Award-Winning Entertainer Eartha Kitt Dies At 81

Self-proclaimed "sex kitten" Eartha Kitt, a sultry singer, dancer and actress, has died. She was 81. Her career spanned six decades, from starring on film with Nat King Cole to playing Catwoman on TV's Batman. Kitt won two Emmys. She also was nominated for several Tonys and two Grammys.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In the 1960s, Earth Kitt famously caused a controversy, when she denounced the Vietnam War at a White House luncheon. Still, it's fitting that Ms. Kitt passed away yesterday, on a holiday she has forever given a sultry swing.

(Soundbite of song "Santa Baby")

Ms. EARTHA KITT: (Singing) Santa Baby, just slip a sable under the tree, for me. Been an awful good girl, Santa baby...

MONTAGNE: Eartha Kitt was 81 and still known as a sensual beauty with a purring voice when she died. I spoke with her this time last year, and she told me this song gave her reason to reflect on her own life's wish list.

(Soundbite of NPR's Morning Edition, December 31, 2007)

Ms. KITT (Singer): Because every time I sing "Santa Baby," I laugh more at myself when I'm singing that song, because I know what I've gone through, and the song says...

(Singing) Santa baby, slip a sable under the tree...

Well, I've - all the men who have done that with me have never stayed with me. So, I realize everything that I want in life, I have to pay for myself. And I really love that because then nobody owns me but me.

MONTAGNE: Eartha Kitt had to work for everything she got. She was born in 1927 on a cotton plantation in South Carolina, the unwanted child of a white father she never knew and a black mother.

Ms. KITT: My first scene in life was us walking down a road trying to find some place to stay, because every time she knocked on a door to ask if she could stay there, I would always hear a great big voice that said, no, I don't want that yellow girl in my house, when they saw what color I am.

MONTAGNE: Growing up as a mixed-race child in the South was so difficult, Eartha Kitt's mother sent her to New York to live with an aunt. There she auditioned for Katherine Dunham, the pioneering African-American dancer, and toured Europe with the dance troupe. Eartha Kitt became famous on stage and in films singing songs like "I Want to Be Evil."

(Soundbite of song "I Want to Be Evil")

Ms. KITT: (Singing) But I'm tired of being pure and not chased. Like something that seeks its level, I wanna go to the devil. I wanna be evil; I wanna spit tacks. I wanna be evil and cheat at jacks.

MONTAGNE: Ms. Kitt was perhaps best known to fans for one role she played on the TV series "Batman."

(Soundbite of TV show "Batman")

Ms. KITT: (As Catwoman) (Purring) Hello, Pierre. This is Catwoman, C-A-T-W-O-M-A-N.

MONTAGNE: Always, Eartha Kitt had a passion for cabaret. She was performing in this intimate venue just two months ago. As she told us last year, she ended all of her cabaret shows the same way with the same song.

(Soundbite of NPR's Morning Edition, December 31, 2007)

Ms. KITT: I think it says it all and I think my audience understands: Here's to life, here's to love, and here's to you.

MONTAGNE: Eartha Kitt, who passed away yesterday, here's to you.

(Soundbite of song "Here's to You")

Ms. KITT: (Singing) And here's to you.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News.

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Eartha Kitt Still Sizzling

Eartha Kitt performs at Cafe Carlyle. i i

Eartha Kitt performs at Cafe Carlyle on Sept. 19, 2007 in New York City. Amy Sussman/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Amy Sussman/Getty Images
Eartha Kitt performs at Cafe Carlyle.

Eartha Kitt performs at Cafe Carlyle on Sept. 19, 2007 in New York City.

Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Entertainment legend Eartha Kitt made it in Hollywood after a challenging childhood that included picking cotton in her native South Carolina.

Eartha Mae Kitt was ostracized at an early age because of her mixed-race heritage. At 8 years old, she was given away by her mother and sent from the South Carolina cotton fields to live with an aunt in Harlem. In New York the shy teen auditioned for the famed Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. She won a spot as a featured dancer and vocalist and before the age of 20, toured worldwide with the company. During a performance in Paris, Kitt was spotted by a nightclub owner and booked as a featured singer at his club. Her unique persona earned her fans and fame quickly, including Orson Welles, who called her "the most exciting woman in the world."

At 80 she still enjoys performing and also goes to the gym regularly, but beyond that she's a homebody.

"I never have been fond of going out because I don't want to dress up unless you put me in Eartha Kitt paraphernalia and put me on stage — OK, I'm on duty now."

Kitt discusses her career with Renee Montagne.

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