Eartha Kitt is, at 79 years old, every bit the sultry cabaret diva she was when Orson Welles called her "the most exciting woman in the world," every bit the feline seductress who made Batman yearn for someone other than Robin, every bit the opinionated war critic who made Lady Bird Johnson weep inconsolably.
Star of stage, screen and television, she is one of the last vestiges of an entertainment age that's gone the way of the dodo. But, rather than become lost in what was, Miss Kitt revels in what it has all left her with.
"I come from a cotton plantation in South Carolina," she says, speaking by phone from her home in Connecticut where she lives not far from her treasured daughter, Kitt Shapiro. "Now I own my plantation, and it's all because the public has helped me survive."
In 1960, Miss Kitt got her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, seven years before she was even cast in her most memorable role as Catwoman in the original Batman TV series. But long before the sparkling tights, before her star, before anyone knew her as Eartha Kitt, she was just Eartha Mae, the illegitimate child of a Black Cherokee sharecropper and a plantation owner's son (or so she was told).
Around 6 years old, her parents handed her off to relatives and she was passed around for a few years before an aunt in Harlem took her in. Being orphaned left an indelible mark, one that has defined Miss Kitt's life.
"You never recover from something like that," she says. "When your mother gives you away, you think everyone will give you away. The feeling is always there. It never goes away."
Even worse, "You don't want to have to rely on anybody, because you never know if they're going to go away on you," she admits. "So any kind of relationship is difficult to handle. But since, as I like to say, the public adopted me, I think that's what I've survived on. Somebody wants me."
It was José Ferrer who first inspired her to believe she could lift herself to greater heights. In 1946, she watched one of his stage performances as Cyrano de Bergerac and learned that applause could substitute for the love she had been missing.
"But he had to earn it," Kitt says. "And that's what I realized about myself. If I wanted acceptance, I had to earn it."
And earn it she did. At 16, on a dare, she auditioned for dance pioneer Katherine Dunham's dance school and soon found herself on a tour across Europe. It was in Paris that her career took its biggest turn when a nightclub owner signed her to sing on the cabaret circuit. This was where Welles discovered her and in 1950 cast her as Helen of Troy in his production of Dr. Faust. The director became so excited on opening night, he bit her lip in one of the first scenes and she spent the rest of the act trying to hide the blood dribbling down her chin.
With her voice and exotic face, Kitt has always had this intoxicating effect on men and has never shied away from using it to her advantage. In fact, she's the first Material Girl, crafting a stage persona around the gold-digging vamp long before Madonna was born. After her Helen role, Kitt's songs were soon climbing the charts, like "C'est Si Bon," "Sell Me," "I Wanna Be Evil" and "Santa Baby," and she was starring in films opposite Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole. And don't forget what she did to Adam West on Batman. It thrills her to no end that her sexuality and ability to titillate audiences endures today.
"I lawwve it," she laughs. "I think it's a lot of fun to be called sexy. It's fun to be baaad and naughty. I love to tease. Because of the way I look and because of my voice, I've always been thought of that way."
But for all the men Kitt has loved and the conquests attributed to her in Hollywood myth, she only managed to marry once. That union lasted but five years, though it did produce her daughter, Kitt.
"Eartha Kitt found acceptance, but Eartha Mae never has that," she says, trying to explain the dichotomy of her professional and personal identities. "She tries. She wants to. The only relationship I can really rely on is my daughter. That's the only real bond of love and acceptance that I have.
"The men who laid me down, who I thought would be there for the rest of my life, never wanted to stick around," she continues.
Their mothers often disapproved of her multi-racial roots; it was more than a few times she was called a "yellow gal" in her life. Then, of course, there were the men who wanted to use her as another notch in their belt.
"I have a friend who's a wonderful writer, and he said to me, 'Eartha, you know, if you were to tell about the men in your life, you'd be a multi-millionaire,' " she says, purring. "Well, daaarrrling, I think just before the gods come to take me away, I'll do that."
But even at 79, she doesn't sound like she's expecting that day to roll around any time soon. There's too much life left to live, whether it's working in her garden, spending time with her family, or performing cabaret style from coast to coast.
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