Editor's note: This segment was rebroadcast on March 16, 2022. Find that audio here.
Songstress Eartha Kitt enthralled audiences beginning in the 1940s up until just months before her death in 2008.
She’s known for the sultry Christmas classic from 1953 “Santa Baby.” But Kitt was much more than her sex-kitten image. She supported Martin Luther King Jr., and advocated for women's rights and the LGBTQ community. And though the world viewed her as Black, she refused to be defined by the color of her skin.
Kitt’s daughter, Kitt Shapiro, was her mother's closest confidante. Shapiro tells the story of their relationship in the new book "Eartha & Kitt: A Daughter's Love Story in Black and White,” which she wrote with Patricia Weiss Levy.
Kitt fought tirelessly for others throughout her life because of her difficult early life experience, her daughter says.
“My mother really wanted to be able to give voice to anybody who needed their voices heard,” Shapiro says.
Writing the book helped Shapiro bring back her mother — 12 years after Kitt’s death.
An only child, Shapiro says she feels her mother looking down on her and encouraging her to use her voice for both of them.
“I really feel her impact is more relevant than ever,” Shapiro says. “She not only understood the importance of treating human beings with care but she understood the importance of treating our planet and our environment with care.”
On her mother Eartha Kitt’s sultry stage image as heard in her 1953 performance of “Santa Baby”
“Well, I think she never really thought of herself as a sex symbol I think she found that to be somewhat comical in some ways. But I do think she cultivated the image of Eartha Kitt: she really I think wanted to have a persona that kept her safe and gave her some strength. And I think over time this persona of this incredibly strong and self-controlled woman came to be from, you know [a] combination of different things from her life.”
On what made Kitt a great performer aside from her talent
“I think one of the things that made her a great performer was her ability to be vulnerable and to show who she really was on that stage. Even though it was, you know, covered in this persona of being the sex kitten, when she would sing, you really saw her emotion and really felt the words that she was singing.”
On Kitt — who came from extreme poverty and a difficult upbringing — never knowing her biological father. Kitt’s Native and African American mother gave birth to her at 16 and then abandoned her.
“My mother was called a ‘yellow gal’ and in the part of South Carolina that she was born in she was too light skinned for, you know, everybody else … It was presumed that her biological father was probably a white man. But I think she struggled her entire life with the fact that her mother gave her up because she, her mother, married a man, a Black man who said ‘I will not have that yellow gal living in my house.’ And my mother was given to a family who treated her horribly: The mother, as well as the teenage children, physically abused, sexually abused, emotionally abused her … These were scars she carried her entire life yet she didn’t hide them. She was always willing to talk about it. She didn’t want to forget those tough times because they kept her very honest and very real.”
On how when Kitt toured, she would travel with 10 tuxedos of various sizes. And before each performance, her manager would check to make sure the audience was integrated. If there weren’t enough Black faces in the crowd, Kitt would dress the kitchen staff in those tuxedos, bring them into the audience and seat them in the front row.
“She didn’t understand our society’s need to treat each other differently because of the color of one’s skin. And she didn’t understand injustices for other people’s religious beliefs or social beliefs. And she felt that we were all entitled to live side by side and so when she could make [an] impact, you know, my mother would explain to me that it doesn’t take—you don’t have to have the biggest soapbox, you don’t have to have the loudest voice. Everybody can affect change.”
On Kitt’s performance in South Africa in 1974 during apartheid
“There are so many ironies in that trip for me because … by the time I was born, my mother was already a famous person. So I didn’t witness my mother being treated differently, I witnessed my mother being treated as a celebrity that’s how, you know, I grew up. When we went to South Africa was the first time I had experienced my mother being treated differently because of the color of her skin. I didn’t see any differences between the two of us even though our skin color is very different: I am very light-skinned with blond hair and light eyes and my mother is clearly a woman of color. But there were times in South Africa where people didn’t necessarily know who she was. And there was one specific instance in an amusement park where I had been allowed in because nobody questioned my race given how I look and my mother came with me one day. And she was told that she needed to leave because it was a whites-only park. She got up very quietly and took my hand and we went to leave.
