The Most Exciting Woman in the World: Eartha Kitt
Samantha Haughawo

Of all the most influential figures who inspired and entranced many amidst eras triumphant and despairing, none of them have endured the complexity of time as greatly as the born-star that was Eartha Kitt. One can watch an interview of her at any age and become completely submerged and seduced in her vivacious character and sensual nature. From her soft touches of Whoopi Goldberg’s arm, to her wild and impromptu lap dance on Ken Paulson, Kitt was a woman electric and exciting until the very end. Singing in renowned clubs in Hollywood, dancing at the most prestigious academy in the United States, acting in early Hollywood films, and performing in plays like “Faust” alongside Orson Welles, Kitt was a master of all parts of her greatest instrument: herself. Her spirit was one that endured both the greatest of hardships and the most ostentatious of the most extravagant splendors life could grant such a mesmerizing icon. A childhood of physical and sexual abuse and racial discrimination from both blacks and whites in the United States laid the foundation for her character, leading to later global success, her hunger for achievement and opportunity and acceptance, her empathy for those in the world who shared a dilapidated background of her own, and the subsequent backlash of her empathy with threats and slander from the United States government and CIA. Her power as a globally beloved biracial black woman was an inherent threat to the likes of Lyndon B. Johnson and the first lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson who did not care to fundamentally rearrange the structure of the American socio-economic system (as Kitt knew was the only context to address and combat juvenile delinquency) and believed the Vietnam War was indeed an intelligent decision to be a part of (in which Kitt vehemently disagreed.) Despite these threats, and as Kitt described, her “white-listing” from work in the United States, all aspects of her life were done with great flair, drama, and passion, and in no way would she let anyone or anything silence or prohibit her from doing and saying all she was meant to, even it all were just for the sake of the unwanted and unloved Eartha Mae within her. 


I didn’t want to make a false move, so everything I did was carefully done to get a smile from someone, anyone.

Early Childhood

Born Eartha Mae Keith near North, South Carolina on January 17, 1927, the earliest of her childhood memories were marked with instability and fear. After working on a plantation as sharecroppers with her mother and sister Pearl, with her white father unknown but most likely the predatory son of the plantation owner, she bounced around from home to home in the area. In none of these homes was acceptance and warmth waiting to embrace her; the color of her skin denied her of these comforts from nearly all she encountered, with a recurring line in her stories being a line from her great uncle and many others, “I don’t want that yalla girl in my house.” Her mixed race heritage was both a blame on her mother for having the child of a white man and a curse upon Eartha of not being enough by the standards of everyone. Once denied from the home of her uncle, Kitt and her family stayed with a blind woman where they worked her fields in exchange for housing. It is during this time where her mother began to abandon her emotionally. In her 1956 autobiography, “Thursday’s Child,” Kitt writes of this time saying, “Then I remember the day came when my mother’s attention was taken up by a man that seemed to come out of nowhere… he played with my sister in between the times he was smooching with my mother. I sat and watched the coochie-cooching he’d give my sister… and I would stare into the fire, wondering why he did not coochie-coo with me. There was no me, as far as he was concerned,” (Kitt 13). From here, she details her frustration and jealousy of having what little attention she was given before being stolen away from her by this new man. The theme of rejection would carry on in her childhood.

Their mother soon gave her and her sister away to the “Stern Woman” and her two grandchildren, as the man would accept Pearl but not the yalla Eartha. She writes, “I don’t remember what my feeling was, other than that of loneliness. To learn that even Mama didn’t want me was a blow to me through and through,” (Kitt 13). Her life in the home of the Stern Woman was that of a work mule, with all of her time filled with sweeping, cleaning, feeding animals, and picking cotton, all the while watching her sister. She was beaten by the woman upon developing habits of sucking her tongue and touching her chest and eating sand and clay, and when the woman was not around, her grandchildren would whip Eartha with a peach-tree switch to do all of the chores. In a harrowing event that Kitt would recount many times over the years, the grandchildren tied her to a tree, stripped her bare, and beat her until the elders came home. Because of this she was, “in fear of everyone and everything. I didn’t want to make a false move, so everything I did was carefully done to get a smile from someone, anyone,” (Kitt 16). Despite her efforts to please and do all that she was tasked without a complaint, the Stern Woman told her “‘There has been nothing but bad luck ever since I took you into my house,’” (20).




