Eartha Kitt's vowels, especially her a's, drawl a beat, and her r's roll. Imagine her speaking the word darling. Kitt is, at 79 years old, every bit the sultry cabaret diva she was when Orson Welles called her "the most exciting woman in the world," every bit the feline seductress who made Batman yearn for someone other than Robin, every bit the opinionated war critic who made First Lady Ladybird Johnson weep inconsolably. Kitt is one of the last vestiges of an entertainment age that has gone the way of the dodo. But rather than become lost in what was, she revels in what her career has left her with.
"I come from a cotton plantation in South Carolina," she says, at home in Connecticut, not far from her daughter. She laughs loudly. "Now I own my plantation, and it's all because the public has helped me survive."
Kitt earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, seven years before she was even cast in her most memorable role as Catwoman. But long before that, she was simply Eartha Mae, the illegitimate child of a black Cherokee sharecropper and a plantation owner's son (or so she was told). When she was about six years old, her parents handed her off to some relatives; she was passed around for a few years until an aunt in Harlem took her in. Being essentially orphaned left an indelible mark, one that has defined Kitt's life.
"You don't want to have to rely on anybody, because you never know if they're going to go away on you," she admits. "So any kind of relationship is difficult to handle. But since, as I like to say, the public adopted me, I think that's what I've survived on. Somebody wants me."
José Ferrer first inspired Kitt; in 1946 she watched one of his stage performances as Cyrano de Bergerac and learned that applause could substitute for the love she had been missing.
"But he had to earn it," Miss Kitt insists. "And that's what I realized about myself: If I wanted acceptance, I had to earn it."
And earn it she did. At age sixteen, on a dare, she auditioned for Katherine Dunham's dance school and soon found herself on a tour across Europe. It was in Paris that her career took its biggest turn, when a nightclub owner signed her to sing on the cabaret circuit. This was where Welles discovered her and in 1950 cast her as Helen of Troy in his stage production of Dr. Faust. The actor/director became so nervously excited on opening night that he accidentally bit her lip in one of the first scenes, and she spent the rest of the act trying to hide the blood dribbling down her chin.
With her voice and exotic face, Kitt has always had an intoxicating effect on men and never shied away from using it to her advantage; in fact she's the original Material Girl, crafting a stage persona around a gold-digging vamp long before Madonna was born. After Helen, her songs, like "C'est Si Bon" and "Santa Baby," were soon climbing the charts, and she was starring in films opposite names like Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., and Nat King Cole. That her sexuality and ability to titillate audiences endures today thrills her to no end.
"I lawwve it," she laughs. "I think it's a lot of fun to be called sexy. It's fun to be baaad and naughty. I love to tease."
But for all the men Kitt has loved and the conquests attributed to her in Hollywood myth, she married only once, and that union lasted a mere five years though it did produce her daughter, Kitt, whom Eartha calls "the only real bond of love and acceptance I have.
"The men who laid me down, who I thought would be there for the rest of my life, never wanted to stick around," she explains.
"I have a friend who's a wonderful writer, and he said to me, öEartha, you know, if you were to tell about the men in your life, you'd be a multimillionaire,'" she purrs. "Well, daaarrrling, I think just before the gods come to take me away, I'll do that."
But even at 79, she doesn't sound like she's expecting that day to roll around anytime soon. There's too much life left to live.
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