Eartha Kitt overcame abuse, blacklisting to achieve success

SURVIVAL INSTINCT

September 18, 1990|By Mary Corey

ON this day, the cat-like Eartha Kitt is more tigress than kitten.

She growls about a rehearsal delay -- then sighs, stretches and lights a cigarette. Stagehands deliver her chaise lounge to the wrong spot. Exasperated, she stalks over and adjusts it herself.

"What are we waiting for?" she asks twice, repeating the question more stridently when she gets no response. "Let's not waste time. Let's go!"

And when a nervous amateur, who is performing with her, muffs his line, she waves him away. "That's enough!" she says, pummeling the pillow in the chaise.

Clearly, Ms. Kitt, who participated in Sunday's Lifesongs 1990 AIDS benefit at the Meyerhoff, isn't afraid to show her claws. During a post-rehearsal interview, the 62-year-old has no time for shaking hands or exchanging pleasantries. Instead, she meets an interviewer by standing rigidly in a corner with a cigarette and cup of coffee.

The performer, whose career nose-dived after she expressed anti-Vietnam war sentiments in 1968, has been described as everything from "the most exciting woman in the world" (by Orson Welles) to "a spoiled child." But ask Ms. Kitt for her own assessment and she merely replies: "I wouldn't bother to describe me. I'm Eartha Kitt."

She makes a distinction, however, between Eartha Kitt -- the confident,crowd-pleasing cabaret singer, dancer and actress -- and Eartha Mae, the illegitimate, unloved sharecropper's daughter.

"Eartha is what you see onstage," she says. "Eartha Mae is what you see before you."

What you see is a woman both exotically beautiful and hauntingly sad. The tails of her canary yellow turban scarf trail behind her. Her baggy attire -- the red T-shirt, tennis shoes, cream sweat pants and jacket -- belies the trim dancer's body. It's her face, however, that gives away most: the defiantly raised square jaw, the wrinkled brow, the drawn corners of her mouth that give the impression she's frowning.

Life has given Ms. Kitt much to frown about. She was born in 1928 in the town of North, South Carolina, after her black-Cherokee mother was raped by a white plantation owner's son. Her mother gave her up before she was 5 years old because her stepfather didn't want that "yella gal" around. At a foster home, she experienced sexual abuse and physical deprivation that still make her cringe.

"Even as a child, I found a way to survive," she recalls. "If food was plentiful, then I ate. But if it wasn't, then I ate with the cats and the dogs."

Being selected for the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe at age 16 became her ticket out of childhood misery. In the late 1940s, she left the group during a European tour to join the Paris cabaret circuit. Her passionate and sophisticated delivery made her an overnight sensation. In 1952, she returned to the United States, wowing audiences on Broadway, TV and albums as well as in nightclubs and movies. Many remember her best for her stint as the Catwoman on the "Batman" TV show.

All that changed in 1968. Along with several other women, Ms. Kitt had been invited by Lady Bird Johnson to discuss juvenile crime during a White House luncheon. "I told her our greatest problem was our involvement in Vietnam," Ms. Kitt recalls. Her remarks erupted into a scandal. The CIA began a dossier on her. She was blacklisted, she says, and the government's actions cost her "12 years of my career life and ... millions of dollars."

Although she continued touring other countries, it wasn't until 1978 that a production of "Timbuktu" brought her back to Broadway and to a White House reception by then-President Jimmy Carter.

Time, however, hadn't healed the wound. "You never recover," she says. "How can you make peace with something that kept you from working?"

But the incident has done little to curb Ms. Kitt's candor. "It cost me a lot to survive," she says. "But I did, and I still say I love my country. ... That's why I say, 'What are we doing in the Gulf when we supposedly have so much oil. Why are we fighting over oil more than over people to be eating properly? ... Who is the enemy of this country? Politicians and Madison Avenue.'"

She pauses a moment, realizing she's inadvertently climbed onto her soap box. "There I go again. Are they going to throw me out again?" she says with a deep, rich laugh. Somewhere between recounting her youth and ranting about the government, Ms. Kitt has relaxed. No longer leaning against the wall, she sits, looks you in the eye and speaks softly.

"Sometimes I think I should have been more aggressive on my own behalf," she says. "I fight for other people better than I fight for myself. Maybe it's because I feel guilty that I have acquired a decent living and I feel I'm not entitled to it. ... Maybe subconsciously I feel I was meant to work hard for a living."

Under the heading of regrets she puts only one: Hiring stupid agents.

As for love, her painful divorce from real-estate dealer William McDonald in 1964 has left her reluctant to try again. "I don't think I trust as much as I used to," she says.

The four-year union did produce "the great pleasure" of her life -- a daughter, Kitt Shapiro. In November, Ms. Shapiro, who married three years ago, is expecting her first child. "It's very exciting," says Ms. Kitt. "I'm building my own family that I never had."

When she's not performing, Ms. Kitt spends time on her 77-acre farm in Connecticut. She grows her own fruits and vegetables, washes her own windows and plays the lottery. "I keep buying lottery tickets, but I know I'll never win," she says. She's also written three memoirs and is currently working on another, "The Art of Being Ordinary," as well as a book about her late friend, James Dean.

"I think life has been tremendous fun for me, even though I think about what I've come out of," she says. "It's very happifying, if that's a word. I can look at myself in the mirror and say, 'You might have had a hard time, but you made it.'"

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