Yesterday & Today
A Force of Nature
Known for the Christmas classic Santa Baby and her role as Catwoman in the 1960s TV series Batman, Eartha Kitt wowed audiences with her dancing, singing and acting. Her 2006 colorectal cancer diagnosis shocked those who knew her.
By Sharlene George
Eartha Kitt may be best remembered for her role as the sensual Catwoman on the 1960s Batman TV series, but well before then she had proved to be a versatile singer, dancer and actress who built an international following. Her Christmas hit Santa Baby is still played every holiday season. She also dazzled audiences with an ability to sing in seven languages and evocatively perform songs such as I Want to be Evil and C’est Si Bon.
The 80-year-old entertainer was still performing in 2006 when she was diagnosed with stage III colorectal cancer—news that stunned her family and friends, who knew her as a physically fit, larger-than-life woman devoted to a healthy lifestyle.
Eartha Kitt | Photo © Michael Ochs Archives
“She lived a very organic life,” says her daughter, Kitt Shapiro, recalling that her childhood home in Beverly Hills, California, had a vegetable garden and chickens to provide eggs. “I grew up with my hands in the dirt learning about nature up close and personal,” Shapiro says. “It was an interesting upbringing with a woman who was internationally famous, yet completely an earthy person.”
A Lonely Childhood
Long before Eartha was honored in 1960 with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, she was a neglected and abused orphan in rural South Carolina. Born Jan. 17, 1927, in the town of North, 30 miles south of Columbia, Eartha Mae Keith was the daughter of a biracial black and Cherokee woman and a white man whose identity she never learned. When Eartha was very young (by some accounts just 3 or 4), her mother left her with relatives who never accepted the child’s mixed-race roots.
“She was terribly abused in the South due to her light-colored skin and [she was] called ‘yella gal,’ which was not a compliment,” her daughter says. “She really didn’t feel that she fit in.”
When Eartha was 8 years old, her aunt in New York City sent for her, but she continued to be abused. Teachers who suspected she was being mistreated by her aunt helped Eartha overcome her shyness, and she was able to master reading and writing. One day, a supportive teacher gave her a dime to pay for public transportation so she could audition at the local high school for performing arts. She was accepted immediately. Another teacher gave her a theater ticket to see the play Cyrano de Bergerac. “That’s the feeling I wanted: the feeling of an audience loving you and telling you they love you,” she wrote in her autobiography I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten.
By the time she was 16, Eartha had run away from home several times, living with anyone who would take her in. A chance meeting on the street with a dancer from the Katherine Dunham Dance Company led to an audition with the African-American dance troupe. The teenager’s boldness on and off the dance floor earned her a scholarship and, later, a Broadway role in the musical Blue Holiday in 1945. She made her film debut in the 1948 feature Casbah.