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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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