Born in North, South Carolina, famed singer and actress Eartha Kitt had a difficult childhood. Her mother abandoned her, and she was left in the care of relatives who mistreated her. Kitt was often teased and picked on because of her mixed-race heritage — her father was white, and her mother was African American and Cherokee.
Around the age of 8, Kitt moved to New York City to live with an aunt. There, she eventually enrolled in the New York School of Performing Arts. Around the age of 16, Kitt won a scholarship to study with Katherine Dunham, and later joined Dunham’s dance troupe. She toured with the group for several years before going solo. In Paris, Kitt became a popular nightclub singer. She was discovered in Europe by actor-director Orson Welles. Welles, who reportedly called her “the most exciting woman alive,” cast her as Helen of Troy in his production of Dr. Faustus.
Kitt became a rising star with her appearance in the Broadway review New Faces of 1952. In the production, she sang “Monotonous.” Her performance helped launch her music career with the release of her first album in 1954. The recording featured such signature songs as “I Want To Be Evil” and “C’est Si Bon,” as well as the perennially holiday classic “Santa Baby.”
On the big screen, Kitt starred opposite Nat King Cole in the W. C. Handy biopic St. Louis Blues (1958). She netted her one and only Academy Award nomination the following year, for her role as the title character in Anna Lucasta. In the film, Kitt plays a sassy young woman who is forced to use her womanly wiles to survive, starring opposite Sammy Davis Jr.
In the late 1960s, Kitt played one of her most famous parts — the villainous vixen “Catwoman.” She took over the role, on the TV series Batman, from Julie Newmar. Remarkably, Kitt only played Catwoman on a handful of episodes of the short-lived campy crime show, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, but she made the role her own with her lithe, cat-like frame and her distinctive voice. The series found a second life in reruns, and it remains on the air today.
Known for being blunt and short-tempered at times, Kitt found herself in a media firestorm in 1968. She attended a luncheon on the subject of juvenile delinquency and crime hosted by Lady Bird Johnson at the White House. At the event, Kitt shared her thoughts on the matter, telling the First Lady that “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed,” according to the Washington Post. “No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” Her remarks against the Vietnam War offended Johnson and made headlines. Her popularity took a significant hit after that, and she spent several years mostly performing abroad.
In 1978, Kitt enjoyed a career renaissance with her performance on Broadway in Timbuktu! She earned a Tony Award nomination for her role in the play and received an invitation to the White House from President Jimmy Carter. In 1984, Kitt returned to the music charts with “Where Is My Man.” She continued to win acclaim for her music, including scoring a Grammy Award nomination for 1994’s Back in Business.
Final Years and Death
Throughout her adult life, Kitt had a tremendous work ethic. She kept up a busy work schedule well into her 70s. In 2000, Kitt netted a Tony Award nomination for her work in The Wild Party with Toni Collette. She picked up a Daytime Emmy Award for her vocal performance on the animated children’s series The Emperor’s New School that same year, and again in 2007.
For many years, Kitt performed her cabaret act at New York’s Cafe Carlyle. She continued to wow audiences as she had so many decades before when she was the toast of Paris. With her voice, charm, and sex appeal, Kitt knew how to win over a crowd.
Kitt learned that she had colon cancer in 2006, a disease that ended up taking her life on December 25, 2008.