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Eartha Kitt: singer, actor and activist

Known for her distinctive singing style and voice, Eartha Kitt was active in social causes in the 1950s and 1960s

Marijke Everts (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Eartha Kitt was an American singer, actress, activist and dancer known for her distinctive singing style and voice. Her recordings of the songs C'est si bon and Santa Baby reached the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100.

Earth Kitt was born on 17 January 1927 on a cotton plantation near North, a small town in South Carolina. Her mother was of Cherokee and African descent. Though she never knew her father, it was said that he was the son of the owner of the farm she had been born on and was conceived by rape.

Her mother went to live with a man who refused to accept Kitt because of her pale complexion, so she was sent to a relative who abused her. After the death of her mother, she was sent to live in New York with another relative named Mamie Kitt, who might have actually been her biological mother. There, she attended the Metropolitan Vocational High School.

In 1943, she began her career aged 16, as a member of the Katherine Dunham Company, which was named after its founder, who was a dancer and choreographer.

Kitt stayed with the company for five years. With them, she toured the United States, Mexico, South America and Europe. When the company returned to the United States, Eartha decided to stay in Paris, where she became a sensational nightclub singer.

In 1950 she made her acting debut as Helen of Troy in Orsen Welles's adaptation of Faust called Times Run. Her songs C'est Si Bon, Santa Baby, I Want to Be Evil and her appearance in the Broadway revue of Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1952 made her a star.

She continued to be successful with theatre productions such as Mrs. Paterson, Shinbone Alley, and television appearances, especially for her role as Catwoman in the 1960 series of Batman.

Throughout her career she would continue to appear on Broadway musicals, television and release more songs that would hit the charts. She won an Annie award for her voice as Yzma in the animated film The Emperor's New Groove and continued on for its sequels Kron's New Groove and The Emperor's New School for which she won two Emmy Awards.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Kitt was active in social causes.

She established Kittsville Youth Foundation, a non profit organisation for underprivileged youth. She also supported 'Rebels with a Cause', a group of youth who establish recreational areas and clean up streets to keep out of trouble. She was also a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

She became a vocal supporter of LGBT rights and supported publicly same-sex marriage which she concidered a civil right.

'I support [gay marriage] 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 thing, isn't it?'

In 1968, during a formal women's lunch at the White House, the First Lady Lady Bird Johnson asked Kitt about the Vietnam War. Kitt replied: 'You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.'

She further remarked during a question and answer session:

'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 Boulevard 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.'

This caused the First Lady to burst into tears and from there on her career in the United States came to an end. She was branded a ‘sadistic nymphomaniac’ by the CIA, who collected information and comments about her sex life and family history, which got published in the New York Times.

Following this incident, she focused on performances in Europe and Asia.

Eartha Kitt died of colon cancer on Christmas day of 2008, three weeks before her 82nd birthday. Her daughter who was by her side, described her as dying the same way she lived.

'...when she left, she left the world with a bang, she left it how she lived it. She screamed her way out of here, literally. I truly believe her survival instincts were so part of her DNA that she was not going to go quietly or willingly.'

Singer Actors United States Black history