Cat never got Kitt’s tongue

Thursday, September 27, 2001

NEW YORK — For Eartha Kitt, expressing herself hasn’t always been the cat’s meow. After five decades as an acclaimed TV, Broadway and cabaret performer, Kitt says her life reflects both the rewards and repercussions of speaking up and acting out.

“We live in a free, democratic world, and unless we’re exercising those freedoms … you never know you have them or not,” Kitt said.

“So, speak out!” she advised the audience Sept. 25 during an interview with Ken Paulson for the program “Speaking Freely,” the First Amendment Center’s weekly television show. Paulson is the center’s executive director.

As a child, she was brought up rather strictly in the cotton fields of South Carolina, Kitt said. “As a result, you do what you are told to do, not what you want to do.”

She was, she recalled, “afraid to exercise expressing my feelings about anything because I wasn’t (being) obedient.”

But she soon refused the particularly Southern prescription to be a “good girl.”

In the mid-1940s, when she was 16, she was dropped off in New York City by a relative. There, she found her flair for show business — and her voice — when she auditioned almost by accident for choreographer Katherine Dunham, whose professional dance troupe established black dance as an art form in the United States.

“When I got to the dance class, the students were rehearsing, boom ka-ka choom to a rhythm, so I went boom ka-ka choom — and I won a full scholarship,” she recalled, pulling out a few knee-high kicks across the stage and ending by plopping herself on Paulson’s lap.

“This is the most fun I have had in my adult life,” said Paulson, delighted at the antics of an entertainer who confided that she will be 75 in January.

Kitt’s characteristic expression as Catwoman — a coquettish “grrrrrrowl!” — is one of the many memorable ways she has expressed herself.

“Playing Catwoman is one of the best things I have ever done … grrrrrrowl!” she said, with one arm up and her fingers hooked as claws, teasing the audience. “It has allowed me to make fun of myself.”

Kitt only played the role in the “Batman” TV series for three episodes in the 1960s, and she admits that, as a young working mother at the time, she initially did it for the money. Although putting on a black, skin-tight outfit and entering the campy comic book world wasn’t the breakthrough she had been longing for, she said it did allow her to lead to a performer’s life of speaking her mind and saying her piece.

And, with her three autobiographies, including the recent Rejuvenate: It’s Never Too Late, Paulson noted that Kitt obviously has a lot to say.

All three autobiographies are examples of speaking up and out, she said.

“I am a work in progress!” she added.

Paulson asked Kitt where her confidence came from.

“Confidence?” she replied, turning from fun to seriousness. “I think (it’s) hunger. I wanted to survive — on my own.

“Being an orphan and being given away — because you are not the right color, you’re not white enough, or you’re not black enough, and you’re called the ‘yellow gal’ — you make your own way and you make your own philosophy about the way you feel about yourself,” Kitt explained.

And when nobody adopted her, she said, she made her audience her family.

“You adopted me when nobody else would,” she added, extending her arms to the audience.

Part of her derring-do includes ignoring the hurtful words of others, Kitt said.

“I have not paid that much attention to the fact that I have been called a reject by agents who say, ‘You don’t fit in anywhere, you don’t sound like anyone we know, and you don’t look like anyone we know.’”

Kitt recalled other attempts to silence her and end her career.

She said that her brazen cabaret ways and support of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t sit well with some of the more militant civil rights activists.

“The Black Panthers threatened me many times,” she said. “They caught me in an elevator at the Palmer House in Chicago and said, ‘We want you to be on our side. And, if you are not, when you come to Harlem we will get you.’”

The audience hooted when Kitt added, “I was scared to death that these four beautiful, strapping men pinned me up against the wall — for all the wrong reasons!”

But, becoming serious again, she said, “No matter how many words they threw at me, I stood my ground, and no harm was done.”

Kitt also endured a more-publicized reaction after she openly criticized U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War at a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson in 1968.

Paulson said that the CIA then labeled her a “sadistic nymphomaniac” for expressing unpopular views about the war, and that she was blacklisted by many in the U.S. entertainment industry.

Booking agents, Kitt added, claimed to have forgotten that they had booked her for certain gigs; managers claimed to be unaware of signed work contracts.

That forced her to work abroad. She was finally welcomed back to the White House almost a decade later for a luncheon hosted by then-President Jimmy Carter.

“That’s when I knew I was home again,” she recalled. “I always had the inkling to come home. There’s nothing like the United States of America.”

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