Eartha Kitt, Living Her 9 Lives to the Fullest
She slithers across the stage at the Cafe Carlyle, catlike, 72 years old, with the muscles of an adolescent boy — Eartha Kitt, whom Orson Welles called ”the most exciting woman in the world” and the C.I.A. reportedly called ”a sadistic sex nymphomaniac” after she stood up at a White House luncheon and criticized the war in Vietnam.
Her tight velvet dress is slit to the thigh, fixed with a glittering brooch, as she sings her own rendition of ”I’m Still Here”: ”I lived through Shirley Temple. Now I’m here. I remember Lyndon Johnson. Gee, that was fun. . . .” She purrs, growls, does a belly dance to ”Uska Dara,” pours Champagne down a waiter’s throat, delivering a patter of double-entendres as she goes.
Ms. Kitt has been a fixture on the music scene since the early 1950’s, known for her sultry voice, her persona as a golddigger who renders men into helpless little boys with her sexual power. The New York Times critic Stephen Holden called Ms. Kitt the original ”material girl.”
She has performed on Broadway and in Las Vegas and played Catwoman in the ”Batman” television series. She has appeared in films ranging from ”New Faces,” based on the Broadway revue that made her a star, and ”St. Louis Blues” to, more recently, ”Boomerang,” with Eddie Murphy, and ”Harriet the Spy,” from the popular children’s book.
During the late 60’s and early 70’s, her career went into a decline as tastes in music changed and because, she says, of her opposition to the war in Vietnam.
But now she is back in full force, appearing at the Carlyle till March 13 and as a voice in New York City taxicabs admonishing passengers to buckle their seat belts.
In the past, with the smoldering anger of her performance, her voice straining in the back of her throat, Ms. Kitt has sometimes degenerated into self-parody. ”’If you look back,” said her daughter, Kitt Shapiro, her voice ”almost sounded like a caricature. Now I think it’s very real. It represents life.”
Indeed, there are many who think that Ms. Kitt has finally come into her own. The voice has mellowed, become softer around the edges, rather like vintage wine. And in an age of mass entertainment on huge screens and in giant stadiums, people are drawn to her cabaret act for her ability to create an intimacy with her audience. It is an act, Mr. Holden said, ”worthy of comparison with Marlene Dietrich in her prime.”
A few days after the Carlyle performance, you wouldn’t have known it was Eartha Kitt in the hotel’s restaurant, dressed in black sweatshirt and sunglasses and without makeup and wig. But even offstage, she preserves the shtick, conducting herself with hauteur, referring to herself sometimes in the third person.
”There is beluga always in the fridge, Champagne,” Ms. Kitt said, ”even though I don’t have a man.” But she would like a man, she said, ”just as somebody who would escort me around town.”
True to her image, Ms. Kitt says she sleeps on a bed covered with lion skins. She would like to fill the room with them. ”When I get out of bed I am usually nude,” Ms. Kitt said. ”I look at myself every morning to see if there are bulges, so you don’t let it go past, say, five pounds.” The solution is exercise. She can lift 50-pound weights, she said, and wants to make an exercise video for older women that is aimed at preventing osteoporosis and that uses the principles of Radu, her trainer.
She has also learned to preserve her voice, to ”throw” it from the larynx, as she puts it. She is an opera lover, she said, and draws inspiration from Maria Callas. Ms. Kitt is also quite a reader, she said, having read through the Book of Knowledge and ”Goethe, Marlowe, Shakespeare.”
”Plato was a great influence on my mind because he teaches you to think,” Ms. Kitt said, with a haughty gaze. There is an anger in her presence as well as in her performance, a calculated tension.
”Whatever man’s down front is hugely intimidated,” said Daryl Waters, her longtime accompanist and music director. ”Now and then she gets someone who decides to get up and dance with her, or catch her because they think she’s going to fall. She always has a line or a look ready. Usually it’s ‘Where’s your father?’ ”
The other night at the Carlyle, Ms. Kitt said, ”I was doing my belly dance” when suddenly a woman in the audience offered her husband for the night. ”I don’t think you can afford me,” Ms. Kitt responded coolly.
