Eartha Kitt Still Sizzling Entertainment legend Eartha Kitt's career follows a challenging childhood that included picking cotton in her native South Carolina and joining the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. At 80 she still enjoys performing and goes to the gym regularly, but beyond that she's a homebody.
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Eartha Kitt Still Sizzling

Listen Now: Hear A 2007 Interview

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


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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