“And it turned out that later in that week, she had an opportunity to do a photoshoot with the amusement park in the background. And my mother made the comment, you know, to the press, ‘Oh, it’s very funny, I was thrown out of that park earlier this week.’ The press put it in the headlines, the newspaper, ‘Eartha Kitt thrown out of amusement park.’ And the owner of the amusement park came and said, you know, ‘I’m so sorry. I apologize, and is there anything I can do to make it up to you?’ And she said, ‘Well I would love a donation. We’re raising funds to build schools for, um, African children and my daughter would really like to come back to the amusement park with her friends.’ And so he gave us some tickets. And when we went back to the amusement park my mother brought an array of children, you know, in all different races. So, to her, that was more impactful. That photograph that there is, and it’s in the book, that image was much more impactful than had she stood up and made a scene when she was asked to leave. She understood that, you know, we have power and sometimes you have to wait ‘til the moment is right.”
On fans recognizing Kitt for playing villain Catwoman on the 1960s “Batman” TV series and asking her to purr for them
“She would do it because she, she understood that you know, fans … made her who she was. And she loved the character of Catwoman. She found [Catwoman] to be just so over the top. What I find so interesting is, as an adult, I look back on Catwoman now and I think about what an incredible trailblazer that character was. Here was a woman of color who was opposite the white male lead and there was this sexual tension, this flirtatiousness between the two of them, you know in 1967, 1968 that that was really, you know, unheard of.”
Book Excerpt: 'Eartha & Kitt'
By Kitt Shapiro and Patricia Weiss Levy
My mother may have been known as a consummate talent, coy sex kitten, and courageous trailblazer who helped break down racial barriers, but she began her long, illustrious life in a distinctly different way. As she would be the first to tell you, she was “just a poor cotton picker from the South.” And no matter how far she got in life—and considering that she was world-famous by the time she was 23, and was still headlining when she was 81, I’d say that she went pretty far—on some level she still always felt like that “poor cotton picker.”
She starred in many Broadway shows and performed her consistently sold-out one-woman show in Las Vegas, London, New York, Paris, and other major cities throughout the world. She made dozens of movies; recorded 40 albums, was nominated for three Tony Awards, three Emmys, and two Grammys, several of which she won; and wrote three autobiographies, including one called I’m Still Here, for no matter what befell her in life—and an awful lot of tough stuff invariably did—she would always pick herself up again and still be there.
She spoke four languages, sang in seven, and had a unique, unforgettable sound—a voice for the ages that was mysteriously unidentifiable in geographic origin, yet unmistakably hers. And who hasn’t heard her many classic hit songs, including “C’est Si Bon” and “Santa Baby,” the best-selling Christmas song of 1953 and still an evergreen staple of the holiday season?
But she may be best known by many today for playing her iconic role as Catwoman, the Caped Crusader’s feline adversary, on the 1960s TV series Batman. Yet she was far more than just a celebrity who commanded both stage and screen. Along with being an outspoken civil rights activist who avidly supported Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she served as a tireless social advocate on behalf of historically-underserved youth, gay rights, women’s rights, and countless other causes.
Then there was that infamous incident at the White House. The one when she stood up to the First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, at a luncheon in 1968, daring to voice her opposition to the Vietnam War, a defiant move, unheard of by celebrities in those times, which caused the CIA to compile a defamatory dossier on her, characterizing her as a “sadistic sex nymphomaniac.” That controversial episode nearly derailed her career.
Orson Welles once pronounced her “the most exciting woman in the world.” Yet the one achievement she was the proudest of was not any of those things.
What she prided herself on most by far was having brought a mutt into this world. And when I say “mutt,” I mean me.
Despite the many famous men to whom my mother was linked romantically, all before I was born, there could be no question who the one true love of her life was.
