Eartha Kitt was many things: a best-selling recording artist; a Tony-nominated stage actress; a sex symbol; a paragon of both high art and high camp; the author of three autobiographies. One thing she was not is unoriginal.
Born of severe poverty and deprivation, as an artist she nonetheless emanated the sophisticated ennui of a jaded jet-setter. Petite, with a truncated hourglass figure and an angular face a Cubist painter would admire, she radiated a brazen sexuality simultaneously dangerous and cartoonish (witness her famous portrayal of Catwoman in the television series "Batman"). Orson Welles, who cast her as Helen of Troy in a production of Dr. Faustus, once called her the "most exciting woman in the world."
The titles of her hit songs, mostly scored in the 1950s, illustrated her singular appeal, a mix of the alien, the arousing and the comic: "Let's Do It," "C'est si bon," "I Want to Be Evil," "Just an Old Fashioned Girl," "Monotonous," "Je cherche un homme," "Love for Sale," "I'd Rather Be Burned as a Witch," "Uska Dara," "Mink, Schmink," "Under the Bridges of Paris." Her most famous tune is the perennial holiday favorite, "Santa Baby," basically a long, manipulative mash note that turns St. Nick into a sugar daddy.
She made her mark on the U.S. stage in New Faces of 1952, a revue in which she stole the show with two songs that became staples for her, "Monotonous" and "Bal, Petit Bal." The lyrics to the former went:
T.S. Eliot writes books for me
King Farouk's on tenterhooks for me
Sherman Billingsley even cooks for me
Monotonous, monotonous. Though she had occasional roles in important films, her larger-than-life persona was better suited to the Broadway and cabaret stages, where she never ceased to be appreciated. She was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in 1978's Timbuktu!, an African-American musical based on the earlier show Kismet. Twenty-two years later, when she was in her seventies, she returned to Broadway, playing an aging vamp in Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party, winning another Tony nomination. She made her final Broadway performance in the 2003 Broadway revival of Nine. In 2006 she acted in the short-lived Off-Broadway musical Mimi Le Duck.
In recent years, she has been a regular attraction at Café Carlyle, the swank Manhattan cabaret spot. She most recently played there this past June. In 2006 she released the album "Eartha Kitt: Live at the Carlyle."
Eartha Mae Keith was raised in punishing circumstances. Born out of wedlock, she claimed to be the child of a rape; her mother was a part-African-American, part-Cherokee-Native-American sharecropper in South Carolina, her father a white plantation owner of German and Dutch lineage. She was given away by her mother when she was eight, and raised in Harlem. Eartha Kitt believed that Mamie Kitt was her biological mother. Her new family often beat her and she frequently ran away from home. By her teens, she was living on her own.
Ms. Kitt started her career in show business as a member of the Katherine Dunham Company. A tour took her to Europe and Paris, where she sang in nightclubs and was discovered by Welles. Upon returning to New York, she soloed at The Village Vanguard where a producer saw her and cast her in New Faces of 1952.
Her first album, "RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt," came out in 1954, featuring such songs as "I Want to Be Evil," "C'est Si Bon" and "Santa Baby.” In 1955 she came out with "That Bad Eartha," which featured "Let's Do It," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." Over the years, she learned to perform in nearly a dozen languages, including French, Spanish and Turkish.
Her other Broadway appearances included Mrs. Patterson (1954), Shinbone Alley (1957), in which she was typecast as the lovelorn alley cat Mehitabel opposite Eddie Bracken typing cockroach Archy (Ms. Kitt could never escape comparisons to felines throughout her career), and Jolly's Progress (1959).
Always outspoken, Ms. Kitt's career took a hit when, in 1968, at a White House luncheon, she made some anti-war statements. The remarks reportedly made First Lady Lady Bird Johnson cry, and the singer was engulfed in controversy. No one would hire her, and she spent the next few year performing in Europe, where she had first been discovered and appreciated.
She wrote three autobiographies: “I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten,” "Thursday's Child" and "Alone With Me."
Among her personal relationships were romances with the cosmetics magnate Charles Revson and banking heir John Barry Ryan III. Her marriage to William O. McDonald, a real estate developer, from 1960 to 1965, resulted in a divorce and one child, Kitt McDonald Shapiro. She is survived by Ms. Shapiro and four grandchildren.