Eartha Kitt, self-described “sex kitten” and singer of the yuletide classic “Santa Baby” died this week on Christmas Day. Kendall and I had one memorable encounter with Kitt last year at LAX. We were waiting for my sister and her family to arrive from Chicago on an American Airlines flight. In the terminal, we were standing next to a limo driver holding a sign that said “Kitt.” I wondered if he could possibly be waiting for the star who I was first was introduced to as a child on the TV show “Batman.” Kitt was the controversial replacement for Julie Newmar’s Catwoman character, and while my heart always belonged to Julie, I had to admit that the feline Kitt was a sexy-as-hell, delightfully evil villain—one of the first black women on television who was allowed to exude such sex appeal in the 1960s.
Suddenly, descending down the airport escalator, we saw a breathtaking vision of old school glamour: gorgeous Eartha Kitt, already 80, decked out in a glittery turban and false eyelashes, and holding a floor-length mink coat. My family members were right behind her, but we ignored them completely since our eyes were riveted to the incandescent Star. As she walked toward us, the driver stuck out his hand to introduce himself. “How do you do, Miss Kitt,” he said politely. Without missing a beat or even glancing in his direction, Eartha dropped her heavy mink coat onto the driver’s outstretched hand and continued walking, looking like a queen who could not be bothered to make eye contact with her subjects. Wow.
Let’s take a look at one of Kitt’s trademark numbers, “ I Want to Be Evil.” She loved playing the mischievous, sexy vixen, and though she’s not the best lip-syncher in the world, this 1962 clip shows Eartha at her sultry best:
To listen to Eartha Kitt’s unique speaking voice and to hear her strangely accented singing, an uninitiated fan might think she hailed from the West Indies or perhaps some exotic European principality. But Eartha Kitt was a product of the American Deep South, born in the tiny town of North, South Carolina, in 1927. Her mother was a poor African-American woman and her father was the white son of a plantation owner. When Kitt’s mother later married another white man, he wanted nothing to do with his wife’s mixed-race child, so Eartha was shipped off to poor relations in Harlem.
Kitt’s difficult early life in the ghettos of New York and then in London and Paris are well documented in her obituaries, as is her early rise to fame—as a dancer in Katherine Dunham’s company, playing opposite Orson Welles in a European production of “Dr. Faustas,” and finally her breakthrough role on Broadway in “New Faces of 1952.” She was nominated for a Tony Award for her portrayal of a 15-year-old girl living in the ghetto in "Mrs. Patterson," starred in films opposite Nat King Cole and Sidney Poitier, and became world-famous for her sexy nightclub performances. There’s much to say about Kitt’s amazing career, but instead I want to focus on a pivotal episode in her life that I vividly remember from childhood: when Eartha Kitt went to the White House in 1968 and was condemned for making First Lady Lady Bird Johnson cry.
In January 1968, Kitt was invited to a luncheon the First Lady was giving that featured a discussion on crime and juvenile delinquency. Always known for speaking her mind, Kitt caused a sensation when she challenged Mrs. Johnson about the effects of the war on young people in America. As the New York Times reported:
Singer Eartha Kitt stunned fellow guests at a White House luncheon and left Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson in tears Thursday when she declared angrily that the Vietnam War was causing American youth to rebel in the cities.
About 50 white and Negro women invited to the White House to discuss President Johnson’s proposals to combat crime in the streets sat at their tables in embarrassed silence as Miss Kitt delivered an emotional tirade against the war.
“You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed,” she told her fellow guests. “They rebel in the street. They will take pot…and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”
Mrs. Johnson rose afterward and looked directly at the singer, who leaned against a podium in the yellow-walled family dining room. “Because there is a war on—and I pray that there will be a just and honest peace—that still doesn’t give us a free ticket not to try to work for better things such as against crime in the streets, better education, and better health for our people,” Mrs. Johnson said, her voice trembling and tears welling in her eyes.
The President had dropped in on the luncheon briefly, and answered a pointed question from Miss Kitt, but left before her outburst.
Miss Kitt, her eyes flashing in defiance while she puffed on a cigarette and jabbed a finger at her startled audience, said American youth are “angry because their parents are angry…because there is a war going on that they don’t understand.” She told Mrs. Johnson that youngsters feel alienated because “they can’t get to you and they can’t get to the President, and so they rebel in the streets.”
Many in the crowd sat in stunned silence and then cheered the wife of the governor of New Jersey who rose next to defend the war. Kitt probably had no idea that a media frenzy would erupt over her words and that her career would be severely affected. To her credit, the First Lady never accused Kitt of doing anything wrong. Realizing that she may have offended people, Eartha tried to explain herself toward the end of the luncheon.