New York & New Career

After her mother’s death, Eartha was to be sent to her Aunt Mamie in Harlem, New York. The patience and the mystifying wonder of technology like the radio in the home of the “good woman” were great spectacles to her, and her time in school was also a wonder and brought her a revelation of her gifts. She details that when she read to her class, “It was like a spell over the room. I didn’t understand it at all, but it seemed I had some power that made people pay attention,” (Kitt 39). In the time she spent with her aunt, she became more aware of both herself and the world, from President Roosevelt’s WPA to her abilities in theater. For her singing and acting that were garnering much praise in her community she had no encouragement from her aunt. There was nothing she could do to please her, and she soon stopped trying. She pursued singing and dancing with a gang of teenage boys and girls in her neighborhood, singing and dancing in their “Cuban jam sessions” and in the Cuban dance halls. Boys were now aggressively attracted to her, her singing and acting talents had blossomed, and her aunt had grown tired of the “great responsibility” of caring for Eartha. Calling her a “tramp” and a “no-good” that belonged to the streets (despite not even been kissed) the two’s relationship shattered, and Eartha moved away, quit school, and worked as an army seamstress. Out of the care of others, Kitt could pursue the arts; her first major move was auditioning for the Katherine Dunham Company in 1943. Kitt details, “I went down the floor, imitating what I had seen as closely as I could, getting into everyone’s way. I moved my pelvis freely and worked my feet furiously,” (Kitt 72). Though she had no formal training, her dancing had won her a scholarship at the Dunham school, as well as a spot in the Broadway show Blue Holiday.

From here, Eartha Kitt’s career truly began. She trained with the Dunham group for many years. She performed all over the world, most notably Europe, with the Dunham group, and she later found herself in Paris, France with the openly lesbian director Frede of the notorious cabaret “Le Carroll’s.” Interested in Eartha’s performing abilities, Frede invited her to showcase her talents in the influential clubs on the queer Parisian scene. Kitt left the Dunham group after their threats to deport her for performing this solo gig, and on her own she found great success and accolades and praise from her new peers. She took her solo act to Turkey before returning to America to sing in New York. In Hollywood, she starred alongside Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald in the 1958 film “St. Louis Blues.” Her first collection of recorded songs on the album “That Bad Eartha” was released in 1953, including some of her most famous works like “C’est si bon” and “I Want to be Evil.” The album eludes genre, as Kitt sings in English, French, Spanish, Turkish, and Swahili with an assortment of styles. She was also the original singer of “Santa Baby” in 1953. Her acting debut was alongside Orson Welles as Helen of Troy in his rendition of the play “Faust.” Though she was becoming a staple in the American household and renowned for her allure and beauty, it is significant to note the racism and discrimination in the backlash she experiences once she returned to America. Her performances were labeled as “risquè” and “un-American” and a vast majority of her criticisms encompassed anti-black sentiments. The peak of her career beginning in Paris is similar to other artists like Josephine Baker, where racial discrimination was not so deeply embedded in the culture as it was in the United States. It was in this era of fame and prestige where her health began to falter. Suffering with anemia and an undying desire to please those around her, she pushed herself beyond her limits. Kitt says, “I was getting [love] the hard way, for I had to constantly prove myself in order to maintain it. It was a kind of love one could not take for granted,” (Kitt 76). 



