Eartha Kitt is one of the 20th century’s most famous people. A talented singer, performer, and actress, Kitt was from a mixed-race background that shaped her view of the world and her experiences in it. Learn more about Eartha Kitt.
Most of today’s stars of stage, screen, and music could only hope to succeed in one or two of those genres. Eartha Kitt was a Creole actress and singer who was capable of exceling in all three of these areas of entertainment throughout a life that took her from the cotton fields of South Carolina to the streets of Brooklyn, New York.
A multi-talented performer, Miss Kitt accomplished things in her lifetime that others could only dream of. There are few individuals who embody the fairy tale of the American dream as much as Kitt, and good or bad, it shaped her and influenced her life.
A Murky Racial pedigree
Miss Kitt was born in the American South at a time when racial tensions were simmering, just below boiling point! She entered the world on January 17, 1927 to a mother of Cherokee Indian and African descent, on a cotton plantation near the small town of North, located in Orangeburg County in South Carolina. The girl child was named Eartha Mae Keith. Her father was a white man.
The who, where, and when of her birth would forever shape her life going forward. Kitt was sent, by her mother, to live with an aunt in Brooklyn. This was in the 1930s, during the midst of the Great Depression. Kitt was just eight years old!
Opportunities for African-American children in the American South at that time were few and far between. For a mixed-race child, the situation was even worse. Kitt would went her entire life without knowing who her father was, other than the fact that he was white and who had conceived a child with a mixed-race woman. At that time, in the American South, such an occurrence was considered socially, and even morally, taboo. Kitt was raised by a woman named Anna Mae Riley for a period, and was sent to Brooklyn only after Riley passed away.
It wasn’t until 1998 that Eartha Kitt even knew her own date of birth. She was crushed on that day when she first set eyes on her birth certificate to see that her father’s name had been redacted from the document. As an ostracised child in American society, Kitt developed a view of the world that would shape her existence.
A Career of Ups and Downs
Kitt’s career began in the 1940s when she was a member of the Katherine Dunham Company. She spent the early years of her career showing off her talents as a singer, performing traditional sets as well as burlesque shows. Kitt’s voice was so distinctive that you could tell who was singing before laying eyes on her on the stage.
Over the first decade of her career, Kitt had the fortune of traveling far and wide. She became fluent in French after years of performances in Europe, and by the time she died she was fluent in four languages and could sing in seven. Throughout numerous record releases and live recordings, she showcased her multi-lingual talents in cabaret performances and other live sets.
Her career hit an even higher peak in the 1950s as Orson Welles cast her in the starring role as Helen of Troy in Dr. Faustus. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, she would star in film, television, and Broadway performances in the US. However, controversy was waiting around the corner that would derail her career for years.
Kitt’s View of the World
Growing up in the American South as a woman of a creole background, Kitt was ostracised from the community as she was the offspring of interracial relations. Even as an adult, she retained a unique view of the world. As woman of mixed-race, she was neither white enough for the privileged society in the US at that time, nor black enough to find a home in that community. This much was made starkly evident to her early in her life. She could have stayed in South Carolina with a black family following Riley’s death, but the men wouldn’t accept her because she was too light skinned.
The Kitt faux pas
Kitt was invited to a White House luncheon by Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1968. Her career was about to hit a massive road bump from which she would never fully recover. When asked by the First Lady what she thought of the Vietnam War, she responded with:
“You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.”
Her comments so upset the First Lady that she is rumored to have left the room in tears. Kitt clarified her remarks later, stating, “The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. We don’t have what we have on Sunset Blvd. for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons – and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson – we raise children and send them to war.”
Kitt’s comments evoked strong reactions, both in agreement and against her comments. She was again ostracised in American society for her remarks, even referred to by the CIA as a, “sadistic nymphomaniac.”
Approach to Life
Growing up stuck between two worlds, Kitt understood the tough challenges facing most of America’s youth during the 1960s and 1970s. Beyond that, she always seemed to favor an underdog. In the 1960s she established Kittsville Youth Foundation in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, and the Rebels with a Cause youth group in Anacostia in Washington DC. Both groups were advocates of cleaner streets and the establishment of recreational areas in America’s urban cities for youth, especially at-risk and ethnic minority youth.
Her involvement in the 1960s and 1970s with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom not only sparked her 1968 comments at the White House about the Vietnam War, but also positioned her as an advocate against poverty and racial injustice in America at the time.
Fast forward to the 1980s, and Kitt was slowly making a resurgence on Broadway and in music in the US. Her return to performing wasn’t as notable as her new fanbase. The emerging gay communities of America’s largest urban areas garnered Kitt some of her most loyal fans of the day.
A Life Well Lived
Kitt may not have led the perfect life from start to finish, and she was not one to shy away from controversy. Yet, despite it all she managed to put together an impressive career. Her abilities gave rise to three Tony Award nominations for stage performances, two Grammy Award nominations for her vocal work, and two Emmy Award nominations on top of that.
An advocate for the rejected and ostracized
Through it all, she never forgot where she came from and how her life had been shaped by her Creole, mixed-race, heritage. In a 1992 interview, she perhaps unwittingly summed up her life and social activism in one eloquent quote. When asked about her loyal fanbase of people in the gay community, she replied:
“We’re all rejected people. We know what it is to be refused. We know what it is to be oppressed, depressed, and then accused, and I am very much cognizant of that feeling. Nothing in the world is more painful than rejection. I am a rejected, oppressed person, and so I understand them, as best as I can, even though I am heterosexual.”
Through the lens of her own experiences, Kitt carved out not only a successful career, but used her position to help those who were ostracised and put down by society much in the same way when she was growing up in 1930s America.