Miss Kitt rose during a question-and-answer period afterward and apologized for speaking up if she had offended the President and his wife. But, she said, turning to the other well-dressed guests. “I have to say what is in my heart.” She said she had not walked the streets of ghettos as a crusader as some of the other guests had, but “I have lived in the gutters.”
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Johnson replied. “I cannot understand the things that you do. I have not lived with the background that you have. I cannot speak as passionately or as well as you. But I think we have made advances in these things and we will do more.”
Still, the irrepressible Kitt couldn’t stop herself. She continued:
“We have to realize where the truth really is,” she said, pointing her finger at the guests who sat transfixed. “The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. We don’t have what we have on Sunset Blvd. For no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons—and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson—we raise children and send them to war.”
She said that today’s youth feels there is no reason to be a “good guy.” He would rather go to jail as a “bad guy” and avoid the draft, she said. “They feel that if they have any life, it’s best to live because they may not be here tomorrow.”
Was anybody ever that honest to a President or First Lady? The reporters couldn’t get out of that room fast enough to file their stories, some of them in support of Eartha’s right to speak up, but many highly critical. Editorials condemning the singer appeared around the country, as well as many angry letters. Everyone got into the act, from actress Martha Raye and former child star Shirley Temple Black, who criticized Eartha, to writer Gore Vidal who praised her. President Johnson’s pastor felt it his duty to apologize for Miss Kitt in a publicized telegram sent to the President the next day:
“I commend you for all the work you have been doing to urge more justice and opportunity, especially for Negroes, and because all the Americans are in a sense a family, I apologize for any member of that family including Negroes who are ill-mannered, stupid, and arrogant.”
Shocked by the negative response to her comments, Kitt was accosted at the airport when she returned to Los Angeles.
Arriving from Washington, Miss Kitt explained that she had said “only what was in my heart and head. People thought I was rude, but there’s nothing rude about telling the truth. All those very nice people kept saying very nice things about putting flowers in Harlem and making bigger street lights to keep the cities safe,” she said. “I thought they were avoiding talking about the reasons we have problems with crime and problems with our children.”
Letters sent to the New York Times about the matter ran the gamut. Many took Kitt to task:
Once again bad taste has been flaunted in the guise of “Freedom.” Eartha Kitt’s “performance” at the White House was unforgiveable. The legitimate cause of civil rights and the image of our Negro population is damaged by irresponsible acts like this. Why must the Negro be subjected to and exploited by Communists and publicity-seeking egotists who will espouse any current cause without knowledge or research or soul-searching. Eartha Kitt could not afford to buy the front-page publicity that her affrontery reaped.
Eartha Kitt said she spoke for millions when she behaved in a rude and stupid manner towards Mrs. Johnson. She did not speak for anyone except hate-filled gutless fools. She did not speak for my son in the army; for my daughter who is working hard so her husband can finish college; for me, or my husband or our three younger children. We were all shocked at her unnecessary behavior. She had a tough childhood…so did I and I’m not crying…that meeting wasn’t for her to air her crude adjectives and gripes of life.
But others supported the star:
Three cheers for Eartha Kitt! In a few words she expressed what is in my heart, and Im sure many other mothers’. Hers must have been the first honest words the White House walls have heard in a long time—words that were not first edited, programmed, pre-digested, and homogenized before the President heard them. And fie on those who feel they must apologize for her. No apologies necessary.
As well as this articulate response from a doctor in Philadelphia:
Eartha Kitt is to be commended for her courageous direct speaking to Mrs. Lyndon Johnson. The Vietnam War is alienating our youth—whether in the streets or on the college campuses. Our young people see our society expending the major portion of its economic resources and many thousands of lives (their lives) to achieve, by morally dubious means, questionable political ends. The Vietnam war is preventing desperately needed efforts to solve our grave domestic problems that include the needs for improved education, better housing, urban renewal, more jobs for the underprivileged—problems which lie at the root of racial tensions.
The Johnson Administration needs to know that there are many, many people in this country who understand this, who are gravely concerned, and who are—yes—angry because they feel utterly frustrated in their attempts to transmit their concern to their President and to the Congress For this reason I applaud Miss Kitt’s plain speaking.
The real issue about this incident is not whether Miss Kitt was discourteous or unpatriotic or publicity-seeking; it is whether she was speaking the truth. I believe that she was.
As the furor deepened, Kitt got more defensive about her actions:
“People have the feeling that I yelled and was impolite; that’s not true at all. I raised my hand and Mrs. Johnson asked me my opinion. I said, as unemotionally as possible under the circumstances, that we had been hiding our heads in the sand, that we hadn’t got to the core of the problem of juvenile delinquency. Reality was being overlooked. As a citizen of my country—thank heavens there is a country left that has the guts to let its people say what they thing—as an actress, a Negro, whoever, I am entitled to my opinion, particularly when it is asked of me.”
