Monday, December 29, 2008

LEGENDARY: A Tribute to Eartha Kitt (1927-2008)

Feline, Feminine, Fantastical. Those are the words to describe entertainer extraordinare, Eartha Kitt who passed away on Christmas Day. She was 81.

Ms. Kitt (nee Eartha Mae Keith) was one of the grandest Divas of her time, not just because she oozed sex appeal sans vulgarity, and had penchant for the finer things in life, but because she dared to stand up for what she believed in at a time when that was not acceptable.

In 1968, Ms. Kitt was invited to a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson. What followed was the stuff of legends. When the late first lady asked Ms. Kitt for her thoughts on the rise of juvenile deliquency, Ms. Kitt said the Vietnam War was to blame. Here's Ms. Kitt's account of the event in an interview with the Philadelphia City Paper in 1997:

Do you feel the weight of the late-'60s blacklisting even now?
Not so much from the public, but behind the scenes, they feel that I did something that was not quite kosher even though I was right in telling the truth. [Robert] McNamara came out with his book saying I was right for saying we should not be involved in that war. It was alright for him to be responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of our boys because he wanted to keep his position. When you stand up and tell the truth, it will set you free, providing the truth eventually comes out.
Did you perform at the luncheon where you made the remark? Were reporters there?
No. Lady Bird Johnson invited me and 49 other women to give opinions about why there was so much juvenile delinquency in the streets of America at that time. The main problem was our involvement in Vietnam. She asked me a question and I gave her my opinion. There was no ranting and raving and screaming and I was not out there to sing songs.
What was your greatest setback due to this blacklist?
That I couldn't work. What could be more setting back than that? It stopped me from working because President Johnson said, "I don't want to see that woman's face anywhere. Out of sight, out of mind." And it locked the door to working at theaters and clubs. They didn't want me to work there because they did not want the CIA and FBI on their doorstep.
What is the greatest triumph you learned through all of this?
That we have to endure all the nonsense that the politicians are throwing at us all the time. You have to stand up and fight for what you know damn well is right. We happen to be living in a wonderful country, but if people are not willing to take care of business and be responsible for their own government, then [those same people] cannot be crying about what's happening.
Falsely branded by the CIA as "a sadistic nymphomaniac whose escapades and loose morals were the talk of Paris", it was ten years before Ms. Kitt was able to perform in the U.S. again. But it wasn't long before Ms. Kitt found herself embroiled in another controversy -- choosing to perform in South Africa during the reign of apartheid.

In 1974 and 1984, Ms. Kitt received a lot of criticism for choosing to perform before all white audiences in South Africa. This was a big no-no, especially among Black entertainers. However, Ms. Kitt wasn't phased by the attacks she received from her colleagues and friends. There was a methond to her madness. She believed that her tour in South Africa helped the anti-apartheid movement by bringing attention to the racism that was going on, as well as build schools for Black children in South Africa. From an interview with Jet magazine in 1972:

"I do not approve of apartheid. You do not curse sickness by ignoring it. Some Black stars say they will only play to nonwhites for fantastic fees and take money from the pockets of the poor Black people. I'd rather take the money from the affluent whites."
Despite being diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006, Ms. Kitt still remained active. She worked the cabaret circuit, successfully re-opening the Café Carlyle in 2007 and performing in cabaret engagements up until two months ago. Her friend and spokesperson, Andrew Freedman, said that she had planned to perform throughout 2009, having booked dates for the entire year.

Ms. Kitt endured rejection, both personal and professional, throughout her lifetime, but through it all, Ms. Kitt was able to persevere creating a legacy of that will resonate for years to come.

"When I look at my Eartha Kitt scrapbooks today, I think, 'You know, she did a pretty good job of herself. She didn't do too badly - for an ugly duckling." --- Eartha Kitt

No comments: