Monday, December 29, 2008

In Memoriam: Eartha Kitt

Eartha Kitt: C'est Si Bon


She made her mark on pop culture as a particularly slinky Catwoman, and her 1953 Santa Baby set the standard for sultry in the Christmas canon. But dancer/actress/singer Eartha Mae Kitt was no pussycat: even in her softer moments, her claws were visible just under that paper-thin kitchy-coo exterior.

Conceived of rape on a South Carolina cotton plantation, raised by a woman who may or may not have been her mother, Kitt's anger at the world was her driving force. The bitterness got her in trouble, at times; most notably, her US career lost steam in the late sixties when her anti-war statements at a White House luncheon made Lady Bird Johnson cry. But she soldiered on, turning to the international community, reinventing herself for new audiences, most notably the burgeoning mid-eighties gay Disco revival, even as she held fast to her core persona.

Her later work on the cabaret circuit is known for a witty, weary ferocity; her aptest roles in this era included a stint as the wicked Kaa the snake in a BBC radio production of the Jungle Book, and a turn on the North American tour of The Wizard of Oz as the Wicked Witch of the West. But it is this 1963 recording which I always come back to, a movie song which hit #11 on the Cash Box charts. She sounds so happy, so young, so voracious, so full of promise. After a lifetime of hardship, I like to think it's how she would want to be remembered.

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