark of the Hawk alongside Sidney Poitier. In April 1958, Kitt along with Nat King Cole starred in St. Louis Blues, and she played the character, Go-Go Jermaine. In 1959, she acted alongside Sammie Davis Jr. in a play called Anna Lucasta. Sammy Davis Jr. fancied Kitt and wanted to be a black power couple, but Kitt was interested in remaining friends. Later that year, Kitt released her second autobiography titled Alone with Me.


The world shook when it was announced that Eartha Kitt would be the new Catwoman, making her the first-ever African-American woman to land the role. Kitt describes being chosen to play, Catwoman (1967-1968) was the luckiest thing to happen to her in her career. 

After the luncheon with Lady Bird she was blacklisted. Went overseas. She returned in 1978 to sing in Carnegie Hall. Returned to Broadway in a production called Timbuktu, regaining her spotlight the was wrongfully stolen from her. Kitt continued her showbiz career until the very end of her life. Personally, 

 

In 1992, she starred in Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang as Lady Eloise. In 2000, she famously portrayed the hit character Yzma in Emperor’s New Groove. Later, she returned to Broadway and starred in a Wild Party 2001, returned back to broadway, in A Wild Party. In 2003, starred in a Disney movie Holes along side Shia Labeouf and Cleo Thomas. In 2004, played the fairy godmother in Broadway’s Cinderella.

Contemporary Influences

Billie Holiday
Etta James
Ella Fitzgerald
Lena Horne
Pearl Bailey

Awards

 – Tony award playing Mrs. Patterson (1957)

 

 – Hollywood Star (1960)

 

 – Emmy nomination for I Spy (1967)

 

 – Tony Nomination for TImbuktu (1978)

 

 – A Wild Party playing Dolores (2000)

Social Involvement

 – Kitt was actively involved in the civil rights movement, and she was good friends with Martin Luther King Jr.
 – Founded foundation Kittsville Youth Foundation, provide cultural and academic enrichment of children of West Los Angeles
 – Attended a luncheon with LBJ and wife Lady Bird, asked an honest question and was blacklisted from Hollywood

"Boys I know across the nation feel it doesn't pay to be a good guy," Kitt said. "They figure with a record they don't have to go off to Vietnam. You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They will take pot and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”

"Mrs. Johnson, you are a mother too, although you have had daughters and not sons. I am a mother and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my guts. I have a baby and then you send him off to war. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot. And, Mrs. Johnson, in case you don't understand the lingo that's marijuana." Then she was blacklisted (USATODAY).

THE EARTHA KITT​

Conclusion

Eartha Kitt was more than your average performer, she is a icon- and that is an understatement. Kitt channeled her pain into her art, through steady work and determination, that pain transferred into art that won her not one but seven Emmys. Today, her work as the children’s character Yzma teaches kids shows kids the legend behind the character. On behalf of the black community, we are extremely thankful and proud to hail Eartha Kitt as one of our own.

Discography

Bibliography

All About Jazz. “Artists Similar to Eartha Kitt.” All About Jazz Musicians, AllAboutJazz, 20 Nov. 2020, musicians.allaboutjazz.com/similar.php?id=16569.

 

BlackStory Kyia. “HER: STORY Ep. 1 | Eartha Kitt | Black History.” Youtube, Youtube – BlackStory, 15 Feb. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVRGmg_1r9c.

 

Quarshie, Mabinty. “Eartha Kitt’s Vietnam Comments Nearly Ended Her Career.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 19 Feb. 2018, www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/02/16/eartha-kitt-and-lady-bird-johnson-vietnam/321602002/.

 

Take a Leaf – Film Clips. “‘To Compromise? For What?!” – All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story (1982) – REMASTERED.” Youtube, YouTube – Take a Leaf – Film Clips, 30 Apr. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyN3eBRYcDo.

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