Eartha Kitt: Here’s to a Life

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.

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  • dvlaries

    I still have a mental picture in my head of Kitt, back when Tom Snyder had a late-night discussion show on NBC (70s?), climbing into his lap while singing, “I Love Men.” Like Mae West before her, Kitt was a one-of-a-kind original, an amazing self-creation, and it’s likely to be some generations before anyone can be even fairly compared to her.

    Rest in peace, dear lady, and thanks for the entertainment.

  • Qjersey

    uh Hello, what about Ms. Kitt’s “gay anthem” “Where is my man?” and the other dance songs she recorded that were explicitly marketed to the gay community in the 80’s?

  • horus

    a great lady indeed, we will miss her. meaooooow!

  • seitan-on-a-stick

    I think we Gays steal many anthems and make them Gay like ‘I Will Survive’ so ‘Where is my man?’ is Camp but heterosexual unless a Gay Man is lip-synching about another man as Ms Kitt was strictly dick-ly. Eartha may be straight but she was a saucy role model for contrary living hence the Gay following. Apart from her meoww-infected songs and role as Catwoman, she is also morally principled which resulted in her blacklisting by our own White House.

  • Michael J

    As a kid I knew of Eartha Kitt from hearing “Santa Baby” on the radio, seeing her as Catwoman on Batman, and reading about and admiring the pointed criticism of the Vietnam War she made very publicly at the White House. The one time I saw her perform live came years later, in 2000, in the Broadway musical “The Wild Party” in which she played Dolores Montoya, a faded but wizenned diva in search of a comeback. She was as wonderful as I imagined she would be, and I am sad she is gone.

  • Michael Bedwell

    While Kitt actually preferred cabarets, her later years
    saw her play some of the biggest venues, such as a return to Carnegie Hall, and the huge Warner Theatre in DC, where I saw her again when she was 80 and as good, if not better, than ever.

    But my treasured memories are of having become friends of a kind for a time 30 years ago as the result of my having praised her in a review for a DC gay rag of “Timbuktu,” and, then, an interview. I’d hang out with her in her dressing room and just talk, getting to see her without makeup and the shy, funny, mystical woman behind the publicly demanded, always-on femme fatale. Her natural charisma was as real and electric as her unique voice, and, when she wanted, she could raise or lower the temperature in a room with a single look.

    We went to a number of places together, gay and straight, but one afternoon we went to the bar in the Watergate Hotel where she was staying; she in mink and I in Woodies-On-Sale. When the bill came for her glass of champagne and my Coke, I felt her nudge me under the table. Looking down, I discovered her discretely extending a $50 bill. She wanted to give me the dignity of paying, and the gesture touches me still.

    Greater still was her agreeing to come back to DC on her one night off from 8 performances a week of “Timbuktu” in NYC to do a benefit for the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club which was raising money to fight a local Anita wannabe. Even after I told her we couldn’t pay her.

    Nevertheless, she did come and gave a full-out, one-woman concert [in a sizzling, revealing fishnet gown] that had young and old screaming for more. I’d asked her to close with a song she’d never done that I thought summarized why we were all there that night, a year to the month after our disastrous defeat in Miami. With her passionate intonation, her perfect cheekbones, and panther eyes punctuating each word, she mesmerized everyone with:

    “If we only have love
    To embrace without fears
    We will kiss with our eyes
    We will sleep without tears…
    If we only have love
    We can reach those in pain
    We can heal all our wounds
    We can use our own names…
    If we only have love
    We will never bow down
    We’ll be tall as the pines
    Neither heroes nor clowns
    If we only have love….”

    Months later, I moved to San Francisco, as did “Timbuktu” briefly, and we repeated our dressing room ritual. The next year she was back by the Bay performing in a cabaret, and several friends and I surprised her holding up Eartha masks. After the show, she comforted in Spanish my Cuban friend still dealing with coming out. And her personal kindness repeated itself, coming to my apartment one night less for dinner than to prove to other guests without being asked that, yes, their host really did know her.

    Many of those, along with many at that miraculous concert 30 years ago, are long gone, but it never occured to me that she was mortal, too. I hold those memories even tighter now, as I do the photo of us together upon which she wrote, “To Michael who understands.” And what I now understand most is that we are all a little bit poorer since the day Eartha stood still.

  • Charles J. Mueller

    Anyone here old enough to remember one of her earliest hits, “C’est si bon”?

    Listening to her sing that song was the epitome of seduction.

    Sex flamed from her nostrils. lol

  • Michael vdB

    I was truely saddened to hear about Eartha’s passing. She was a fabulous woman with great talent and a love of life. She held herself with such strength and grace that I have not seen in many people today. I remember seeing an interview of her on the Dini talk show (a Canadian talkshow back in its day done my Dini Petty on CTV) and I remember being mesmerized. She will be truely missed.

  • Paul

    I absolutely adored Eartha and she will be greatly missed. RIP

  • bobito

    Eartha Kitt’s performance of “When it Ends” from The Wild Party left me wondering how this show couldn’t have been a hit – it closed long before I could get to New York to see it. Her outspoken criticism of the Vietnam War and her all-embracing, multilingual/multicultural nature made her a unique and wonderful artist – unbelievable that such a person could have existed in the public eye in the 50’s & 60’s and had success. Sadly, I learned most of that about her this week after she died, or I’d have been a bigger fan while she was alive.

    RIP, lady – and thanks for all the greatness.

  • Steve Warren

    I’ve never known such delicious terror as when I interviewed Eartha in San Francisco in 1979 and she became passionate – as she always did, one way or another – and started playing to the second balcony…inches from my face. Later she invited me to ride to the airport with her and had her limo drive me back to my Tenderloin apartment.

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