Eartha Kitt had precisely the qualities that make a true gay icon: a history of anguish, abandonment & alienation, mixed with a camp & sexually audacious stage act with the necessary elements are artifice & aggrandizement.
Born on this very day, 86 years ago, into severe poverty in the rural South, Kitt's beginning appeared as if life was stacked against her. Enduring prejudice from blacks & whites due to her mixed heritage skin color, Kitt never knew her father & was abandoned by her mother at an early age in favor of her darker siblings. Raised by another family that barely noticed her, she grew up with low self-esteem, but with the drive to surpass her surroundings & achieve greatness.
Kitt found her way to NYC & became a member of the prestigious Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Her solo spot captured the attention of Orson Welles, who cast her in his Faustus, falling in love with her & proclaiming: "Eartha Kitt is most exciting woman in the world."
Kitt blossomed on Broadway in New Faces of 1952 & in the 1960s she worked as her most famous TV persona- Cat Woman on Batman. She was a recording artist with hits: C'est Si Bon, Santa Baby, Monotonous, I Want to be Evil, & Champagne Tastes. It would be her Gay club hit Where is My Man?, that would be her only certified gold record, and last month the ringtone of Santa Baby went certified gold.
I remember my parents & I fighting at the dinner table in 1968, after Kitt expressed her views on the Vietnam War to Lady Bird Johnson, at a White House luncheon.
Kitt: "You send the best of this country off to be shot & maimed. No wonder the kids rebel & take pot. The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. 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 to die,& I know what it’s like, & you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson…we raise children & send them to war.”
Her remarks brought the First Lady to tears. The public reaction to Kitt's statements was extreme, & the media exploited Ms. Kitt's opinions. For the next decade she was blacklisted in the USA. Her career continued to soar in Europe & Asia, during her exile, until 1976, when Jimmy Carter invited her back to the USA.
Among her life achievements, Kitt earned nominations for 2 Tony Awards, 2 Grammy Awards & won 5 Emmy Awards for her work on the TV series- Emperor's New School.
Kitt was proud of the label-Gay Icon. Kitt: "After my blacklisting, it was the Gay community that welcomed me back with open arms." She publicly supported same-sex marriage, which she believed to be a civil right. Kitt:"I support gay marriage because we're asking for the same thing. If I have a partner & 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?"
Kitt appeared at many GLBT fundraisers & spent a great deal of her time dedicating herself to working with the Gay Men's Health Crisis & other AIDS charities.
Kitt continued to work on stage & screen until the end of her life. In the aughts she returned to Broadway in The Wild Party opposite Mandy Patinkin & Toni Collette, starred as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella at Lincoln Center, & she replaced Chita Rivera in the musical- Nine.
Kitt was a fighter & a force. Describing her own life in 6 words: "rejected, ejected, dejected, used, accused, & abused". Regret was never mentioned. Kitt died from colon cancer on Christmas Day 2008 at her Connecticut home surrounded by her daughter- Kitt & her grandchildren.