Whenever I hopped into a cab in New York in the late 90s, I would hope that my seat belt announcement would be Eartha Kitt’s. “Cats have nine lives, but you have only one”, she’d say. Then with a slight purr, she’d add, “Buckle up for safety.” For me, this was the height of urbanity—getting in a cab with someone at the end of the night, happily drunk, bundled up in scarves, sliding into the back and hearing Eartha express concern for your well-being.
I saw her only once in person, at a Broadway Bares benefit concert, where she sang “Love for Sale” surrounded by a bunch of beefcake dancers. She was amazing, just watch:
Although she was a star who’d worked with Orson Welles (who called her “the most exciting woman in the world”), Sidney Poitier and, um, Adam West, Kitt spent much of her final years in small cabarets, performing for intimate crowds and ending her performances with the number that summed her up far more than “Santa Baby” ever would: the indomitable torch song, “Here’s to Life”.
The Washington Post printed a letter yesterday from someone who saw another one of Eartha’s famous after-hours shows:
“I was an usher at the Kennedy Center Opera House when a show called “Timbuktu” had its pre-Broadway tryout in 1978. It was Eartha Kitt’s big comeback. Several of us on the ushering staff got to know Eartha, and one Saturday night after the curtain came down, we took her to a bar called the Barn on Ninth Street; on the second floor of the Barn there was a drag show every Saturday night, and those of us who went there regularly knew that one of the drag performers did a fabulous “Eartha Kitt.”
So, in we walked with the Eartha Kitt. Eartha took one look at the act and got right up on stage, from which the audience was treated to a terrific impromptu show of the real Eartha alongside the drag Eartha (who, I’m sure, thought he had died and gone to heaven). I have many great memories of my eight years as a Kennedy Center usher — but that one ranks among the highlights. “
Her passing last week, at the age of 81, is certainly a moment of sadness, but damn if she didn’t live every minute to its fullest. Cats may have nine lives, but Eartha Kitt packed many more lifetimes into hers. Here’s to a life lived to the hilt.