The most exciting woman on earth. So did Orson Welles use to speak about her, and we couldn’t agree more. Singer of the Christmas hit “Santa Baby”, seductive Catwoman and soft-voiced, sharp-clawed enigmatic star. After all, Eartha couldn’t become anything less than a warrior, hungry for life, and a charming elegant presence able to mingle in with the classic Hollywood scene, at the same time.
Eartha was born in 1927 in South Carolina. Her mother, Annie Mae, was a cotton picker. About her father, Eartha never knew anything, but her skin tone – so much lighter than her mother’s – made it pretty clear from the start that he must have been a white man. And that color decided her destiny, or at least its painful beginning: Little Eartha was rejected by her community, called names and even given away by her mother at the age of five. Those years deeply affected Eartha’s personality, but never enough to stop her from making her way up to success.
At only 21, Eartha was scouted by Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe, and so her journey into the shining world of showbiz began. For a girl like Eartha, always at war with society and constantly struggling to earn a position and defend herself, gaining a spot on the stage was no piece of cake. But one night, in Paris, when she was only 23, her name reached the ears of someone very important, who would revolutionize her career for good: Orson Welles. Observing her cabaret show from a nightclub audience seat, Welles was instantly captivated by Eartha’s slender body, stretching like that of a cat over chaise longues, her spellbinding voice and her hypnotic eyes. And the magic happened: Eartha was cast for the part of Helen of Troy in the director’s production of Dr Faustus.
It looked like the gates of heaven had just opened up for Eartha, who returned to New York with a newfound ‘star’ status. But behind success, the trauma of rejection was still there, constantly hiding in a wounded soul. Men came and went, as no-one proved to be the right one. Or rather, the ‘wrong’ one was Eartha herself, mostly due to her skin: too dark for white men and too white for black men. When she met the real estate agent Bill McDonald, though, it felt like something was finally going right in the her personal life. The two got married and had a daughter, which couldn’t, however, stop their relationship breakdown after four years.
The reason, according to Eartha, were the two’s different views on social issues. After all, a woman like Eartha just couldn’t stay silent about the same injustices that she herself had had to live through. A peculiar kind of star in the showbiz, who knew pain, loneliness and the constant struggle of being on the fringes of society. The burden of being Eartha, one of the first Afro-American actresses ever appeared on TV in a role other than the ‘servant’, was tremendous. But she was determined to keep using her charming voice not just for singing, but to speak for to those who didn’t have one, too.
It was the late ‘60s, after all. The years of the Vietnam war and the pushback against it, of young men being drafted to serve at the front and die. Young men who happened to be Afro-American most of the time, due to their poor socio-economic situation. Eartha held nothing back, not even when she was invited to a White House luncheon by the First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson. Within the walls of the presidential house, Eartha spoke her heart out in a brave anti-war speech. During her outburst, Eartha was furious: for two hours she had endured white ladies’ monologues on the “beautification of America” and, for two hours, despite her raising her hand multiple times, she hadn’t been given the floor until the very end of the event.
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I was raised in an inner city. That’s why I know what I’m saying. You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many issues on the back of the people of America right now, and above all its mothers. Cause they feel like they’re raising their kids to see them killed, and I know what I’m saying. Mrs. Johnson, you are a mother too… We’re raising our kids to send them off to war.
Her speech was so passionate that the First Lady burst into tears. And that would cost Eartha a lot. In no time – literally a few days – upon request of the President, the CIA completed a dossier on Eartha. Her career got destroyed by the very hand of her country’s Government. For years, Eartha could only perform in Europe. Only in 1978 was she accepted back on Broadway’s stage and Hollywood’s sets, and invited to the White House once more – this time by President Carter.
A free, independent woman who belonged to no-one but herself. An icon we are still talking about, a revolutionary woman who lived her life free of compromise. Not just a fierce fighter from the inner cities, but sex symbol too, in an era when it was considered immoral and crude; a woman of color, rejected even by her community, outspokenly against war and supporting egalitarian marriage. In the darkest hours of the AIDS epidemic, the LGBTQI clubs reacted blasting Eartha’s single “Cha-cha Heels”. Boys and girls danced to the cat woman’s roar to forget for a moment about the heartbreaking developments outside the neon ballrooms.
This was Eartha’s strength: she could turn reality into something alluring and unreachable. She did it for the audience, but mostly for herself: the scared, little orphan Eartha Mae Keith transformed into the shining star Eartha Kitt. To say it in her words:
“Eartha Mae is very shy. She’s scared to be seen, scared of rejection and even afraid of affection. Relationships can be rather uncomfortable for her. But, as Eartha Kitt, it’s fine.”