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So much more than Catwoman: Eartha Kitt’s favorite role was mother

So much more than Catwoman: Eartha Kitt’s favorite role was mother

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"Eartha& Kitt: A Daughter's Love Story in Black& White" by Kitt Shapiro and Patricia Weiss Levy.

"Eartha & Kitt: A Daughter's Love Story in Black & White" by Kitt Shapiro and Patricia Weiss Levy. (Simon & Schuster/TNS)

“Eartha & Kitt: A Daughter’s Love Story in Black & White” by Kitt Shapiro and Patricia Weiss Levy; Pegasus Books (288 pages, $26.95)


Eartha Kitt may not have had nine lives, but she came close.

First, she was a dirt-poor girl from North, South Carolina. Then she became a nightclub sensation, a muse to Orson Welles, a slinky recording artist, TV’s Catwoman, a political firebrand, and, finally, a Disney star.

The role she truly prized, though, was as one girl’s mother.

That’s the real revelation in “Eartha & Kitt: A Daughter’s Love Story in Black & White” by Kitt Shapiro and Patricia Weiss Levy.

There are other insights here, including how the glamour queen never forgot her roots. She grew vegetables and kept chickens — in Beverly Hills. She took Tupperware to the exclusive Le Cirque, just in case there were leftovers.

“You didn’t grow up without food,” she told Shapiro, her embarrassed daughter. “You don’t know what it’s like to feel hungry.”

This isn’t one of those “Mommie Dearest” exposes. Instead, it’s a tribute to a mother’s love.

Eartha Kitt had none growing up. Born Eartha Mae Keith in 1927 to a 16-year-old, she never learned who her father was, although people figured he was white.

“My mother always assumed that she herself had probably been conceived by rape,” Shapiro writes. “Some people say he was a son of the owner of the plantation on which she was born.”

Her mother abandoned Kitt when she was 5, leaving her with strangers. They put her to work picking cotton and cleaning out the fireplace.

“Like Cinderella?” her daughter asked.

“I wished I’d had it as good as Cinderella,” Kitt would say. “That family treated their animals better than they treated me.”

Eventually, Kitt ended up with an aunt in Harlem. She was abusive, too, but Kitt found refuge performing at church. And she grew determined to not only survive but thrive.

“I have taken all the manure that has been thrown at me,” she bragged once, “and used it as fertilizer.”

Kitt went to Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, then won a place with Katharine Dunham’s dance company, performing with them around the world. Kitt dreamed of a stage to herself. Offered a job in a Paris nightclub, she quit the troupe.

French audiences embraced the elfin entertainer with a sexy purr. Soon, Kitt booked other engagements in Istanbul and London. In 1950, Orson Welles cast her as Helen of Troy in his stage production of “Doctor Faustus,” calling her “the most exciting woman in the world.”

From there, Kitt went on to gigs in Greenwich Village and her Broadway debut in “New Faces of 1952.” She had hit singles the following year with “Santa Baby” and “C’est si Bon,” which would become staples of her live act. Movies and TV followed.

She was a star, and she was lonely.

Kitt had romances, of course. John Barry Ryan III, a banking heir, was her lover, as were movie mogul Arthur Loew Jr. and cosmetics giant Charles Revson. But interracial romances were still taboo and, in some states, illegal.

Each time, racism pulled the relationship apart. Each time, Kitt struggled to accept it.

“I don’t fall in love easily,” she said later. “But when I do, it takes the kick of a mule to set me straight again.”

Finally, she met an accountant named Bill McDonald. He was also white, but he was single, and his family didn’t disapprove. Kitt married him in 1960. The next year she gave birth to a girl, whom she named Kitt.

People refused to believe the striking child with blond hair and blue eyes could be her daughter. Kitt ignored them. She often tried to ignore race altogether. “I’m not black and I’m not white and I’m not pink, and I’m not green,” she declared. “Eartha Kitt has no color.”

Sometimes, though, she had to speak out.

In 1968, Lady Bird Johnson invited her to a White House event. Kitt was already working with inner-city youth and hoped it might be a productive meeting. Instead, it turned out to be a polite ladies luncheon, with guests “oohing and ahhing over the centerpieces.”

That was bad enough, but when the First Lady gave a speech about “freeing our neighborhoods from hoodlums,” Kitt couldn’t stay quiet.

“The children of America are not rebelling for no reason,” Kitt angrily declared. “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”

The First Lady fought back tears. The next day, Lyndon Johnson ordered the CIA to investigate Kitt. “Come back with something on that woman, I don’t care what it is,” he snapped. They couldn’t find anything, but a blacklist began.

“Within two hours,” Kitt recalled, “I was out of work in America.”

Still, there was nothing to do except what she had always done – keep going. By now, Kitt had divorced McDonald, who had developed a drug problem. She had a child to support.

So, with America closed to her, she made the world her stage. And as she flew around it, she brought her daughter with her. On the road, they explored museums and marketplaces. At home, they worked in their garden and tended to their chickens.

Finally, a decade after the White House incident, doors began to reopen. In 1978, she landed a starring role on Broadway in the musical “Timbuktu!” She garnered a Tony nomination and revived her career. Her daughter pitched in, too, first as her mother’s assistant and, eventually, manager.

There was a lot to manage, too.

Kitt got her first gold record in 1984 with the disco hit “Where Is My Man” and appeared in the 1988 West End production of “Follies,” singing, appropriately enough, “I’m Still Here.” She did the national tours of “The Wizard of Oz” as the Wicked Witch of the West and returned to Broadway for “Nine” and “The Wild Party.” She provided voices to cartoons, including “The Emperor’s New Groove.”

And Kitt continued her activism, raising money for LGBTQ charities and supporting the Kittsville Youth Foundation, an arts-and-dance group she created for L.A. at-risk kids.

She kept going until she couldn’t. In 2008, Kitt was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer. She was forced to cancel her regular engagement at the Cafe Carlyle, then everything else. It shook her.

“The thing that had motivated her and propelled her to keep going for most of her life had been being Eartha Kitt,” her daughter writes. “She loved it. Needed it. Needed to be Eartha Kitt again. But now she was Eartha Mae again. And Eartha Mae was very sick.”

By her final days, she was unable to move, eat, even speak. She could shout, though. In fact, she spent her last moments screaming. She was dying, her daughter writes, and she knew it. But “she wasn’t going to give up without a fight.”

Finally, Kitt passed on Christmas Day, 2008. She was 81.

“She was a force to be reckoned with in life,” Shapiro writes. “And I don’t know what she’s like in the afterlife, but I know she was certainly a force to be reckoned with on her way there.”

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