Today is not only the birthday of our favorite First Lady, she shares the day with legend Eartha Kitt. I’ve always admired Eartha Kitt. And normally I would have nodded in appreciation about the fact and gone on about my day. But after watching her episode of “Unsung Hollywood,” I’m even more fascinated by the life she lived. So her birthday seemed like the perfect day to share all the interesting things I learned.
She never knew her father
Eartha Kitt was the daughter of a Black and Cherokee woman and a White father. There were rumors that she was conceived during a rape. All Kitt knew was that her father’s surname was Keith. According to The Guardian, Kitt went to her grave not being sure of her father’s true identity. When she requested his birth certificate, at 71, his name was blacked out to conceal his identity.
“My mother was 71 at the time and it was approaching the 21st century, and yet they were still protecting the name of the father even though he was clearly dead. They were protecting the white man because they would not have gone to that trouble to protect a black man. The courts still held it as legal to withhold the documentation. We were amazed. My mother assumed it was their dirty little secret.”
The same day she found her birth certificate was the same day she also learned her true birth date. All of her life she believed she was born January 1926. But the document listed January 17, 1927, as the actual date.
Her mother chose her man over her
There’s a bit of discrepancy on whether or not Anna Mae Keitt, the woman who Kitt believed was her mother actually was. Either way, when her mother met a man, he told her that he didn’t want “that yellow girl” to live with them. So her mother had her sent away. A few years later, when Kitt was just seven, she watched her mother die. She believed she was poisoned. Kitt’s daughter told The Guardian, “She was convinced her mother was poisoned. My mother remembered being brought to her mother who was dying and a baby was passed over her mother’s body. My mother’s interpretation was that this was because the death was not natural: it was voodoo. It was spiritual.”
The beatings and the “rescue”
Aunt Rosa, the woman Kitt went to live with, had children of her own. And none of them treated her well. Instead, Kitt became their work mule. They beat her, starved her, sexually abused her and often beat her. In one instance, Kitt recalled being tied to a tree by the children and beaten until blood ran down her legs. Eventually, the abuse got so bad that someone in the church took pity on Kitt and helped arrange for her aunt in Harlem to take her in. She did but wasn’t kind either. After another beating, Kitt moved out and eventually started working in show business.
She was going to marry the head of MGM
When Kitt came to fame, her alluring and sensual persona followed her off the stage and attracted the attention and affections of several men, Black and White. One of the pivotal relationships in her life was the one with the heir to the MGM fortune, Arthur Loew Jr. The two were in love and when Loew went home to tell his family that he wanted to marry Eartha, the forbid it, saying that if he did so, he would be cut off from the family and the money. He offered Eartha a chance to live life with him in the shadows, an offer she refused. In a 1989 interview with Terry Wogan, she said, “They would rather them marry trash than marry someone of color no matter how wonderful that person of color may be.”
She had an affair with Nat King Cole
Though it was a fact that she hid for most of her life, eventually, after much prodding, Eartha Kitt told one woman that she and Nat King Cole did have an affair. A fact which his wife was very open about. Kitt wanted Cole to leave his wife and be with her. But as you know, things didn’t work out that way.
Sammy Davis Jr. wanted her
After starring together in the film Anna Lucasta and partnering financially to get the film made, Sammy felt that they could both be a Black power couple. For whatever reason, it never worked out.
She was Catwoman
We all know Eartha Kitt embodied the role of Catwoman. In her episode of “Unsung Hollywood,” she revealed that it was one she had a particular affinity for as well. “That was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me because everybody’s still talking about my interpretation of Catwoman.” She said people asked her, “‘How did you research for playing the cat woman? I said, ‘I didn’t have to think about it. I am Catwoman.’”
Special relationship with her daughter
Eartha named her first and only child Kitt Shapiro. Shapiro said often that when she would introduce them, her mother would often say, “I’m Eartha and this is Kitt.” Shapiro believes that in many ways she completed her mother. She said that after all the abuse Eartha endured she got double the love.
Speaking out against the war
At the height of the Vietnam war, Kitt was invited to the White House. Instead of sitting in the audience silently, she spoke up about the unjustness of the war.
“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 Blvd. 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.”
Her words allegedly made Mrs. Johnson cry. And as a result of her outspokenness, Kitt’s career was put on hold for many years and she went to work in Europe.
She did not want her daughter to get married
After five years of marriage to John William McDonald, Kitt’s father, the couple called it quits. So, in many ways, Kitt was the only person Eartha had. So when her daughter got married, Earth was less than pleased. And it showed all over her face as she walked her daughter down the aisle.
She wasn’t ready to go.
In that same article from The Guardian, Kitt said this of her mother’s passing.
“I was with her when she died. She left this world literally screaming at the top of her lungs. I was with her constantly, she lived not even 3 miles from my house, we were together practically every day. She was home for the last few weeks when the doctor told us there was nothing they could do any more. Up until the last two days, she was still moving around. The doctor told us she will leave very quickly and her body will just start to shut down. But 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. It was just the two of us hanging out [during the last days] she was very funny. We didn’t have to [talk] because I always knew how she felt about me. I was the love of her life, so the last part of her life we didn’t have to have these heart to heart talks.”
Images via 20th Century Fox, Corbis, WENN