Singer, actress, sex symbol, activist. Eartha Kitt lead a fascinating existence, marked by defiance and untempered glamour.
There are many fascinating facts about her life, and only some of them are tainted by tragedy. So let’s get the hard stuff out of the way first.
Conceived by rape and born on a cotton plantation in South Carolina, Kitt would spent her entire life searching for the identity of her (white) father, only for it to remain protected by US authorities. At seven years old, she watched her mother die from poisoning – believed by Eartha to be the product of voodoo – while another early guardian abandoned her for being light-skinned, at the behest of her new step-father. Kitt learned her age and date of birth only at 71, after a long legal battle for access to her birth certificate. Perhaps best known for 1953’s sultry and subversive Santa Baby, Kitt would die, somewhat ironically, on Christmas day.
This may sound like a string of bleak injustices and bizarre tragedies, but this hardship only makes Kitt’s brilliance doubly apparent. From an oppressive childhood in the Deep South, where her mixed heritage (white absent father, African/Cherokee mother) meant ostracisation from both the black and white communities, emerged this international superstar, once described by Orson Welles as “the most exciting woman in the world”. She embraced her outsider status by learning to sing in seven languages, breaking down barriers of race and identity.
As well as her high octane glamour and sexuality, the singer is remembered for her activism and uncompromised political stance. Having worked tirelessly in support of underprivileged youths in the 1960s, she saw the Vietnam War as having a direct link to poverty and racial injustice. When invited to the White House in 1968, for a luncheon discussing juvenile delinquency, Kitt looked the First Lady in the eye and told her, ‘You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder they rebel and take pot.’ The First Lady allegedly burst into tears at this confrontation and Kitt was subsequently blacklisted from the US, branded a ‘sadistic nymphomaniac’ by the CIA.
Kitt’s heyday was arguably the 1950s and 60s, when she released big hits like Santa Baby and Love For Sale and appeared in her best-regarded movie roles. But my own interest in Kitt was sparked by the discovery of her camp 1980s comeback when, after a 14-year musical hiatus, she unleashed a spirited and glittering hit single, Where Is My Man (1983).
By this stage, Kitt was into her late fifties, but rather than dampening her untamed sexuality – one of the hallmarks of her performing career – she fully embraced the ‘cougar’ subtype. Doused in diamonds and leopard print, the song opens with a long, tongue-in-cheek purr – a knowing wink to her majestic performance some twenty years previous as Batman’s Catwoman.
Where Is My Man’s lyrics may not exactly read as a feminist statement of intent (‘I spend hours by the phone, where is my man?’), but despite its lyrical neediness, Kitt’s delivery and performance is self-assured and demanding, if hiding a wounded core. Along with its follow-up, I Love Men (1984) the song resurrected Kitt’s career by appealing to a new, unexpected demographic. Her frank expressions of female desire and untempered glamour translated seamlessly to the era’s gay clubs, where Kitt began performing.
The singer embraced her newfound status as a queer icon, becoming a vocal advocate of gay marriage and fundraiser for HIV/AIDs. Her lifelong outsider status made Eartha a natural spokesperson for the gay rights movement. ‘We're all rejected people,’ she later commented, ‘we know what it is to be refused, we know what it is to be oppressed, depressed, and then, accused, and I am very much cognisant of that feeling.’
Defiant to the end, Eartha Kitt thus claims her place in Vertov's Vintage Inspirations canon not only because of her vocal talent, fashion panache or progressive sex appeal – all of which I love – but for her dignified resistance, be it against war, poverty, injustice or growing old gracefully. What a woman.
Rosa Abbott / @VertovVertov