Why we're still crushing hard on Eartha Kitt
The first time I ever remember seeing the name “Eartha Kitt” was a little random – it was in the opening-credit sequence for one of my favorite Halloween movies of all time, Ernest Scared Stupid. This underrated gem has Ernest P. Worrell getting into his usual shenanigans, only this time a troll is involved. And so is an eccentric older woman who is probably a witch, but without a doubt is also responsible for about 95% of the film’s charm. That woman was Eartha Kitt.
As the years went on, I discovered Ernest Scared Stupid was only a blip on Kitt’s history radar both in and outside of Hollywood. An accomplished singer, dancer, actress, and philanthropist, Kitt conducted herself with an air of class and strength I grew to admire the more I learned about her and the more of her work I exposed myself to. Orson Welles himself, whom Kitt worked with frequently, called her “the most exciting woman in the world” in the early 1950s.
It’s hard not to agree with him, given everything Kitt accomplished in her 81 years. So to kick off December’s #WCW column, here’s why Eartha Kitt was pretty much everything I still aspire to.
She originated the most quintessential woman-led Christmas song
Who hasn’t heard “Santa Baby” and wished they had the gall to ask for not only Tiffany’s Christmas decorations, but also jewelry, a yacht, and the deed to a platinum mine for Christmas? We all have a favorite version, as the song has been covered countless times by everyone from Mariah Carey to Michael Bublé to Santana from Glee, but Kitt – who, incidentally, passed away on Christmas Day in 2008 – did it first, in 1953.
And though Kitt emerged from a tough beginning/childhood, the song couldn’t have been more appropriate for her, as she once referred to herself as “the original Material Girl.” She also said “Santa Baby” was one of her favorite songs to record, and who can blame her? It’s a classic, all thanks to Kitt’s unapologetic requests that she sings so soulfully we can’t even call her unreasonable – especially since she told Ebony magazine in 1993, “I’m a dirt person. I trust the dirt. I don’t trust diamonds and gold.” A woman who had an appreciation for material things but knew what was truly important in life at the end of the day? Instant queen status.
She brought so many of our favorite roles to life
Aside from her oft-overlooked turn in Ernest Scared Stupid, Kitt lent her talents to so many other amazing acting roles. Her most famous is probably that of Catwoman, which she took over from Julie Newmar for the third and final season of the iconic 1960s Adam West-led Batman television show. Though she only appeared in a handful of episodes, her sultry voice and accompanying purr-fect (sorry, had to) mannerisms solidified her well-deserved status as one of the most legendary actresses to play Catwoman in the history of the character.
And who could forget Kitt’s voice work for one of the best Disney villains of all time: Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove? Yzma’s signature outrageous personality and behaviors mirrored those of Kitt’s. And for the accompanying Disney television series The Emperor’s New School, Kitt won two well-deserved Emmys for her portrayal of Yzma both in 2007 and in 2008, the year she died. Because even through the difficulties of colon cancer, Kitt didn’t stop performing. Which isn’t surprising, but is extremely badass (much like her entire existence).
She was also a powerhouse in dance, on Broadway, and even in language
There was nothing Eartha Kitt couldn’t do, if you want the short version. But if you want to get into specifics, aside from being a gifted actress and singer, Kitt was also a wildly popular cabaret dancer and singer, and in fact got her start in a dance troupe. She could also speak four languages (and sing in seven – seven). Kitt acted on Broadway alongside film and television, and was nominated for two Tony awards: one for Best Actress in a Musical for 1978’s Timbuktu!, and one for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for 2000’s The Wild Party. I’d call her a triple threat, but that’s obviously not even close to a powerful enough phrase to describe her.
She came from very little and worked her butt off to get to the top
Eartha Kitt had an extremely difficult beginning to her life. She was born on a South Carolina cotton plantation in 1927, to a mother who left her and an unknown father. The orphaned Kitt was raised by a woman named Anna Mae Riley before moving to Harlem to live with her aunt, Marnie Kitt. She worked in a factory in her early teenage years, and often spent the night in subway stations and on various roofs of buildings with unlocked doors. But though her home was difficult and abusive, she was able to take piano and dance lessons at this point in her life.
Kitt’s big break came when she auditioned for (and was accepted to) the Katherine Dunham Dance Company at the age of 16, where she stayed and performed on Broadway for five years before clinching her first big acting role: as Helen of Troy in Orson Welles’ 1951 Paris stage production of Dr. Faustus. It was only up from there – and Kitt made the world hers.
She told the president and first lady that war is not the answer – to their faces
After being asked about the Vietnam War while attending a White House luncheon in 1968, Kitt – who was known for her blunt honesty – replied, “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” She also famously told Lady Bird Johnson, “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.”
Her words reportedly made Mrs. Johnson cry, and Kitt’s career took a hard hit as a result of her outspoken statements. Shunned by audiences in the U.S., Kitt spent the next decade building a name for herself in Europe and Asia before being asked back to the White House by Jimmy Carter in 1978. The fact that a woman who came from very little put her entire career, at a time many would call its peak or close to it, on the line for the chance to speak candidly about a human-rights issue has me wanting to start at the beginning and write this entire piece over again. And the best part is that Eartha Kitt was 100% right, and she knew it.
She spoke out for so many other great causes
Eartha Kitt dedicated her life not only to film, stage, music, and television, but also to helping so many individuals who were less fortunate or enduring various hardships – some that Kitt herself could completely understand and empathize with, given her own tumultuous beginnings. An obvious advocate for peace – so much so that she was under CIA surveillance for a time, beginning in the 1950s – Kitt was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She was also a huge advocate for LGBT rights, as well as extremely involved in helping underprivileged youth overcome their struggles, having founded the Kittsville Youth Foundation in in the 1960s. Eartha Kitt was not shy about diving headfirst into causes whose missions she considered preserving civil rights, and for that we salute her so heartily.
Thank you for giving us all so much to look up to, Ms. Kitt. You were one of a kind, and we’re so grateful for your powerful talent, intelligence, grace, and unwillingness to stay silent about things many were too afraid to speak up about.
(Image via 20th Century Fox television)