Eartha Kitt: Orphan Turned Star

HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 7: Actress Eartha Kitt attends the 2nd Annual TV Land Awards held on March 7, 2004 at The Hollywood Palladium, in Hollywood, California. GETTY

With a voice that's still sultry, legs that still allure, and a presence that commands your instant attention, Eartha Kitt still rules her stage. And at 78-years-old she's still going strong.

"I have to keep testing myself. I'm going to be 79 years old in January," she told an audience at the Newport Jazz Festival.

CBS News' Charles Osgood asked Kitt if, having performed for such a long time now, does she sometimes say, it's same old, same old?

"Oh, my heavens, each one is so different," she said. "I never feel that this is same old, same old because every time I walk out in front of that audience, it's a different interpretation because I'm a different person from the person I was yesterday. The story basically is the same. But there are different innuendos. Even the tones very often are different.

"Because as I have gotten older, Mr. Osgood, I have realized there are tones in my voice that I didn't even know was there when I was much younger. So I am experimenting with myself, constantly."

And to think, she's been in show business since the 1940s, catching our eyes with her sensual feline features, our ears with her sexy cabaret style and our affection with her feisty spirit.

But it wasn't always like that, was it?

"No. I was given away. I was an illegitimate, well, I still am an illegitimate child." She said. "Except for, thank goodness, that the public adopted me. Not the right color. You're a yellow gal. And on top of that not looking like anything they could identify with."

Eartha Mae Kitt grew up poor in the cotton fields of South Carolina.
Her father was white and her mother black and Cherokee.

"Black Cherokee. That's what I'm told, that I'm the illegitimate child of this son of the plantation owner," she added.

Osgood asked her how old she was when her mother left her?

"I must have been about five or six, seven years old."

How did Kitt find out her mother was leaving?

"I heard my mother in the middle of the night. I had been awakened by her crying. She was sobbing. And I looked through the cracks of the wall, and she was on her knees begging this man to take us. And he said, 'No, I don't want that yellow gal in my house because she will disrupt my children.' The next day he and my mother took me to this place, and I just stood there and watched the back of them. And they never came back."

Eartha Mae worked for a family who teased, taunted and abused her. By the age of 9, she says she was nearly destroyed.

It was an aunt in Harlem who eventually took the child in, but Kitt says it was her teachers who opened up a new world for Eartha Mae.

"One of the teachers, Mrs. Banks, gave me a matinee ticket to go to see 'Cyrano de Bergerac.' The affection that the people gave to Jose Ferrer for his performance, I thought, I want to get that kind of love and affection. And when I left the theater, I walked through Central Park longing for somebody to care about me like that.

Soon after, Eartha Kitt found herself before an audience of her own. On a lark, she auditioned for the famed choreographer Katherine Dunham.

"As a joke," she recalled. "I never thought I'd be accepted. Somebody dared me. So I said, Oh, you dare me? And the drums are going pa-toom, ka-ka-koom, cong, cong, cong. And so somebody threw me a rehearsal garment. So I said, sure, I'll do it. What the hell do I know what I was talking about? This is how fate, I think, works."

That day she was offered a scholarship to study at Dunham's school and a ticket to tour the world as a Katherine Dunham dancer. During a stop in Paris, opportunity knocked again when Kitt was lured by the Paris nightclub scene. Overnight she was a hit. After catching one of her shows, Orson Welles called her "the most exciting woman in the world," and asked her to co-star with him as Helen of Troy in his production of "Faust."

Kitt recalled opening night.

"You know, this speech: 'Helen is this the face that launched 1,000 ships. Helen, make me a mortal with a kiss.'

"Crunch, right into my bottom lip. The blood is seeping down my chin, and (Welles) has a hold of me so I can't get away. So for the rest of the act I'm halfway covering my mouth with an apron because I didn't want the audience to know that I had actually been bitten...by Orson Welles.

"And when I ran into him afterwards, and asked, why did you bite me? He said, 'I got excited.'"

Everybody was excited by Eartha Kitt. When she returned to New York, she became a sensation, selling out nightclubs, appearing on Broadway, and starring in films with Nat King Cole and Sidney Poitier.

In 1960 she married William McDonald, a real estate investor. The marriage didn't last, but it gave her something she said she never had: a family. She gave birth to a daughter she named Kitt.

"The one thing I always knew about my mother was that she always loved me," said Kitt Shapiro. "And I give her tremendous credit for being able to, throughout our lives, let me know that she always loved me, and that was always unconditional."

It was pure instinct, said Shapiro, that guided her mother.

"She had accomplished so much on her own with no family and nobody there guide her. There's something there. Her name, Eartha, is her given name, and she is of the earth, and she is so much of the earth. She has that richness, and she's sturdy, she's firm. Her name is perfect for her."

She's also a woman who also spoke her mind.

In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War protests, she attended a White House lunch on juvenile delinquency given by Ladybird Johnson.
Kitt said it did not go as planned.

"And I said one of the main reasons why our young people are being naughty, or whatever words I used, is because our involvement in Vietnam is not honorable. We have no business being there, and they want to know why we're there."

In a television interview back then, she was asked if she had any regrets about that?

"No, I don't have any regrets about it at all." She said at the time. "Why should I be upset by the fact that she was embarrassed? That's her problem."

Osgood asked her how that all went over at the Johnson white house?

"Within two hours I was out of work in America," she said.

Eartha Kitt says she was blacklisted, and for years got by working abroad. Rejection, and the fear of it, says Kitt, has been a bitter source of drive.

"The fear is also what makes me feel I've got to get up and survive. Because I don't want to have anyone be responsible for me or give me away again."

These days, when Eartha Kitt isn't on the road, she can often be found in the garden of her home in Connecticut. She says she finds peace there, and life in general for Eartha Kitt looks good.

Osgood asked her if she has thought about what she's all about?

"I don't know, except to communicate," She answered. "And if I were to say there is a recipe, I don't want to find it because I may ruin the whole darned thing."

She's still sort of making it up as she goes along.

"Every day of my life," she acknowledged with a laugh.
  • Scott Benjamin

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