It’s funny, when the death of someone you didn’t know, and who didn’t know you, stops you in your tracks. But that’s what happened. “What?!” I exclaimed, as though some favorite aunt or uncle had passed away. And then uttered an “Mmph,” quietly, under my breath and to no one in particular.
It wasn’t because I knew her personally, though, but because the world lost a touch of its audacity when it lost Eartha Kitt.
Consider the era she thrived in — and the competition she faced. Kitt came of age when a bevy of sepia beauties were just starting to strut their stuff from Broadway to Hollywood. It was the 1950s and Madison Avenue may have ignored these women, but they were seen now and then in the pages of Life and Holiday magazines.
Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Hazel Scott, Joe Lewis’s wife, Marva, Sugar Ray Robinson’s wife, Edna Mae, and Kitt were different from the darkly hued and heavy-set black women of 1940s Hollywood, women like Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen and Louise Beavers. Those women were known mostly for playing maid roles in cinema.
This new group of beauties changed the way that America looked at the black woman. They went to parties hosted by Joe Louis in Chicago or Manhattan; they hung out at Sugar Ray’s nightclub in Harlem, their images reflected in the long mirror behind the bar. They all came to admire themselves in some of those old Negro periodicals — Sepia, Ebony, and Brown. Their pictures hung in hair salons in black communities throughout America. They competed against one another for movie roles: Kitt got “Anna Lucasta” alongside Davis, among other roles. And she had to sweat her way through the “Anna” auditions.
“The camera couldn’t conceal the fact that Eartha was not a beautiful woman,” Philip Yordan, the writer of “Anna” told me.
But no one, absolutely no one, could have told Eartha Kitt she was not beautiful. She refused to be in the shadow of Horne or Dandridge. Kitt had a repertoire that ranged from night clubs to Broadway to dramatic roles in movies and TV.
The first time I knew anything about Eartha Kitt, I was a skinny, effeminate, non-atheletic, gay boy growing up in the South, during the Reagan era. I was digging through my father’s record collection at the time. We shared a love of music, and as I educated myself about different musical eras, I’d return to his collection — which was mostly jazz and classic R & B — and find several gems that became old favorites, or discoveries that sent me off in a new direction.
I wasn’t just searching for music, though I didn’t now it. I was either just this side of coming out, or just sticking my head out of the closet door, and I was looking for something or someone to show me or teach me how to be in the world; a world hinting that it didn’t plan on being all that friendly to me, if I kept sticking my head out of that closet door, and threatening to bring the rest of me along.
Then I found an old Eartha Kitt record my dad had probably bought sometime before I was born. Her first, actually. I put it on, and was captivated and tickled by the first track, “I Want to Be Evil.” (True confession: I memorized the song, and sometimes when I was home alone, I’d put the record on and perform along with Kitt.) By “Angelitos Negroes,” I was hooked and had to know more.
It was then that Eartha Kitt entered a pantheon of female celebrities — one that included women like Diana Ross, Diahann Carroll, Lena Horne, and Tina Turner — from whom I learned what I needed and borrowed what I didn’t have to not only get the rest of myself out of that closet door, but to guide me in what I refer to as “how to be in the world,” whether that mean having determination to work and fight for the life I wanted, the strength to get back up after falling down or being knocked down, and daring to be everything that the word would have me believe I couldn’t be, shouldn’t be, and haven’t a right to be. And having the audacity to do it well and have a damn good time doing it, too.
The more I learned about the South Carolina-born Kitt’s story then, and how she went from being an unwanted child to being “the most exciting woman in the world” — something that, at the time she came along, she was not “supposed to be.” And not just because of her race, but because on top of it she wasn’t what anyone would call “conventionally beautiful,” like a Horne or a Dandridge, nor did she have a “pretty” singing voice.
But she parlayed that into international fame and, where anyone else might have stayed non-controversial, Kitt “forgot her place,” mouthed off to Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam war, and payed a professional price for her politics.
In 1968, Kitt was invited to the “Women Doers’ Luncheon” at the White House hosted by Lady Byrd Johnson, President Lyndon Johnson’s wife. It was publicized as a serious discussion on juvenile delinquency, but Kitt found it to be a showy, staged event whose attendees exhibited little concern for the nation’s problems. In preparation for the event, Kitt–who gave dance workshops in Watts- -had met with a mothers’ group in a poor section of Los Angeles. They had explained to her just how the Vietnam War and the draft negatively impacted children in impoverished neighborhoods. Young men who were ineligible for deferments were fodder for the war machine. Going to college was one way to earn a deferment–or coming from a well-connected family–and thus a disproportionate number of minorities came back from a one-year tour of duty in Southeast Asia in body bags. However, as the mothers pointed out, young men with criminal records were not eligible to serve in the armed forces, and this was a certain factor in the recent rise in inner-city crime. When it was Kitt’s turn to speak at the luncheon, she declared that “Vietnam is the main reason we are having trouble with the youth of America,” Kitt remembered in Confessions of a Sex Kitten.
Though a limousine had taken her to the White House, it was nowhere to be seen and Kitt was forced to call a cab when the luncheon was over. On the ride back she heard on the radio that she had made the First Lady cry. Her remarks made headlines, and she was excoriated in the press. She lost friends–some prominent people conceded that what she had said was correct, but she acted rudely by saying it inside the President’s house. Her phone stopped ringing, the contracts Kitt had already inked for singing engagements simply “disappeared,” and she was left without work. “Some kind of plague had hit my house and I became an untouchable,” Kitt recalled in Confessions of a Sex Kitten. In a 1996 interview published in BlackLines, Kitt told reporter Catey Sullivan, “I was rejected artistically, emotionally and personally. I remember thinking, my own mother had given me away and now my country didn’t want me either.”
She did earn respect from some factions, however. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called to thank her, and she found a new audience with America’s youth of both races, who wholeheartedly supported her and even sported “Eartha Kitt for President” buttons. But Johnson had directed the Central Intelligence Agency to keep tabs on her, and an extensive dossier was compiled. She even suspected that her phone was tapped. It was not until the mid-1970s that political columnist Jack Anderson helped publicize the extent of the CIA’s surveillance of Kitt; the dossier even provided details of her love life.
She came back, course. And Kitt herself credited her gay fans for keeping her career going until the rest of the world finally caught up, bringing her to the club scene with songs like “Where is My Man?”, “Cha Cha Heels,” that showcased Kitt and and revelled along with her in the campiness of her persona. Why not? What group of fans knows better what it’s like to be tossed on the trash heap for being too much for people?
Now, though not quite as far from the suburbs of Augusta, GA, as Kitt managed to get (from the cotton fields of South Carolina to the Carlyse in New York) I like to think that some of what I admired in her and tried to manifest in myself — toughness, tenacity, and the audacity to be what one’s not “supposed to” be — helped me get this far.
The world may have lost a touch of audacity in loosing Eartha Kitt. But I like to think she’s just taken her well deserved place among the star.