The political pioneer in Eartha Kitt.
Updated: Nov 28, 2018
Eartha Kitt could be described as no less than outspoken and unapologetic in an era when characteristics like these had sentenced others of her race to a Jim Crow style lynching.
Lady Bird Johnson's luncheon on January of 1968 was no exception. Eartha was an unmarried, African American woman invited to a prestigious luncheon having proved herself with fervent charity work and achievements in her career as a performer. No one could have predicted the ramifications that would ensue for Eartha, when she voiced her opinion in a place it was clearly un-welcomed.
When asked by the first lady herself about what should be implemented in order to tackle juvenile delinquency in America, Eartha took the opportunity to publicly condemn the US's involvement in The Vietnam War. Eartha plainly said: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. 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 stream of laudation Lady Bird Johnson had been receiving, quickly became an abyss of the upper class's shocked silence. Eartha's excoriation of the Johnson administration that day would become an event that punctuated her life.
Many media outlets purposefully omitted her initial judgment that prefigured this controversial statement. Eartha pre-clarified; "The main reason for juvenile delinquency today is because their parents are angry, and their parents are angry because they are so highly taxed and because there is a war going on they do not understand". Eartha was the lone person in a room of the most affluent and privileged, who understood and experienced the pain and suffering of those she was lobbying for.
Being the woman she was, Eartha chose to voice this judgement not in an interview, not to the paparazzi or media outlets flocking for a second of her attention, but directly to the First Lady Bird Johnson herself. The First Lady of the United States of America. The wealthiest, most powerful country in the world. Eartha understood the potential outcome of this public criticism yet she brazenly did so anyway. This decision is what truly defines Eartha. From the moment she asserted herself as a critic one of the most controversial war in the history of America, her reputation perished and in tandem, her career reached its expiry date.
The CIA defamed Eartha through her public image.
They morphed her character, into something to be detested and castigated. Eartha's fall from the graces of Hollywood left the rest of the world stunned in the silence of her absence. Once she had committed this seemingly treasonous act, any allegiance the public of America felt for her was lost, as to support her was to be complicit in the rejection of American patriotism.
Without support and the loss of her connections, she was vulnerable to the power the CIA wielded against her. They became the predator and she the prey.
Articles in the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times chronicled the vendetta the CIA had unleashed against Eartha. The CIA was said to have gathered an extensive report on Eartha dating back to 1956, interviewing former colleagues and gathering second hand gossip. They publicly concluded that she had 'a very nasty disposition' and was 'a spoiled child, very crude and having a vile tongue'. Within a matter of months her job security was lost, and she was marooned from her life in America, completely negated by the people who had become her family.
The CIA's dossier and public belittling had a profound effect on the media coverage Eartha received post incident. During the 1960s racism was still very much a part of American society and was categorically normalised by the large majority of Americans. Only ten years earlier, Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to move from her allocated seat on a public bus for a white man. The media were able to exploit her African American ethnicity and further marginalise her, pushing the 'angry, uneducated, black women unable to contain her emotions' stereotype in order to invalidate the points she made at the White House and discredit her opinions. The New York Times labelled Eartha's speech as 'an emotional tirade' and an 'outburst'. They began the article with the statement 'As Miss Kitt, a negro, spoke out'. Eartha's 'eyes were flashing in defiance while she puffed on a cigarette and jabbed a finger at her startled audience'. The immediate acknowledgement of Eartha's 'negro' status, demonstrates to the reader that the most important part of this story, is not her message or even the event - but that she is a black women. This purposeful evocation of the racist views most of the readers would - statistically speaking - have held, aims to obliterate the credibility of her argument. Caricatures of African American women at the time were aimed at vilifying their nature as angry and unable to control themselves, like animals. Hence the 'monkey' comparison that was a common racial derogation at the time. This stemmed from inherent racism, and the consequential prejudice against any person without Eurocentric features. With the publication of racist, condemning articles like this; Eartha's charm was subverted into a vile tongued, licentious reputation that the CIA had set out to brand her with.
Although she spent the majority of her adulthood in Europe, Eartha's life began on January the 17th 1927 in the small town of North, Orangeburg County, South Carolina in what was known as The Deep South. South Carolina had seen the enactment of the aforementioned 'Jim Crow' laws in the 1880s and black citizens there had been disenfranchised in the state until as late as 1965.
Eartha was conceived via rape. Her mother, of African and Cherokee descent was working on a cotton plantation at the time and Eartha's biological father is widely assumed to have been the white son of the cotton plantation owner. Eartha did not begin her life in a place of affluence or familial love, she was berated by the workers and forced to pick cotton to earn her keep as a young child. At the age of 8 Eartha's mother met a man who would provide for her, predictably however he exhibited a deep rooted ideological aversion to Eartha's skin tone. Due to colourism within the African American community, her skin colour sentenced her to life imprisonment in a liminal state between two races. Neither fully accepted her and both chose to reject her. She was denied a faction with which to identify from the moment she was born, left to defend herself in a world with no one to defend her. Her mother chose her new lover over Eartha. Consequently she was sent away to live with her relatives who ostracised her in the same way she had been in the deep south, becoming a cotton picker once again. She was labelled a 'yellow gal’ suffering her relative's derision and ultimately, unconditional love was not something she ever experienced in her childhood.
Once described as ‘the most exciting woman in the world’ by Orson Welles, Eartha had a remarkable career. Before 1968, She flourished. She worked her way up the Hollywood ladder from her humble beginnings as a member of a small New York dance troupe to the first black cat-woman in the colossally successful ‘Batman’ franchise. Eartha exuded sexuality with her songs and performances, often euphemistically titled, and provocative relative to the conservative social climate of the time. One of her most notable commercial accomplishments is the renowned Christmas song ‘Santa Baby’. She managed to encapsulate her velvety smooth and carefree personality through the songs she sang and the performances she put on anywhere she went. Eartha spoke numerous languages and performed in both English and French, producing albums in both the former and the latter.
After the infamous incident of 1968, Eartha moved to Europe, spending time in Paris and London where her popularity never floundered. The ideology in America at the time had refused to allow for her embrace of female sexuality and liberation. However, in Europe she was welcomed and celebrated without the same apprehension. Eartha performed on Broadway throughout the 70s and returned to America in 1978 to perform in the musical’ Timbuktu!’ 10 years after her disastrous exit. During the 80s she returned to music and produced a number of disco songs that gained enormous popularity throughout the nightclub scenes of the UK and the US. Eartha’s demographic progressively shifted, and she gained a new legion of emerging, liberal LGBTQ+ fans. Her fanbase was universal, it embraced any and every (unjustly) outcast member of society that had ever felt the same rejection she had.
Eartha was a heroine of her era and she is a heroine of mine. I don't need to explain why I chose to write about Eartha. Her life speaks for itself.
 Smith, Dinitia, 'The Nine Lives Of Eartha Kitt, The Most Exciting Woman In The World' Is Going Strong At Age 72', Chicago Tribune, August 11th 1999. See here: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1999-08-11/features/9908110373_1_kitt-shapiro-eartha-kitt-voice
 Hersch, Seymour, 'C.I.A. in ‘68 Gave Secret Service a Report Containing Gossip About Eartha Kitt After White House Incident', New York Times, January 3rd 1975. See here: https://www.nytimes.com/1975/01/03/archives/cia-in-68-gave-secret-service-a-report-containing-gossip-about.html