Thursday, December 25, 2008

EARTHA KITT: 1927 - 2008

At a 1968 White House luncheon, sultry chanteuse Eartha Kitt joined 49 other prominent women for what would normally have been a “no-headlines” affair. But when First Lady Lady Bird Johnson asked the group what could be done to curb juvenile delinquency, Kitt rose to speak:

“You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed,” she said. “They rebel in the street. They will take pot and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”

The ladies gasped, Lady Bird cried and the media exploded worldwide. Those 51 words were enough for the Johnsons to mount a campaign against Kitt that resulted in the singer’s being blacklisted by clubs and theatres throughout the U.S. Kitt was compelled to move to Europe to continue her career, until she triumphantly returned to the U.S. in 1978 in the “Broadway musical, “Timbuktu!”

Upon her return, reporter Seymour Hirsch of the New York Times revealed that even prior to 1968, at the behest of the Secret Service, the FBI had dug up whatever dirt they could on Kitt. It wasn't much. That is when the CIA reportedly put together a dossier on Kitt that portrayed her as a nymphomaniac. Hirsch wrote: “She was depicted in the CIA document as having ‘a very nasty disposition,’ and as ‘being a spoiled child, very crude and having a vile tongue.’ Miss Kitt, who is black, was said not to associate with other Negroes and ‘often bragged that she had very little Negro blood.’”

Well, it was the 60s, and Lyndon Johnson was hopelessly entangled in a war without end. Perhaps Kitt speaking out against the Vietnam war while lunching in the White House was the last humiliation the beleguered President could endure. The infamous ladies lunch happened in January, 1968. In April, LBJ announced he would not run for a second term, presumably because of the tens of thousands of troops who had been sent “off to be shot and maimed.” As it turned out, the elegant songbird had really spoken for countless Americans when she exercised her constitutional right to free speech in the White House. It wasn't the last time Kitt would court controversy: in 1974 she performed for white-only audiences in South Africa, at the height of apartheid. She had a hidden agenda, however. She raised enough money through the concerts and personal appearances to build two schools for black children. Much was written of her defiant performances in South Africa, but little ink was granted to the schools that were built with her earnings.

Earth Kitt died on Christmas Day from colon cancer. She was 81, and it is safe to say she did it all her way.

Eartha Kitt performing just months before her death.

1 comment:

Nicole and Mon Voyage said...

Given that Eartha Kitt was probably best known for being Catwoman and singing the best version of Santa baby (as opposed to, say, her cabaret act) I thought it was fitting that she died on Christmas. I tried to send one of my clients to see her perform at the Carlisle last year during a trip to New York but her husband was not interested. I bet she wishes they had gone now.