RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Eartha Kitt. She's known to one and all as a sexy chanteuse; her feline features just made to be wreathed in diamonds and furs.

(Soundbite of song "C'est Si Bon")

Ms. EARTHA KITT (Singer): (Singing in French)

MONTAGNE: Eartha Kitt got her start, singing in the cabarets of Paris in the 1940s and later became known to a younger generation for her turn on TV's "Batman" as Catwoman. To herself, though, she's just plain Eartha Mae - born in the South, the unwanted child of a white father and a black woman who abandoned her.

In our year-end series, The Long View, talking to people of long experience, we turn to Eartha Kitt. It may be a surprise to her fans that she considers herself, as she puts it, a dirt person, someone, who back in the 1960s, kept chickens on the grounds of her mansion.

Ms. KITT: I had almost three acres of land in Beverly Hills. And I had a big atrium of chickens because I love that feeling of being in the country and living from the soil. I always have felt like that, and I had my own garden that grew everything that would grow there, and everybody told me that I was the original Beverly hillbilly…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KITT: …which I think was wonderful because I never have been fond of going out, because I don't like dressing up unless you're going to put me into an Eartha Kitt paraphernalia and put me on the stage. And that's where I feel, okay, I'm on duty now and that's it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So I separate myself between Eartha Mae and Eartha Kitt.

MONTAGNE: Funny, though, Eartha Kitt paraphernalia. It's an interesting way of saying it that you're on duty when you're Eartha Kitt. But that's how you feel.

Ms. KITT: Yeah, because I love being on duty when I'm called to, but not necessarily. And that's one of the reasons why I don't go out.

MONTAGNE: Being on duty, as being Eartha Kitt, means you would be not just beautiful but also sensual and a little bit wicked. And I think this goes back to a persona that you created very early on. There's a song that you recorded in 1953 that I'd love to play just for a moment. It's called "I Want To Be Evil."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KITT: Okay.

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

Ms. KITT: (Singing) Prim and proper, the girl who's never been cased. Well, I'm tired of being pure and not chased. Like something that seeks its level, I want to go to the devil. I want to be evil.

When I listened to it now, even as you're playing it, it's that little girl who had the desire to be wicked and kicking up her heels and saying I want this, I want this. But she wanted to earn it.

MONTAGNE: Take us back then to the beginning. You're born in South Carolina…

Ms. KITT: Yes.

MONTAGNE: …really, in a world where black people picked cotton.

Ms. KITT: Yes, which just what I did. The moment you learn how to walk, you start working.

MONTAGNE: Right. And how did it happen that your mother gave you up?

Ms. KITT: I don't even know if she was my mother or not. But at any rate, because she was having problems getting some place for us to stay. She had another little girl. I remember that little girl was always in her arms. She wasn't able to walk yet. One of - my first scene in life is us walking down the road trying to find some place to stay, because every time she knocked on a door to ask if she could stay there, well I would always hear a great big voice that said, no, I don't want than yellow girl in my house when they saw what color I am.

So I was always hiding behind her until we were finally accepted in a little cottage in the middle of a cotton field somewhere.

MONTAGNE: And, I mean, there will be people who won't understand why being fair-skinned - what's wrong with that. What did that say about you - a little girl who, in every respect, was innocent?

Ms. KITT: Well, I think at that time and - there's still a kind of connotation behind that. If you are a yellow gal and you're illegitimate, particularly, you have two strikes against you. You don't know who your parents are. So you become the maid in that house. And that's - was my position.

MONTAGNE: A little girl maid?

Ms. KITT: Yeah. You talk about - I always thought of myself as a sepia Cinderella, and look I'm still looking for my prince. But the prince turned out to be me, because I had to work for everything I have gotten.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: My prince will come.

Ms. KITT: Which I also think is terribly funny, because every time I sing "Santa Baby," I laugh more at my self when I'm singing that song because I know what I have gone through. And the song says, Santa Baby, slip a sable under the tree. Well - all the men who have done that with me had 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 - and my public, of course.

MONTAGNE: Just getting back momentarily, you ended up with an aunt in Harlem, being accepted to the High School of the Performing Arts.

Ms. KITT: Mm-hmm. And I remember, when I was asked as a joke - I took it as a joke to have an audition with the Katherine Dunham ballet company, but I didn't really believe I would get into it, but I had to go take the chance.

MONTAGNE: Well, did - Katharine Dunham Company took you to Europe, to France and to other places, way far away from that little house in South Carolina. There's a song that you recorded, a little bit after this period of time, but it's - I think it would be nice to play right now, "C'est Si Bon."

(Soundbite of song "C'est Si Bon")

Ms. KITT: (Singing in French)

That's Eartha Mae becoming Eartha Kitt, still trying out her wings.

MONTAGNE: Hmm. At 80, going on in a few weeks 81, and after 65 years in show business…

Ms. KITT: Yes. I have been in the business for something like 65 years.

MONTAGNE: If I may say so - and as everyone knows, you're still sizzling.

(Soundbite of purring)

Ms. KITT: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KITT: And still kicking up the legs, and thank goodness that I go to the gym and I try to keep myself physically fit because I want to remain as strong as I possibly can be, and keep working.

MONTAGNE: We have time for one more song of yours. What would you have us play?

Ms. KITT: As I always end my shows with that one song, 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: Well, that's a lovely sentiment.

Ms. KITT: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for sharing this with us.

Ms. KITT: All right, Renee. Thank you very much. You were a lot of fun.

MONTAGNE: The ever fabulous Eartha Mae Kitt.

(Soundbite of song, "Here's To Life")

Ms. KITT: (singing) Here's to Life, here's to love, and here's to you.

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