New York (AP) - Eartha Kitt, a sultry singer, dancer and actress who rose fromSouth Carolina cotton fields to become an international symbol ofelegance and sensuality, has died, a family spokesman said. She was81.
Andrew Freedman said Kitt, who was recently treated at ColumbiaPresbyterian Hospital, died Thursday in Connecticut of coloncancer.
Kitt, a self-proclaimed "sex kitten" famous for her catlikepurr, was one of America's most versatile performers, winning twoEmmys and nabbing a third nomination. She also was nominated forseveral Tonys and two Grammys.
Her career spanned six decades, from her start as a dancer withthe famed Katherine Dunham troupe to cabarets and acting andsinging on stage, in movies and on television. She perseveredthrough an unhappy childhood as a mixed-race daughter of the Southand made headlines in the 1960s for denouncing the Vietnam Warduring a visit to the White House.
Through the years, Kitt remained a picture of vitality andattracted fans less than half her age even as she neared 80.
When her book "Rejuvenate," a guide to staying physically fit,was published in 2001, Kitt was featured on the cover in a long,curve-hugging black dress with a figure that some 20-year-old womenwould envy. Kitt also wrote three autobiographies.
Once dubbed the "most exciting woman in the world" by OrsonWelles, she spent much of her life single, though brief romanceswith the rich and famous peppered her younger years.
After becoming a hit singing "Monotonous" in the Broadway revue"New Faces of 1952," Kitt appeared in "Mrs. Patterson" in 1954-55.(Some references say she earned a Tony nomination for "Mrs.Patterson," but only winners were publicly announced at that time.)She also made appearances in "Shinbone Alley" and "The Owl and thePussycat."
Her first album, "RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt," came out in1954, featuring such songs as "I Want to Be Evil," "C'est Si Bon"and the saucy gold digger's theme song "Santa Baby," which isrevived on radio each Christmas.
The next year, the record company released follow-up album "ThatBad Eartha," which featured "Let's Do It," "Smoke Gets in YourEyes" and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."
In 1996, she was nominated for a Grammy in the category oftraditional pop vocal performance for her album "Back in Business."She also had been nominated in the children's recording categoryfor the 1969 record "Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa."
Kitt also acted in movies, playing the lead female role oppositeNat King Cole in "St. Louis Blues" in 1958 and more recentlyappearing in "Boomerang" and "Harriet the Spy" in the 1990s.
On television, she was the sexy Catwoman on the popular "Batman"series in 1967-68, replacing Julie Newmar who originated the role.A guest appearance on an episode of "I Spy" brought Kitt an Emmynomination in 1966.
"Generally the whole entertainment business now is bland," shesaid in a 1996 Associated Press interview. "It depends so much ongadgetry and flash now. You don't have to have talent to be in thebusiness today.
"I think we had to have something to offer, if you wanted to berecognized as worth paying for."
Kitt was plainspoken about causes she believed in. Her anti-warcomments at the White House came as she attended a White Houseluncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson.
"You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed,"she told the group of about 50 women. "They rebel in the street.They don't want to go to school because they're going to besnatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam."
For four years afterward, Kitt performed almost exclusivelyoverseas. She was investigated by the FBI and CIA, which allegedlyfound her to be foul-mouthed and promiscuous.
"The thing that hurts, that became anger, was when I realizedthat if you tell the truth -- in a country that says you'reentitled to tell the truth -- you get your face slapped and you getput out of work," Kitt told Essence magazine two decades later.
In 1978, Kitt returned to Broadway in the musical "Timbuktu!" --which brought her a Tony nomination -- and was invited back to theWhite House by President Jimmy Carter.
In 2000, Kitt earned another Tony nod for "The Wild Party." Sheplayed the fairy godmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein's"Cinderella" in 2002.
As recently as October 2003, she was on Broadway after replacingChita Rivera in a revival of "Nine."
She also gained new fans as the voice of Yzma in the 2000 Disneyanimated feature "The Emperor's New Groove."'
In an online discussion at Washingtonpost.com in March 2005,shortly after Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman won Oscars, sheexpressed satisfaction that black performers "have more of a chancenow than we did then to play larger parts."
But she also said: "I don't carry myself as a black person butas a woman that belongs to everybody. After all, it's the generalpublic that made (me) -- not any one particular group. So I don'tthink of myself as belonging to any particular group and neverhave."
Kitt was born in North, S.C., and her road to fame was the stuffof storybooks. In her autobiography, she wrote that her mother wasblack and Cherokee while her father was white, and she was left tolive with relatives after her mother's new husband objected totaking in a mixed-race girl.
An aunt eventually brought her to live in New York, where sheattended the High School of Performing Arts, later dropping out totake various odd jobs.
By chance, she dropped by an audition for the dance group run byDunham, a pioneering African-American dancer. In 1946, Kitt was oneof the Sans-Souci Singers in Dunham's Broadway production "BalNegre."
Kitt's travels with the Dunham troupe landed her a gig in aParis nightclub in the early 1950s. Kitt was spotted by Welles, whocast her in his Paris stage production of "Faust."
That led to a role in "New Faces of 1952," which featured suchother stars-to-be as Carol Lawrence, Paul Lynde and, as a writer,Mel Brooks.
While traveling the world as a dancer and singer in the 1950s,Kitt learned to perform in nearly a dozen languages and, over time,added songs in French, Spanish and even Turkish to herrepertoire.
"Usku Dara," a song Kitt said was taught to her by the wife of aTurkish admiral, was one of her first hits, though Kitt says herrecord company feared it too remote for American audiences toappreciate.
Song titles such as "I Want to be Evil" and "Just an OldFashioned Girl" seem to reflect the paradoxes in Kitt's privatelife.
Over the years, Kitt had liaisons with wealthy men, includingRevlon founder Charles Revson, who showered her with lavishgifts.
In 1960, she married Bill McDonald but divorced him after thebirth of their daughter, Kitt.
While on stage, she was daringly sexy and always flirtatious.Offstage, however, Kitt described herself as shy and almostreclusive, remnants of feeling unwanted and unloved as a child. Shereferred to herself as "that little urchin cotton-picker from theSouth, Eartha Mae."
For years, Kitt was unsure of her birthplace or birth date. In1997, a group of students at historically black Benedict College inColumbia, S.C., located her birth certificate, which verified herbirth date as Jan. 17, 1927. Kitt had previously celebrated on Jan.26.
The research into her background also showed Kitt was thedaughter of a white man, a poor cotton farmer.
"I'm an orphan. But the public has adopted me and that has beenmy only family," she told the Post online. "The biggest family inthe world is my fans."
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