My brother Zac and I once made a killer dress for Eartha Kitt. It was blood red stretch velvet. When we fit the dress, Eartha knew precisely what she wanted: lower the neckline half an inch, tighten the ruching at the hip and extend the leg slit to the top of her thigh. At the age of eighty, Eartha Kitt still had legs to die for and was a fierce (and flirtatious) commander.
Fathom her life. She was most likely conceived by rape and grew up betwixt abusive households and on the streets. Despite her harsh and disjointed upbringing, she managed to pursue dance lessons, which eventually landed her a job with the Katherine Dunham Company. Traveling with this African American dance troupe opened doors and changed the course of her life. Early in her career Eartha branched into singing cabaret on the European circuit. In Paris she was discovered by Orson Welles. He declared her “the most interesting woman in the world”, and promptly cast her as “Helen of Troy” in his stage production of Dr. Faustus. Opportunities continued to unroll before her like a leopard spotted carpet.
The once unlucky misfit from South Carolina turned into an award winning singer, dancer, actress, cat-woman, movie star, activist and highly educated polyglot with an insanely foxy persona. Orson Welles saw the future.
Eartha Kitt did not shy away from her history or inner forces. Despite coming of age in an era of sexism, bigotry and repression, Eartha harnessed her sexual drive and converted her scarred youth into powerful and expressive charisma. The Eartha Kitt persona was in heat and on edge. She was not afraid of being mean, messy or dangerous. In 1954 she released an album she titled “That Bad Eartha”, which launched many of her now classic songs, including “C’est si Moi” and “Uska Dara” and “I Want to be Evil”.
“The more I surrendered to myself, to the self that would not be limited and narrowly defined, the more glorious a time I had with me and with life”
Here is a video of her digging into her fabulously evil side:
Her honesty extended beyond her stage persona, and she spoke her mind without regard for consequence. Eartha Kitt’s career came to a temporary halt when, at a formal luncheon, she confronted the First Lady about the idiocy of the Vietnam War. The story goes that her candor made Lady Bird Johnson cry- and in spite of the repercussions she faced, Eartha remained gracefully unapologetic.
Eartha Kitt was aggressively prolific during her eighty-one years on this planet. She attributed her success to her fierce survival instinct. Her daughter tells of her death, and how after a fight with colon cancer, at eighty-one, she literally left the world screaming at the top of her lungs.
“My recipe for life is not being afraid of myself, afraid of what I think or of my opinions. I’m a dirt person. I trust the dirt. I don’t trust diamonds and gold.”
There is a profound lesson on creativity here. The lesson is: find your inner beast. Excavate your truth. Find within yourself the good the bad and the ugly- and use it to fuel your creativity. Pain, desire, fear, anger, hurt, love, jealousy, sexuality, rage- all these feelings inside you are raring to be expressed. Surrender to them and let them motor you to create something great.
Further Listening and Reading:
Eartha Kitt: Femme Fatale, a newly released graphic novel by Marc Shapiro. Tells the story of Eartha Kitt’s life.
Confessions of a Sex Kitten, by Eartha Kitt. This memoir tells the dramatic life story of the entertainer-activist who captured Broadway in her debut in New Faces of 1952.
America’s Mistress: The Life and Times of Eartha Kitt, by John L. Williams. An fascinating biography that captures the ahead-of-her-times woman behind the myth and also takes a look at race relations in Twentieth-century America.
That Bad Eartha, Eartha Kitt