Rises and Falls of Eartha

Within her were the spirits of the abused, neglected, and rejected Eartha Mae and the beloved star Eartha Kitt. Deep loneliness and the longing for belonging in her true identity brought her closer to stars James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Taking walks together in Central Park, sometimes in silence, or driving late into the night, drawing closer to each other sensing a shy kindred spirit, the unloved inner children within them, her relationships with Dean and Monroe allowed her to be vulnerable and trust and feel real unconditional love. She also connected deeply with Orson Welles, who her daughter Kitt Shapiro wrote, “she was like a sponge because she was so drawn to his intensity and his incredible knowledge of many different subjects.” It was Welles who deemed her, “The Most Exciting Woman in the World,” and it seems as though she believed him to be even more exciting than herself. It was amidst several decades of verbal and physical abuse by men that may have made her appreciate Welles, as many men would use her only for her “unspoiled gender.” She says in the 1989 interview on the Terry Wogan show, “A man has always wanted to lay me down, but he never wanted to pick me up. And the men that did have real love and affection for me were the ones that never touched me, that was Orson Welles…” 


Kitt was a woman filled with curiosity, kindness to those she loved, and deep compassion. It was after her marriage and the birth of her daughter in 1961 where that compassion would be seen as a threat to the United States government. In 1968, she received an invitation to the Woman Doers Luncheon from First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson along with other prominent women leaders throughout the nation to discuss the increasing crime and unrest among the youth. President Lyndon B. Johnson made a surprise appearance at the luncheon, and to him Kitt asked what was to be done about the delinquent parents who could not and were not taking care of their children. To the group Eartha Kitt voiced her opinions on the futility and destructive nature of the Vietnam War. While many other women suggested collecting clothes and planting flowers and beautifying the highways in order to stave off delinquency, Kitt voiced that the increase in juvenile delinquency was rooted in the Vietnam War that “was killing our boys for no reason at all,” (Kitt, David Spatz interview in 1995). A full quote of Kitt’s from the luncheon transcribes, “‘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.’” If the male youths of the country were to be sent off to be killed, why would there be an incentive to be the model citizens their cruel government who cared nothing of them expected them to be? Kitt attacked the root of the issue, and the other women in attendance were “stunned into silence,” since their husbands worked in the government and they could not be opposed to any of its doings. Upon voicing her opposition to the Vietnam War and her perspectives that she had gained from her global community outreach and activism, the Johnsons launched an attack on Kitt through the CIA. Defaming her by slandering her name as a “sadistic sex-nymphomaniac” (though she practiced no lewd or profane acts in her actual life) and making up lies on her views of the black American people, as well as appearing as a optics threat to her most loyal venues, Eartha Kitt over the next several years suffered a decrease in popularity and loss of all her contracts. She found out much later about the dossier requested by the Johnsons that had been made on her: she had been black-listed (or “white-listed” as she recounted many times in her interviews) from working in the United States. She left for Europe so she could continue her career, free of the tracking and stalking from the CIA. Because she was inherently a threat to the United States as a black woman of status with powerful opinions, she was forced to flee to retain her rights. Her career would not begin in this country again for another 25 years.



Kitt’s activism touched all parts of the world, from the aid of aborigines in Australia to the construction of schools for African children. She was welcomed back to the United States by Jimmy Carter and her Broadway role in “Timbuktu” in 1978. Notable roles she took during this time was the legendary Yzma in “Emperor’s New Groove” released in 2000 and Madame Zeroni in “Holes,” 2003. All the time leading up to her death to colon cancer on Christmas Day in 2008, she was bright, filled with life, and true to who she had always been. In all her activism it is evident that through the horrific trials of her life she had learned the importance of love, empathy, and acceptance. She held onto all her memories, because as Kitt Shapiro writes, “Letting go [of her past] would have meant that she wouldn’t be who she was anymore… ‘Why would I want to let go of something that was such an integral part of the foundation that made me who I am?’” A woman bold but intelligent, fiery yet inwardly very small, as captivating as she was compassionate, Eartha Kitt changed the lives of all those she invested in and inspired. From behind that armor that was the beautiful seductress Eartha Kitt that could do all was the unhealed yet loving child Eartha Mae, living to create a world more wonderful and dazzling and exciting than before her.





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