Actress and Singer
Eartha Mae Kitt, a native of North, overcame tremendous odds during her childhood to become a renowned entertainer on stage and screen. With perseverance, hard work, talent, and a bit of luck, she hurdled life’s challenges to earn the right to perform before millions of fans. Her work earned the acclaim of both her critics and peers. The career of this multi-talented actress, singer, dancer, and author is proof that impoverishment and despair can be conquered by desire and enthusiasm. An international star who has given new meaning to the word “versatility,” she is one of only a handful of performers to be nominated twice for both a Tony Award and a Grammy Award as well as for an Emmy. Born in 1928 into the harsh world of southern sharecropping, she grew up during the era of the Great Depression and World War II. Sharecropping, a form of tenant farming often left farmers in serious debt every year. Deserted, and later orphaned, Miss Kitt was left to take care of a younger sister, and was forced to pick cotton to earn their keep. When she was eight, her aunt took Eartha to New York City. There she excelled in school, both academically and athletically. She later won recognition while studying at the New York School of the Performing Arts. Despite these achievements, she had to work as a seamstress when she was 14, but she continued to study the piano. It was in New York that her distinct individuality and flair for show business manifested itself, when at the urging of a friend she auditioned for the famed Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. She was awarded a position as a featured dancer and vocalist, and before she turned twenty, she had toured with them worldwide. While performing with the Dunham Troupe in Paris, Ms. Kitt was spotted by a nightclub owner who signed her on as a cabaret singer. She gained fame and admirers quickly, including Orson Welles, who called her “the most exciting woman in the world” and signed her to play Helen of Troy in his acclaimed production of Dr. Faust. Upon her return to the United States, Ms. Kitt played a twenty-week run at the Blue Angel—a still unbroken record for cabaret artists; before moving on the Village Vanguard. There she was seen by Leonard Stillman, who included her in New Faces of 1952. Her legendary performance in Monotonous, in which she appeared for a year on Broadway, would lead to a national tour and Twentieth Century Fox film by the same name. Broadway stardom led to a recording contract and a succession of best-selling records including Love For Sale and Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa, for which she received a Grammy nomination. She also published her first autobiography, Thursday’s Child, during this period, and returned again to the cabaret scene with runs at The Persian Room, The Empire Room, and London’s Talk of the Town, among others. Ms. Kitt then made her return to Broadway in the dramatic play Mrs. Patterson, for which she received a Tony nomination. Other stage appearances followed, as did film work that included The Mark of the Hawk with Sidney Poitier and Anna Lucasta with Sammy Davis, Jr. During this period she also became involved in the Batman television series in her infamous Catwoman role while continually finding time to make concert appearances. Singing in ten different languages, Ms. Kitt has sung in one hundred countries and was honored with a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame in 1960. Ms. Kitt’s career came to a sudden about face in 1968 when at a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson, Kitt spoke out against the Vietnam War. For many years afterward, she would be blacklisted by many in the U.S. entertainment industry and would be forced to work abroad where her status remained undiminished. In 1974 she returned to the United States in an acclaimed Carnegie Hall concert and in 1978 received her second Tony Award nomination. Ms. Kitt’s second autobiography, Alone With Me, was published in 1976, and the third volume, I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten, was released in 1989. In 1982, a critically acclaimed feature-length documentary on her life entitled All By Myself was produced by filmmaker Christian Blackwood. “Now in her fifth decade of making men nervous, Eartha Kitt still electrifies audiences with her one of a kind persona, peppering her flirty set with gold-digging songs about champagne, stretch limos, and pearls,” said the Associated Press. “In an era when cabaret is mostly musty theater, Kitt’s shows are fresh and vibrant; and increasingly being embraced by Gen-Xers.” In 1994 her performance at the Café Carlyle in New York had star-studded audiences and her album Back in Business was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1996. She has also made frequent guest appearances on television programs such as The Nanny and New York Undercover, while her world famous voice can be heard on commercials and in New York City taxis advising riders to buckle up. In November 2000, Ms. Kitt toured the United States with an onstage version of Cinderella, in which she played the fairy godmother. Her electrifying voice can be heard in the Disney film The Emperor’s New Groove, which premiered in December, and she will appear in the Showtime film Feast of All Saints. Further, her book, Rejuvenate: It’s Never Too Late, was released in 2001. Eartha Kitt is the national spokesperson for Project On Growing, a program that teaches homeless families to grow their own food and feed themselves. She resides in New York.