Eartha Kitt was a prolific and charismatic performer who is most often remembered for her timeless hit “Santa Baby,” and for portraying Catwoman in the late 1960s TV show Batman. However, her achievements go far beyond a stellar singing, dancing and acting career. Kitt was an outspoken political activist, who used her celebrity status to condemn racial discrimination and to make a public stand against the Vietnam War, while also encouraging female empowerment and sex positivity.
Born as Eartha Mae Kitt on 17 January 1927, she had a very traumatic childhood. Her mother was black and part Cherokee, while her father was a white man she never knew. In her memoirs, Kitt discloses that her birth was a product of rape and that her mother abandoned her to the care of a family, who needed an extra working hand. Although still very young, Eartha was forced to pick cotton, cook, work in the garden and do miscellaneous chores. Being bi-racial, she was subjected to harsh abuse and ridicule by her adoptive parents and siblings. At the age of eight, she was taken in by her maternal aunt and went to live with her in Harlem. Here, Kitt worked in a sewing machine factory throughout her teenage years, often running away from her emotionally-distant and overbearing aunt’s home.
Kitt’s big career break came in her early 20s when she was accepted into Katherine Dunham’s African-American dance company. Soon, she was dancing in London and Paris, and befriending celebrities and millionaires. Her first album cemented her position as one of the most exciting new stars and led to film roles, shows, and television appearances. Throughout them all, Kitt remained consistent in projecting her characteristically unapologetic, openly sexual and hedonistic persona. In a time when it was still considered distasteful for a woman to be portrayed as a sexual being (especially a non-white woman), Kitt remained resolute. Her seductive portrayal of Batman’s nemesis Catwoman was a revolutionary celebration of black female beauty.
In many ways, Eartha Kitt was decades ahead of her time, and this proved extremely dangerous in 1960s USA. Forward-thinking and fearless, she didn’t hesitate to voice her strong disapproval of the Vietnam war – on national television and during a lunch at the White House, no less! As a result, she was immediately blacklisted by the CIA who published defamatory and false information about her private life, thus rendering her unemployable. Following the incident, Kitt worked in Europe and Asia, before appearing in several Broadway musicals in the late 70s.
Upon returning to the USA, following years of public
Even though I love this country—I’ve been in 104 countries in the world and I always want to come home—I want this country to fulfill its promises. Even going back to ’40 acres and a mule’, we never got that. We never got the freedom. They only took the chains off. But they never allowed my soul to exercise itself like a decent human being. And that’s what I’m fighting for—for all of us.
Today, on what would have been Eartha Kitt’s 91st birthday, we hope that her legacy will live on, and that future generations will remember her not only as a beautiful and talented artist but as an inspiring woman with a strong sense of justice, who possessed a truly unbreakable spirit.