Biography

Born in the South and raised in Harlem, sultry black actress/singer Eartha Kitt attended New York's High School of Performing Arts. After touring with Katherine Dunham's dance troupe, Kitt headlined at choice nightclubs in both Paris and the U.S. She made her acting debut as Helen of Troy in Orson Welles' 1951 staging of Faust. The following year, she came to Broadway in the musical revue New Faces of 1952 in which she stopped the show on a nightly basis with her sensuous rendition of "C'est Si Bon." It was the first of many top-ten hits for Kitt, who was one of a handful of black performers of the 1950s to receive regular air play on "white" radio stations. Subsequent Broadway appearances included the role of Mehitabel the alley cat in the 1958 musical Shinbone Alley. Though considered a "crossover" performer, Kitt's movie appearances were often confined to films with predominantly African American casts, e.g. Anna Lucasta (1958) and St. Louis Blues (1958). She made several well-received TV guest appearances in the 1950s and 1960s, unexpectedly gaining a flock of preteen fans for her portrayal of The Catwoman on a 1967 installment of Batman. Never one to shy away from controversy, Kitt was banned from the White House for several years after making a series of anti-Vietnam statements within earshot of Lady Bird Johnson. Nor has she been a controversial figure only to the white mainstream: she was once booed off the stage of Harlem's Apollo Theatre, reportedly because the audience didn't care for her condescending onstage demeanor. After several years in England, Kitt returned to the U.S. to co-star in the 1975 Pam Grier vehicle Friday Foster. Back on Broadway in 1978, Kitt starred in the musical Timbuktu, an all-black reworking of the old stage chestnut Kismet. Her sporadic film appearances from 1980 onward included her manic (and all too brief) portrayal of a centuries-old witch in Ernest Scared Stupid (1991). Eartha Kitt authored several books of memoirs, and in 1982 was the subject of the documentary film All By Myself. She died on Christmas Day in 2008 after a battle with colon cancer. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi