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Singer, Actress Eartha Kitt Dies

Musical TheaterBroadway TheaterDanceEartha KittChicago TribuneDeath

Considering that she was abandoned by her mother at age 3, forced to pick cotton by age 6 and kicked out of the house at 16, Eartha Mae Kitt did not appear destined for global stardom.

Yet by her 20s she had willed herself into becoming a singing sensation in Europe -- the next Josephine Baker, proclaimed critics in the late 1940s and early '50s. In quick succession thereafter, Kitt seduced American audiences singing in Broadway and Hollywood musicals in the mid-'50s and purring as Catwoman on TV's " Batman" in the '60s.

Triply blessed with a pliant voice, a palpable charisma and a voracious appetite to succeed, Kitt conquered virtually every medium she took on, earning multiple Tony and Grammy Award nominations. Yet if she made her triumphs look easy, her journey was tumultuous from start and practically to finish.

The singer-actor-dancer-raconteur died Thursday (Dec. 25) at age 81 in Connecticut of colon cancer.

Born of a white father (who immediately disavowed her) and an impoverished black mother who gave her away at age 3, Kitt early on found herself trapped in a biracial identity that caused her anguish.

"I was an urchin and an ugly duckling and an unwanted thing," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1995, recalling her painful childhood in Columbia, S.C., where she was born.

"The blacks didn't want me because I wasn't black enough, and the white people didn't know what I was."So since I wasn't wanted by anyone, I simple took fate as she presented herself to me, and did whatever I could, however I could, the best I could. I had a very strong desire to survive."

She proved it after she was fired from a factory job in New York, where she had ventured as a teenager to learn to sing and dance. At an apparent dead end, she hastily auditioned for a spot at Katherine Dunham's dance school, instantly winning a scholarship and quickly finding herself appearing in 1948 with the company in Paris.

Kitt's cabaret work there had the French anointing her the next black American diva, and Orson Welles featuring her in his Paris stage production of "Faust."

Appearances on Broadway in "New Faces of 1952" and in Hollywood in the spin-off "New Faces" (1954) followed, earning her roles singing with Nat "King" Cole in " St. Louis Blues" (1958) and playing opposite Sammy Davis Jr. in "Anna Lucasta" (1959).At the same time, she scored several offbeat, multilingual hit records, including "C'est Si Bon" (with its French colloquialisms), "Uska Dura" (with its Turkish chant) and a tune that continues to resurface every Christmas season, "Santa Baby."

But it all came to a crashing halt in 1968, when Kitt attended a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson and spoke her mind after being asked about contemporary social woes.

"No wonder the kids rebel and take pot," she told the startled crowd. "Boys I know across the nation feel it doesn't pay to be a good guy. They figure that with a record, they don't have to go off to Vietnam."

The comments made the front pages of newspapers across the country, and Kitt instantly discovered her standing engagements canceled and her phone suddenly silent. The FBI and CIA began investigating her, she learned later, and she spent the next several years working in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Manila.

It took a decade until she was able to relaunch her American career with "Timbuktu," a black version of the musical "Kismet," but she nonetheless spent many of the following years in Europe.

A bigger American comeback, in 1995, won her rave reviews for shows at Cafe Carlyle in New York and at Navy Pier in Chicago, where she clenched her fists and bared her teeth in a roaring medley of "I'm Still Here" and "I Will Survive."

She earned a Grammy nomination for her aptly named 1995 CD "Back in Business"; performed the voice of Yzma in the 2000 Disney animated feature "The Emperor's New Groove"; and replaced Chita Rivera on Broadway in 2003 in a revival of "Nine."

"When I look at my Eartha Kitt scrapbooks today, I think, 'You know, she did a pretty good job of herself,' " said Kitt - who was married in 1960 and had one daughter before divorce - in the Tribune interview.

"She didn't do too badly - for an ugly duckling."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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