Eartha Kitt in 1978 (AP Photo)
What does it take to be the most exciting woman in the world? Beauty certainly doesn't hurt. A gift for singing, dancing and acting can help, too. How about a great sense of humor and a love for social justice? Add a seductive purr of a voice, mix well, and you've got Eartha Kitt, the performer Orson Welles once called "the most exciting woman in the world."
Born on Jan. 17, 1927, Kitt followed the classic American rags-to-riches path. Daughter of a poor mother of black and Cherokee ancestry and an unknown white father, she grew up on a cotton plantation in South Carolina. When Kitt was 8, her mother married. Kitt's new stepfather was uninterested in raising the mixed-race girl, so she was sent to live with an aunt in Harlem. As a young teen in exciting New York City, she began to develop her "triple-threat" talent – the coveted ability to sing, dance and act with ease.
In 1943 when she was just 16, she took a friend's dare and auditioned for the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. The audition was a success, and Kitt's career blossomed with a worldwide tour. The tour led to a regular gig at a nightclub in Paris, which influenced Kitt's command of the French language and her exotic accent. Welles saw her Paris act, was bowled over, and offered her a starring role in his stage production of Dr. Faustus. This role led to her Broadway debut in the New Faces of 1952 revue – a production that launched the careers of many including Kitt, Paul Lynde and Mel Brooks. Kitt sang "Bal, Petit Bal" and "Monotonous," the first of many Kitt hits in which she poked a bit of fun at the luxe life.
A sense of fun was a staple in Kitt's performances, and it was part of what made her so appealing. She didn't just sing a song; she acted it. And she often tossed in a few winks and nudges, as in this 1962 rendition of "I Want to be Evil."
The early '60s were good to Eartha Kitt. She recorded several top-selling albums, including the Grammy-nominated Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa. She was nominated for a Tony for her work in Broadway's Mrs. Patterson. She wrote her first autobiography, Thursday's Child, filmed several movies, and was honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. On television, she turned in notable guest appearances on I Spy and Mission: Impossible. And she made her trademark growl famous as Catwoman on the camp classic Batman.
But in 1968, Kitt's career took a hit after being invited by first lady Lady Bird Johnson to a luncheon at the White House. When asked what she thought of the Vietnam War, Kitt dared to give her genuine, honest opinion. "The children of America are not rebelling for no reason," she said. "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."
Kitt's statement left the first lady in tears and caused a public uproar. Though many of Kitt's fellow Americans agreed with her, many more didn't, and she was essentially blacklisted. With American fans turning their backs on her, but still determined to do the work she loved, Kitt returned to an old friend: Europe. She toured in Europe and Asia for several years until the furor died down and she was able to come back to the U.S. for another star turn on Broadway – this time in a production of Timbuktu! American audiences were ready for her again, and once again her career took off.
After seeing reruns of her campy turn in Batman, young fans in the 1980s were eager to hear her sultry purr set to a dance beat. In 1984 her single "Where Is My Man?" hit No. 7 on the U.S. dance charts. Her 1989 follow-up "Cha-Cha Heels," recorded with dance-chart favorite Bronski Beat, stormed the clubs as well.
Club kids fell in love with Kitt, and she became a cherished icon of gay culture. She embraced this new generation of fans enthusiastically, becoming a vocal advocate for gay rights and same-sex marriage, and performing in fundraisers and benefits supporting HIV/AIDS organizations.
The 1990s and 2000s brought Kitt a wide variety of work, including a new direction for her famous voice. She played Kaa the python in a BBC Radio production of The Jungle Book and charmed kids as eccentric villain Yzma in The Emperor's New Groove and its sequels.
Her work as Yzma brought Kitt her first award show wins – though she had been nominated before for Tonys and Emmys, it wasn't until the 21st century that she'd bring home a statuette. She won both Annie and Emmy awards for best voice acting in an animated feature, and she showed yet another generation how exciting and fun she was. Check out a few of Kitt's older video clips online – her work as Catwoman or as a sultry chanteuse – and you're bound to see at least one or two comments of "Hey, that's Yzma!"
After a career that didn't quit for six full decades, Eartha Kitt died Dec. 25, 2008. Surely more than a few fans mourned her that Christmas day while listening to her biggest musical hit… the often imitated but never duplicated "Santa Baby."