Eartha Kitt 1927-2008: Catwoman Schooled the Lady Bird
by Mike Mosher
People remember Eartha Kitt for "Santa Baby", an amusing Christmas-Eve seduction richer, subtler and more sophisticated than all those lame Kris Kringle-visits-a-sexy-lady cartoons in every December PLAYBOY magazine. It was further paydirt among her 1953 string of hits that combined the voice of an exaggerated youthful feminine vulnerability, sparkling humor, and eclectic, international song choices, like "Usku Dara" from Turkey. Since she purred so well, she was cast as the villainous Catwoman in the 1960s Batman TV show, but also movies like "Mark of the Hawk" (1958), where Kitt and Sidney Poitier play Africans dissuaded from revolutionary violence in the service their unnamed nation's independence struggle. Her talent, dance skills, biracial beauty, personality and style meshed into a career lasting five and a half decades; the playwrights enlarged her part and wrote extra songs for her in the 2006 off-Broadway musical "Mimi le Duck" when they saw how popular the septagenarian was with the audience.
Yet that's not the part of the memorable entertainer's life that deserves the most praise. In her 1989 autobiography I'm Still Here (crassly retitled by its American publisher as Confessions of a Sex Kitten), she describes how, in 1968, her work with an inner-city youth program got her invited to a women's lunch at the White House hosted by Lady Bird Johnson, wife of US President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The topics of discussion were both juvenile delinquency and the beautification of America. Kitt linked them both, and offered the Vietnam war as "the main reason we are having trouble with the youth of America. It is a war without explanation or reason...Our children are snatched from us before they have a chance to know life, taught to kill and if, by chance, they return, they are not retrained but simply thrown back into society. They are not given a job, or even examined to see if they might have an emotional or physical problem. They are not taken care of in any way. To beautify America, it seems, is to beautify her with jobs and less taxes and getting out of Vietnam."
Though Mrs. Johnson appeared irate at what she felt was impertinence, the Presidential press secretary issued a statement saying that Eartha Kitt had made the First Lady cry. Immediately all jobs in nightclubs, offers for touring shows and appearances in films disappeared. The FBI and CIA were both enlisted to investigate her, and when found clear of radical connections, promulgate falsehoods. She had to work exclusively in Europe for several years before US contracts resumed.
In our time, not long after the Iraq invasion, the country band the Dixie Chicks were reviled by many radio stations for an offhand stage crack that dissed their fellow Texan George Bush. Yet within a couple of years, their subsequent album was successful and feted with awards. When Eartha Kitt spoke truth to power during a previous misbegotten war, the price was much higher. Eartha Kitt paid, with head held high, and we thank her.