It was her one and only child. Her daughter, Kitt.
She named me Kitt because she wanted to make sure that her name would be carried on. Regardless of whether I turned out to be a boy or a girl—and until I popped out on that Sunday afternoon in November of 1961, she didn’t know which—that’s who I was going to be.
“I’m Eartha, and this is Kitt,” she would declare to almost everyone we ever met. She would make that comment as though I completed her. And in many ways, I did. Complete her, I mean. And vice versa. We were a really good fit for each other.
I “got” her—who she was, and who and what she needed me to be. Those were things that, instinctively, I always understood. She needed me to care for her. Needed me to be there for her. Needed me to give her the roots that she never had. Having been given away by her young single mother and never having known who her father was, who could really blame her?
When I was a little girl, she would put me to bed herself almost every single night, and we would read books together. One of my favorites was Are You My Mother? But for me that question was never in doubt. Never mind the notable differences in our appearance. She was mine, and I was hers. As if we were meant to be. I would often say to her, “I picked you! God had me pick you for my mommy.” How funny that I remember thinking that I had intentionally chosen her. Yet now, looking back, I sometimes describe it as believing that God, or some sort of higher power, had decided, “You would be a really good fit with her.”
I look back now on our life together, and it really is a love story. There are people who believe that there is only one person put on this earth for them, and that all they need to do is find that person. Well, I never needed to go find my person. I had already found her the moment that I was born. At least in terms of being a mother and daughter, we came about as close as any two people conceivably could to being a perfect match.
No, I’m not saying that she was a perfect mother. That would be a stretch for anyone. And honestly, how could she have been? Never really having been mothered herself, she didn’t have any real role models when it came to parenting. She followed her gut and her instincts and sometimes had to make it up as she went along.
My mother, as famous as she was herself, always put the spotlight on me. Or maybe it’s that my mother was the spotlight on me. As a little girl, isn’t that all that you really want—for your parent to pay attention to you and think that you’re the greatest thing ever? She didn’t do it to the point at which she indulged me, though. I was never, ever spoiled. On the contrary, she was strict as a mom, and always insisted that I have good manners and be well-behaved.
She had a sense of command about her that made you fall in line. Everyone around her always did. Anything else wasn’t going to be tolerated, so you really had no choice. What’s interesting is that she wasn’t a person who ever yelled or screamed. She never threw fits in any form or fashion. It was more that she had this regal presence. She had an aura, an innate energy about her, that people, animals, and virtually all living things picked up on. It made you want to behave.
My mother may have been known as an international sex symbol—an image that she carefully cultivated to her dying day— but here’s the first big secret that I’ll share with you: Behind the scenes, my mother was far from risqué in the sense of being lewd or the least bit crude. She was actually quite proper. She shunned profanity. Shied away from almost any mention of sex. You might even say she was a prude.
She was also very much a stickler for manners. She demanded good behavior. Especially from me. She expected me to act like a lady. That may have just been a product of the times in which we lived, but if you were female, she believed that you had to be ladylike. That didn’t mean that you weren’t strong and independent, as she decidedly was herself. You just had to behave like a lady. One thing that ladies don’t do, apparently, is chew gum in public. That was absolutely forbidden in front of my mother. Any kind of poor behavior, really. Like whining. Or talking too much. Or talking too loudly. Or cursing. Or being late.
I was the little girl who never got into trouble. The one who waited patiently in her mother’s dressing room while her mother was onstage. An only child who learned to entertain herself while her mother was busy entertaining the rest of the world.
Yes, I was a good Kitt to her Eartha. And she was the ultimate Eartha to my Kitt. We were a team. Inseparable. From the first day of my life to the very last day of hers.
Excerpted from Eartha & Kitt: A Daughter’s Love Story in Black and White by Kitt Shapiro and Patricia Weiss Levy. Published by Pegasus Books. © Kitt Shapiro and Patricia Weiss Levy. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
This segment aired on May 21, 2021.