Still, despite her intimidating stage presence, Ms. Kitt says she is ”scared to death.” ”Every time I walk out there I think I’m going to be rejected again.” Indeed, rejection is a constant refrain in her conversation.
She has laid out the lineaments of her life in three autobiographies. The most recent, ”I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten” in 1989, sometimes reads like Dickens: an illegitimate child, an unknown father — a white man, she believes, who may have been the son of the owner of the South Carolina plantation where her family lived.
Ms. Kitt said she was rejected by her darker-skinned family and given the name ”yella gal.” Her mother abandoned her because her new stepfather said her skin was too light. The family that took her in abused her, she said, and she went to work in the cotton fields. When she was about 8, an aunt sent for her to live in Harlem. The aunt told her she was her real mother but treated her unfairly too, Ms. Kitt said.
Her looks often worked against her, Ms. Kitt said. In 1958, when she starred in ”Anna Lucasta” with Sammy Davis Jr., ”2,500 cinemas would not take this film because they thought I wasn’t black enough to be making love to a black man on the screen,” she said.
When she was a teen-ager, Ms. Kitt won a scholarship to the Katherine Dunham dance troupe, the leading black modern-dance company. On a trip to Paris, she was ”discovered” and began singing in cabarets. In Paris, she knew James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Jean-Paul Sartre. ”He was very quiet,” she said of Sartre. ”But he seemingly remembered everything and went home and wrote about it.” She also met Orson Welles, who cast her as Helen of Troy in his theatrical production of ”Dr. Faust.”
Returning to the United States in the early 50’s with a vaguely French accent, Ms. Kitt had exotic appeal, a sophistication that made her acceptable to mainstream whites. She became a ”crossover” figure, like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, also light-skinned. Ms. Kitt said that she, Ms. Horne and Ms. Dandridge were the ”the three most beautiful women in town.”
Ms. Kitt appeared on Broadway in ”New Faces of 1952.” And she went on to record ”C’est Si Bon,” ”I Want to Be Evil,” ”Uska Dara” and ”Santa Baby,” songs that were to become her signatures. She said she received a Tony nomination for a dramatic role on Broadway in ”Mrs. Patterson” in 1954.
Ms. Kitt also had relationships with wealthy men, who sent flowers and boxes from Tiffany. One was with the playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, who ”thought I was too young,” she said. ”I never had an affair with him.” Among her other boyfriends, she said, were Charles Revson, John Barry Ryan 3d and Arthur Loew Jr. ”I wished he was the father of my child,” Ms. Kitt said of Mr. Loew. Often, she said, it was the men’s mothers who broke up the relationships.
Ms. Kitt has been married once, to a man named Bill McDonald, and they had one child before their divorce. Ms. Kitt has two grandchildren, Jason, 8, and Rachel, 3.
In 1968, Ms. Kitt was invited to the White House by Lady Bird Johnson. ”You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed,” she said to Mrs. Johnson. ”No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.”
The singer’s outspokenness nearly ended her career in the United States, she said. Ms. Kitt said she learned from a reporter that the Central Intelligence Agency had drafted a damaging report on her. Contracts were canceled. She went abroad, working mostly in Europe.
Her reputation was revived somewhat in the mid-70’s after President Jimmy Carter invited her to a White House gathering, and she appeared in a concert at Carnegie Hall. Then in 1978 she won a Tony nomination for her role in ”Timbuktu!”
More recently, in 1996, her first American recording in nearly 20 years, ”Back in the Business,” won a Grammy nomination.
For most of her life, Ms. Kitt has not known her exact age. Last year, she challenged students at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., to find her birth certificate, and they did. She had been celebrating her birthday on a random date, Jan. 26, and assumed she was in her 60’s. But the certificate said she was born on Jan. 17, 1927.
Looking to the future, Ms. Kitt said she wanted to do more concerts and legitimate theater. ”I’m tired of traveling,” she said. Maybe she should pair up with one of the new female rappers, someone suggested, to become more of a presence for younger audiences. Ms. Kitt looked down her nose. ”I’ve been doing rap since the beginning of time,” she said. And you wouldn’t want to contradict her.