Eartha Kitt isn’t the self-effacing sort. Give her time g and she will talk proudly about what she calls ‘God’s gifts” to her: the gravelly purr of a voice land the sensual body—both of which she poured into the vampy schtick she made famous as Catwoman in the hit ’60s TV series Batman, and which have delighted (and titillated) sold-out crowds at Manhattan’s swank Café Carlyle for the past eight years. But right now, walking through her four-bedroom home in Westchester County, N.Y., making sure her two grandchildren are amused and that her two miniature poodles are well-behaved (or vice versa), the 72-year-old siren, born Eartha Mae Kitt-Fields, is happily bragging about something else. “See this?” she says, pointing to the intricate needlework on pillows and rugs, table runners and chairs. “All of this is mine—something I can show for my loneliness in hotel rooms.” She smiles wryly. “I like to see how my time has been spent.”
It would take a Sistine Chapel ceiling of cross-stitching to bear full witness. In the 50 years since Kitt first unleashed her feline femme fatale cabaret act in London and Paris, she has proved to be one of entertainment’s most enduring—and enigmatic—icons. She has recorded hit songs in English, Spanish, French and Turkish, won Tony nominations for her work on Broadway and between sips of Dom Pérignon advised Revlon founder and onetime lover Charles Revson on lipstick shades. She spent years blackballed after airing her vigorous anti-Vietnam war views to a startled Lady Bird Johnson. And she once disappeared for days off the Nigerian set of 1957’s The Mark of the Hawk. “We were panicked,” says her friend and costar Sidney Poitier. “We thought she had been kidnapped or something.” The something turned out to be a rendezvous with a local man. “She just reappeared as if nothing had happened,” says Poitier. “She is the freest spirit you have ever met.”
But also one of the most insecure. Riding a ’90s renaissance sparked by her turn in Eddie Murphy’s 1992 film Boomerang, Kitt has appeared on TV (in Old Navy ads), on records (her Eartha Kitt Greatest Hits: Purr-fect CD was released in June), in New York City taxicabs (with a recorded message telling riders to buckle up) and on stages nationwide as the Wicked Witch in last year’s tour of The Wizard of Oz. Kitt revels in “the wonderful things people say about me”—but doesn’t take them too seriously: “Once the Eartha Kitt paraphernalia is taken off, I go back to being Eartha Mae, feeling that nobody wants me, and I don’t want to be seen.”
Born in 1927 in Saint Matthews, S.C., Kitt never knew her father. When she was a little girl, her mother became involved with a man who rejected Eartha—in part because her skin was light black. As a result, at around age 4, “I was given away to a family who was very abusive to me,” she says. She lost all contact with her mother, who died when Kitt was about 10. “I didn’t even cry,” she says. Life improved only slightly when her mother’s sister arrived from Manhattan to bring Kitt home with her. “She felt it was her Christian duty to take me out of the squalor I was living in,” says Kitt. “But she paid no attention to me.” Treated like a stranger in the Harlem apartment they shared, she says, Kitt was also ostracized at Public School 136 for being a “yella gal.” Help came in the form of a teacher—light-skinned like Kitt—who encouraged her to read, to sing in the chorus, and eventually to earn a spot in New York City’s High School of Performing Arts.
Kitt never finished high school. In 1945 she joined the Katherine Dunham dance company, which headed for Europe two years later. Within a year, Kitt was singled out by French and English critics for her exotic beauty. “They didn’t call me a beautiful woman,” she says. “It was ‘the beautiful creature.’ ” Kitt left the troupe and started singing solo in Paris in 1950. When Orson Welles saw her act, he cast her as Helen of Troy in his stage production of Faust, calling her “the most exciting woman in the world.” Returning to Manhattan in 1951, she soon began recording such hits as “Uska Dara” and “I Want to Be Evil.” Her popularity was not limited to the stage, and for the next decade her affairs filled the gossip columns. Most important to her were millionaire John Barry Ryan III; movie theater scion Arthur Loew Jr. (“the love of my life”), who left her because his family opposed the interracial romance; and Rev-son. Says Kitt: “All three men made me feel worthwhile and wanted.”
The same was not true of real estate investor Bill McDonald. McDonald’s humor and desire for children won over Kitt—whose star was rising with acclaimed Broadway performances in shows including The Skin of Our Teeth and The Owl and the Pussycat. They married in 1960 and settled in Beverly Hills. But Kitt stayed around just long enough to give birth to their daughter Kitt in 1961. “I got what I wanted and left,” she says. The divorce was civil, and Kitt stayed close to McDonald’s family. “It was important for her to have a grandmother for her daughter,” says Kitt’s longtime friend Marjorie Roth, “because she had no family at all.” Kitt fit quality time in between episodes of Mission: Impossible, I Spy and Batman. Still, says Kitt Shapiro (now Eartha’s production coordinator in Connecticut, she married entrepreneur Charles Shapiro in 1987), “I always felt Mom was supposed to have another grown-up around so she could say, ‘That child is making me crazy!’ She missed having that sounding board—and I felt I got more than my share.”
Shapiro was just 7 when Kitt had her infamous encounter with Lady Bird Johnson at the White House in 1968. Invited to a luncheon to speak about America’s troubled youth, she used the occasion to criticize LBJ’s Vietnam policy. “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot,” she said. Within days she had lost contracts in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Detroit and Chicago. “She was canceled on Hollywood Squares, so you got the hint she wasn’t too popular,” says Roth. Kitt stayed unpopular in America until the war fervor died down, but she had no trouble finding jobs in Europe. Indeed, harder for her than her professional isolation was letting go of her daughter. When at 14 Shapiro told Kitt she would rather stay in school in Manhattan than tour with her, says Kitt, “I felt like I was being deserted again.”
Time—and Kitt’s determination—solved the problem. Ten years ago she moved to the East Coast to be near her daughter and grandchildren Justin, 8, and Rachel, 4. Shapiro still senses a loneliness. “It’s kind of sad that she never found somebody she could share all the wonderful and not so wonderful things in life with,” she says. But her mother isn’t fretting. When not working, she cooks, gardens, plays with her poodles Mutzi and Aba and does daily aerobics—but has no plans to marry. “I’m 72—why should I bother having a man around anymore?” she asks. Especially not when there are so many good toads to be had. Says Shapiro with a laugh: “She likes to go hunting in the pond with her dogs and her grandchildren.” A tad unglamorous for Eartha Kitt, perhaps, but just the thing for Eartha Mae.
Karen S. Schneider
Cynthia Wang in Westchester County