Following the incident, nervous nightclub owners and producers cancelled Kitt’s contracts and, according to the New York Times, “recoiled at the mention of her name.” Eartha was not contrite. “For years I went along with the idea that entertainers should not get involved with politics. Today, I realize that because of our contact with the public, we have to speak out, to make those who are responsible more aware of what is happening where they perhaps cannot see. Particularly someone like myself, who has lived the life of poverty.”
Kitt began a lengthy tour of Europe but eventually was able to get gigs in the United States. Although the “activist” label she never sought stayed with her, she returned to entertaining with her ultra-sexy stage persona. It wasn’t until 1975 that she learned, via a front-page story in the New York Times, how she had been closely watched by the CIA:
The Central Intelligence Agency compiled a dossier of secondhand gossip about entertainer Eartha Kitt’s social life at the request of the Secret Service in 1968 but produced no evidence of foreign intelligence connections. The CIA’s report was prompted by Miss Kitt’s criticism of the Vietnam war to Lady Bird Johnson during a White House luncheon on January 18, 1968.
Miss Kitt was depicted in the report as having a “very nasty disposition” and as being a “spoiled child, very crude, and having a vile tongue.” Miss Kitt, who is black, was said in the report not to associate with other black persons and to have “bragged” that she had “very little Negro blood.”
The CIA document noted that Miss Kitt signed an advertisement in support of the late Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights drive in the South, and then observed that “a number of persons identified in the past with the Communist Party” had also endorsed the ad.
Eartha was horrified by the allegations which included charges from the CIA that she was a “sadistic nymphomaniac.” She spoke out:
This is too much. This is more than I can or will take. I am determined to do my part in stopping the gradual erosion of American freedom. If this is not done, the day when the enemies of freedom—be they Communist, Fascist, or what have you—walk right in and take over our country will come sooner than most of us are inclined to think.
As for reports of the CIA’s invasion of my right to privacy, I am insulted, disappointed, and annoyed, but I don’t find it particularly surprising. This is only one of a number of hardships that I have had to endure since making those remarks in 1968.
Following my little talk at the White House, most of my nightclub and hotel engagements in this country were canceled—even though contracts had been entered into. That I should be singled out appears, at first glance, to be puzzling. Scores of Hollywood, television, and music personalities, both American and foreign-born, have been far more critical of America’s foreign and domestic policies than I have. The difference, of course, is that I am not Barbara Howar or Jane Fonda or Candice Bergen. I am a black woman.
I have always known that racism was widespread in America; after all, I spent most of my childhood in South Carolina on a cotton plantation and in the streets of Harlem. But it took the aftermath of the 1968 incident to prove to me just how deeply racial prejudice is rooted in the American national character.
Because I am black, I had to be taught a lesson, and put back into my place as a singing, dancing, mindless automaton who saw no evil, did no evil, and most important, publicly spoke no evil.
In my case, the CIA apparently didn’t even have accurate information. For example, the news stories said the agency had learned I did “not associate with other black persons.” That’s nonsense. I have always taken an interest in the black community, even before it became fashionable to do so. I taught dancing at the Harlem YWCA as early as 1952, and have been teaching a dance class in Watts for almost 10 years.
I don’t regret anything that I’ve said or done. I have suffered a lot financially, but I have survived. I only have pity and sympathy for those who tucked their moral tails in between their legs and cuddled up to the Johnson and Nixon administrations’ immoral and unjust policies.
How can you not admire a woman with such guts? She didn’t step foot in the White House again until Jimmy Carter invited her there in 1978. In 2006, she even returned there to light the Christmas tree with George W. Bush.
Kitt’s personal life was never a happy one, at least not in terms of men. She used to sum up her love life in six words: rejected, ejected, dejected, used, accused, abused.. But her brief marriage to William McDonald produced her beloved daughter Kitt, and she was very close to her grandchildren before she died.
There are so many other fascinating details about Eartha Kitt’s life—triumphs and challenges, scandals and tragedies, her unwavering support of Israel and Jewish causes, but I’ll end with a quote from the first of her three autobiographies. This is from her 1956 book called “Thursday’s Child.”
“I think I am an example of what can happen to someone who tries. I am a Negress out of the cotton fields. I had enough ambition within myself to try to create a better world—in spite of the depressions and the suppressions, and I had my share. I hope that I can encourage others to try, and that you don’t have to crush anybody to get there, you don’t have to push through too harshly.”