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Black History Month:Entertainer Eartha Kitt

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Eartha Kitt was an entertainer who fit the by now familiar pattern of those who have been profiled in this series. She was an African-American celebrity who was born in South Carolina but made her fame and career elsewhere.

Kitt was born Eartha Mae Keith in North, SC on January 17, 1927. The illegitimate daughter of a black Cherokee sharecropper mother and a white man of whom she knew little, she was uncertain of her birthday until the mid-1990s, according to the New York Times, when she challenged students at Columbia’s Benedict College to find her birth certificate. They did.

Kitt was an entertainer who did it all. She was a recording artist, a movie star and appeared on television. Her most notable TV role was as Catwoman on the 1960s series, “Batman.” As a singer, she is perhaps best known for that perennial holiday favorite, “Santa Baby”. While her heyday as a singer was in the pre-rock –and-roll era of the early 1950s, she was, according to the Times, “the template for other singers with pillow-talky voices like Diana Ross (who patterned her Supremes sound and look after Ms Kitt), Janet Jackson and Madonna (who recorded a cover version of “Santa Baby” in 1987)”

Kitt’s career hit a pothole in 1968 when she was invited to a White House luncheon by Lady Bird Johnson. She was asked about the Vietnam War and replied, “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” The remark reportedly, according to the Times, “caused Mrs. Johnson to burst into tears.”

After this incident, Kitt’s domestic bookings dried up but she spent the next decade in Europe. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter invited her back to the White House and her stateside career resumed. That same year, she won a Tony award for her role in “Timbuktu!” An all-black version of “Kismet”

Kitt stayed active until shortly before her death from colon cancer in 2008. After her diagnosis in 2006, she reopened the renovated Café Carlyle in New York City in 2007. She died at her home in Connecticut in December, 2008.

She has not been forgotten in South Carolina. There is a bill pending in the South Carolina Legislature to make January 17th, her birthday, “Eartha Kitt Day” in South Carolina.

Primary source: The New York Times

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