Eartha Kitt (AP Photo / Evan Agostini)
When Eartha Kitt died five years ago at 81, her New York Times obituary called her "a seducer of audiences." One of the first widely known African-American sex symbols, Kitt purred –– literally –– whether on screen as Catwoman in the Batman television series or onstage singing "Santa Baby." Orson Welles once called her "the most exciting woman alive."
Kitt, who was nominated for Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards and won three daytime Emmys, was 81 when she died from colon cancer on Christmas Day 2008. As NPR noted, she died on a holiday that "she has forever given a sultry swing."
Kitt was a model for singers who followed her, such as Diana Ross. Kitt's "pitch was remarkably clean, and she would bend it, very often sharp, with slow deliberation," the Guardian newspaper said. "She said she understood everything her voice could and couldn't do. She played off a gritty chest register against a cooing falsetto, and as she savoured its sound, she would experiment with verbal distortions."
She was, the Guardian concluded, a "show business force of nature."
She wasn't just a sex kitten, although feline adjectives were often used to describe her. As the New York Times noted, "From practically the beginning of her career, as critics gushed over Ms. Kitt, they also began to describe her in every feline term imaginable: Her voice 'purred' or 'was like catnip'; she was a 'sex kitten' who 'slinked' or was 'on the prowl' across the stage, sometimes 'flashing her claws.' Her career has often been said to have had 'nine lives.'"
But while Kitt appeared confident and bold onstage, she said she privately still struggled with feeling unwanted as a child. In an online discussion on WashingtonPost.com in 2005, she said she still felt like "that little urchin cotton-picker from the South, Eartha Mae."
The daughter of a black Cherokee woman and a white man, she was sent to live with a black family as a child. She was beaten, she later said, because she looked too white. "They called me yella gal," she said.
She went to live with an aunt in Harlem when she was 8. While her aunt paid for the child to have piano and dance lessons, she was also regularly beaten. She often ran away, and by her teen years was working in a factory and homeless.
Kitt's childhood was so disjointed that she was unsure of her birth date. In 1997, she challenged students at Benedict College in South Carolina to find her birth certificate. They did, and it showed she was born Jan. 17, 1927, in North, S.C.
At the urging of a friend, the young Kitt auditioned for the Katherine Dunham Dance Co. and began a career that took her around the world. "She passed the audition and permanently escaped the cycle of poverty and abuse that defined her life till then," the New York Times wrote. "But she took the steeliness with her, in a willful, outspoken manner that mostly served her career, except once."
That one incident took place in 1968. Kitt had been invited to lunch at the White House with first lady Lady Bird Johnson. Asked her thoughts on the Vietnam War, Kitt famously responded, "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot."
Kitt immediately found herself blacklisted. Venues canceled her concerts. She was investigated by the FBI and the CIA. She left the country and spent 10 years performing in Europe, until President Jimmy Carter invited her to the White House in 1978. Her career was revived, but Kitt was still angry.
"The thing that hurts, that became anger, was when I realized that if you tell the truth –– in a country that says you're entitled to tell the truth –– you get your face slapped and you get put out of work," Kitt told Essence magazine in 1988.
Kitt stayed outspoken. Later in life, she advocated for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people and supported same-sex marriage. In a 1992 interview, she spoke about her LGBT following. "We're all rejected people, we know what it is to be refused, we know it is to be oppressed, depressed, and then, accused, and I am very familiar with that feeling. Nothing in the world is more painful than rejection. I am a rejected and oppressed person. That is how I understand them, as best as I can, even though I am heterosexual."
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."