Sunday Swift: Whether you know her from her singing songs like Santa Baby and Monotonous, or for her various roles in television, film and theatre, the name Eartha Kitt is associated with very specific images – and those images are usually tinged delightfully with camp. She imbued overt and even hyperbolic sexuality, with a slight but athletic figure, usually draped in an evening gown with a slit up to the top of her thigh, smouldering at the camera through irresistibly sultry eyes. Her performances were usually accompanied with cat-like growls and purring rolled r’s, making her the perfect actress to play Catwoman on the classic cult camp favourite TV show 1960s show Batman.
Eartha had no deep links to either family or place. Rejected by both blacks and whites, she spoke often about alienation, saying, “I have always been very sensitive about my color, because everybody called me yellow gal”
Kitt’s story is that of a woman who desperately sought (and rarely received) love, moving from one abusive situation to another. Born on 17 January 1927, Eartha Mae Keith went from picking cotton in South Carolina to Spanish Harlem in New York. She was born into poverty to an unknown father and a mother who would abandon her to abusive relatives. As a teenager she auditioned and earned a spot singing and dancing in the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. By the 1950s, Eartha Mae was travelling Europe as a chanteuse under the name of Eartha Kitt, winning fans over around the world. Kitty got through life with a little luck, a lot of talent and hard work, and even more chutzpah: she was, in every sense of the phrase, a self-made Cinderella. Unlike Marlene Dietrich, who was guided by Josef von Sternberg to create the sharp Dandy identity, Eartha Mae had no mentor in the wings helping her to create this iconic image – Eartha Kitt was entirely her own creation.
One of the most interesting elements about Eartha is that she presents herself as something of a split identity: a private self and a public persona. Catherine Spooner suggests in Fashioning Gothic Bodies that in the 19th century “Often representations of the dandy seem to reproduce a Jekyll-and-Hyde dualism, whereby the public self and monstrous self are inextricably linked.” In contemporary Dandyism, however, this second self is often not monstrous at all, but shown as two opposing personalities. Eartha Mae was a shy, frightened and abandoned ‘urchin child that nobody wanted’; contrastingly, Eartha Kitt was the salty, self-assured woman who offered Mae security, seduced men of any colour, and won the love of fans around the world. This is not unusual in Dandyism: a Dandy is extremely self-aware of the identity she creates.
What is unusual is for a Dandy to reveal this duality. In fact, as a general rule, Dandies are usually not very open about themselves, as it potentially jeopardises the identity so carefully constructed. This is just another rule Kitt broke: she wrote several books about her own life, revealing a ‘real’ self behind the façade. However, as David L. Williams complains in his own biography of Kitty (America’s Mistress) her books were “Contradictory, fanciful, and generally preferred to tell a good story, rather than reveal her true feelings. After reading them I had many more questions than answers.” To be fair, contradiction is inevitable for a woman who didn’t even know her real birthday until she was 71 (she thought it was 26th January, 1926). When the truth is unavailable, fiction is often just as real as fact. Through both fiction and fact, Eartha herself explained this duality in her autobiography, Alone With Me.
The adult I’ve molded is Eartha Kitt: self-reliant, afraid of nothing, even defiant. Ironically I think of Eartha Kitt as practically nothing. True. She is so far removed from nature of Eartha Mae that I can – and do – think of her in the third person. She’s she, not me. She’s a name on a marquee. Eartha Mae psyches herself up to become Eartha Kitt for public appearances; she wears an impenetrable mental armour.
Eartha Mae is a marvel – one to be admired and appreciated for her accomplishments. However, her story belongs to the biographers and cultural historians of the world. My interest is in how Mae created that impenetrable mental armour that protected her from the world: the Dandy, Eartha Kitt. Like a femme fatale, Kitty’s eyes could not only seduce but also burn right through you. New York Time critic Brooks Atkinson quipped, “Eartha Kitt not only looks incendiary but she can make a song burst into flame.”
She had much in common with other Dandies explored in The Chap: like Tallulah Bankhead and Louise Brooks, Kitt’s persona was oversized for such a slight frame. Brooks had a playful silliness, contrasting with Bankhead’s waspishly sharp edges. Marlene Dietrich and Jackie Kennedy’s Dandyism was dependent on cold Sapphic detachment. Kitty had each of these qualities in generous measures, but she also had the Baudelairean French ennui on stage that could rival Jackie’s. The ennui is perfectly summed up in the 1952 song Monotonous, a song about having everything and yet, “Life could not be drearier”. The song and Kitt’s performance is certainly extraordinary, but even more so considering the times. As Williams points out, it is “an extraordinary song to sing at a time when, in the real world, black Americans were engaged in a long struggle for basic human rights, never mind couture and caviar. Again, we wonder, who on earth is this woman? And how can she appear to be so supremely indifferent to the laws and mores of her time?”
Kitt was certainly a woman who lived outside her time – but that doesn’t mean her creator, Eartha Mae, was not affected by her era. Coming from a mixed heritage, Mae had no deep links to either family or place. Feeling rejected by both blacks and whites, she spoke often about alienation, saying, “I have always been very sensitive about my color, because everybody called me ‘yellow gal’.” Despite her work with the Katherine Dunham Company, her support of Civil Rights Movements and other causes to support black youth in the ghettos of New York, there remained a persistent perception that Kitt was ignoring black audiences and culture in order to garner success with white audiences.
In fact, Kitt even had an argument with her friend Sammy Davis Jr., who reportedly felt she was not doing enough to support black audiences. Of course, this didn’t stop white audiences from booing her on stage in London when racial tensions were at a peak in the 1960s, because she’d married a white man. As Eartha explained, “I was caught in between both sides—nobody wanted me.” She belonged to no one and had nowhere to call home.
As Eartha Kitt, she used this otherness and transience to create a space for herself – one where she belonged to everyone and everywhere. She lived and performed in Las Vegas, Paris, London, New York – and she travelled around the world, singing in French, English, Turkish, Spanish, Japanese, Hebrew, and Tagalog. Kitt’s best revenge against the pernicious racism of the era was to demand – and to usually receive – the affections of those who would otherwise enforce the racial segregation Jim Crow Laws. In his biography, Williams argues that Kitt “was a link in an alternative history of black America, one that is not simply concerned with roots and authenticity and ghetto suffering, but with sophistication and vaulting artistic ambition, a tradition that goes back to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, to redefine black America, not simply to reflect it.” Kitt refused to be categorised, saying, I’ve always been multi-cultural myself. I’m not black and I’m not white and I’m not pink and I’m not green. Eartha Kitt has no color, and that is how barriers are broken.’
And break barriers she did: in an era of Jim Crow segregation laws, Kitt not only had affairs with white men, but married one – and had a daughter. Kitt passed away in 2008, but like all Dandies, she left a hell of a legend behind. She bewitched Orson Welles, considered James Dean a sibling, dined with Einstein, and even inspired David Bowie for songs like Thursday’s Child and Love You Till Tuesday. She sang for one of Bankhead’s favourite clubs in Paris (owned by Dietrich’s ex lover). Kitty even brought Ladybird Johnson to tears when she voiced anti-Vietnam War sentiments – subsequently becoming a target for investigation from the CIA and FBI, and even death threats from the public in the process – enduring nearly a ten-year blacklist from working in the USA. She only made a handful of appearances as Catwoman on Batman, but Catwoman was the epitome of everything Kitt became famous for: she was playfully self-aware, had a fantastic sense of humour, was overtly sexual and sexy, exotic, clever, feisty, and a camp diva. So, who was the ‘real’ Eartha Kitt? Eartha’s reply: “The me who happens to be in front of you at the moment, that’s the real me.”