Friday, December 26, 2008

Here's to Life: Eartha Kitt, 1927-2008

It was a bit shocking to check the news to discover that Eartha Kitt had died in Connecticut.

Most of us remember her from her stint as Catwoman on the old Batman series or perhaps from her song Santa Baby. I hadn’t paid much attention to Eartha as a performer until a few years ago.

A few days ago I made reference to a good friend, Frank. I did so in reference to a conversation that took place some years ago in San Francisco. Frank is a friend from my university day. And it was Frank who introduced me to Eartha Kitt’s talents.

Frank was a real fan of Eartha’s. And over the years he and Earth became friends. I still remember the Christmas card he sent with a photo of himself and Eartha on the front. And whenever I’d stop by his work office I spent time looking through all the Eartha memorabilia and photos.

Several years ago Frank gave me a copy of one of Eartha’s autobiographies which she had signed for me. Reading it changed my perception of her entirely. I became interested in who she was.

Eartha was of mixed race background and had a tough life as child but she worked her way through it and out of it to become a sought-after performer. What I liked about Eartha was her tenacity and willingness to speak out, even when it might be detrimental to her career.

The most famous incident was when President Johnson invited Kitt to the White House for a panel discussion on the plight of minority youth. Kitt, to the horror of everyone involved, discussed how the draft for the war in Vietnam was devastating to them. This candor was not appreciated by Johnson and the U.S. government began a campaign to harass Kitt. Her phone was bugged, she was investigated by the Secret Service and the FBI. The public criticism was loud as well and Kitt found herself with performances being cancelled. There is nothing as vindictive as a public tricked into a war crusade when someone dares to tell them the truth.

Eartha later said of this incident: "The thing that hurts, that became anger, was when I realized that if you tell the truth -- in a country that says you're entitled to tell the truth -- you get your face slapped and you get put out of work." As a result of the campaign against her Eartha performed almost exclusively overseas for several years. Eartha's comments remind me of something I have said repeatedly: "People will forgive anything -- but the truth."

Kitt was also vocal in supporting marriage equality for gay people: "I support it because we're asking for the same thing. If I have a partner and something happens to me, I want that partner to enjoy the benefits of what we have reaped together. It's a civil-rights things, isn't it?" Kitt, who suffered rejection in her early life because of his mixed-race heritage, identified with gay people, "because we know what it feels like to be rejected."

Later, Kitt was invited to perform in South Africa during the years when many people thought a boycott was a good idea. Kitt, however, refused to boycott the country. Yet, when she got to South Africa, during the apartheid days, she insisted that the audiences at her show be racially integrated. Either one of those positions were enough to alienate a lot of people, both together seemed guaranteed to alienate everyone. But I think she did the right thing in both cases.

After reading her biography, I came to admire her as a person and not just as a performer. Only a few days ago I was asking Frank if she was due to perform in the area and saying I’d like to go to a show with him sometime -- just one would be fine, Frank, on the other hand, tended to be at all of them.

Eartha Kitt was 81 years old. She is survived by her daugher Kitt Shapiro and grandchildren Jason and Rachel.

Update: I just spoke to Frank this morning and got some more information. Eartha was diagnosed with colon cancer two years ago but it was believed that she had beat it. He believes the reappearance of the disease was recent and sudden. He says that only about a week ago Kitt began canceling scheduled performances. He said: "You have to give her credit for knowing how to make an exit; what with Christmas and Santa Baby playing everywhere."

Note: The video is of Eartha performing Here's to Life, a song which she used to close out her performances. Photo: Eartha and Frank, 2005.