“Speaking Freely” show recorded Sept. 25, 2001, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression and America. I’m Ken Paulson. Orson Welles once called Eartha Kitt the most exciting woman on earth, and you know what? She spent her entire life proving that. It’s our pleasure to introduce our guest, Eartha Kitt.
Eartha Kitt: Thank you.
Paulson: What an incredible compliment, and yet what a burden to be labeled as the most exciting woman on earth by Orson Welles at the very beginning of your career. How did you react to that?
Kitt: I believed everything he said.
Paulson: What was it like to work with Orson Welles? He gave you a big break in your career early on.
Kitt: Yes, he did, as an actress. It was very frightening, working with Orson Welles, because being as physically huge as he was and having to — well, at that time I was very, very small, like in my teens still. And to work with him was not always the most exciting thing in the world in the manner in which you would think this is, “Oh my goodness, this is so exciting.” But it was very scary. And at the same time, it was very exciting because I was learning so much all the time, particularly when he was with Michael McLeimore and Hilton Head was from the Gate Theater in Dublin and we would all go to lunch … the four … the three of them and me. They would take me to lunch at the Calavados Restaurant in Paris. And with each of sip of food and with each sip of a drink, they would get up and they would start talking and reciting Shakespeare. Or Marlowe. Or even Jesus Christus, you know. And it was so exciting that I never wanted to move. I was like a fly on the wall. That’s why … I think he said I was the most exciting woman in the world, because I knew when to talk and when not to.
Paulson: Well, your career actually took off quickly and early. I mean, you started as a dancer but quickly fell in with people like Orson Welles. The Broadway revue, “New Faces,” established you as a star very quickly.
Kitt: As a singer, yes.
Paulson: As a singer. And yet it’s interesting you should say that because we’ve been on the air here for about three minutes. We’ve already talked about singing, dancing and acting.
Paulson: I mean, did you set out to have this multifaceted career in which you basically did anything and everything?
Kitt: No. I was scared to death to do anything like getting into show business because I was brought up rather strictly, in a cotton field in South Carolina. And as a result, you do what you are told to do, not what you want to do. And I think that I was afraid always to exercise my feelings about anything because I thought I would be POW! Get my face slapped or something like that or a little slap on my derriere because I wasn’t obedient. But when the time came for me to really say, “I think I’m in your way,” to my aunt when she brought me to New York … “I think I’m in your way.” Because she was a very beautiful woman, and she didn’t know anything about taking care of children. My mother had died, or whomever was … that was saying that she was my mother who had given me away to so many people at the time down south. So she brought me up north, my aunt, and she told me she was my mother. I’m very confused about the whole thing. But at any rate, I thought that I was in the way. And when the time came that I was offered this opportunity to go down and meet Katherine Dunham, because I had seen her in the movies with these beautiful legs in the air, you know, and … (Growls)
Kitt: … and I thought, oh, this is something I’d like to do.
Kitt: In “Stormy Weather.” So when this girl came to me and asked me to take her to the makeup shop, I had been in the New York School of Performing Arts so I had known about makeup and all of that sort of thing. And I thought she was a very attractive girl, and I reprimanded her. “Why do you want to put on so much makeup, you know? You’re so pretty.” She said, “No. It’s not for me. I am a Katherine Dunham dancer and Miss Dunham has sent me out to get this makeup.” Ah! Click! Then I thought, O.K., I’ll take you to the makeup shop if you introduce me to Miss Dunham. So we made the deal. So we get to the school on 57th Street, where her school was, and she was having these dances … auditions. And the drums were going, (Sings, dances) “Bah-koong-ka-ko-kung, kung-kung-ko-kung, kung-kung” … so I joined the class and went, (Sings, dances) “Oh-koong-ko-ko-kung, kung-kung” …
Kitt: And I won a full scholarship and that’s how I got in.
Kitt: That’s how I got here. (Laughs)
Paulson: I have to point out you’re actually the first guest who’s ever done anything like that.
Paulson: And now, a word from our sponsors.
Kitt: And I want you to know … excuse me, Ken. But I want you to know that I’m going to be 75 years old on January 17th.
Kitt: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Paulson: So where did this confidence come from?
Kitt: Confidence? It’s … I think hunger. I was …
Kitt: I wanted to survive on my own without having anyone be so responsible for me that I have to go to them and ask them for a piece of bread. So I learned … instinctively, using that animal instincts that I had when I was a child in the South because being given away, you know, you have to rely on whatever is thrown to you in order to survive. So I was following the cats and the dogs and the birds and whatever was thrown from the table. It was a tossup between me and the animals as to who was going to get it. (Laughs) So I had to learn how to survive. And I think that’s where that desire comes from. I never want to be a burden on anyone, not even to my children.
Paulson: In your early career you had a song called “Monotonous” that …
Paulson: … that captured the imagination of Broadway audiences and national audiences, and in fact became a film as well, is that right?
Kitt: “New Faces” became a film, and in “New Faces” I did that song, “Monotonous,” which to me was not monotonous at all except in the beginning when they took me to lunch and they said, “What do you do?” I said, “I cannot tell you what I do, I can only show you what I do.” And they wrote this song for me from the experiences that I had had with all of these handsome rich people, including King Farouk and Ruby Rosa and people like that in … in Paris, you know. So when I came back to America they wrote this song for me and it was called “Monotonous.” So four-liners, and at the end of the four-liners it would say, “Monotonous.” And I walked across the stage as the director told me to do, “Walk across the stage, sing ‘Monotonous.’” Da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da … I said, “By the time I get to the other side of the stage, the audience is gonna say, ‘Monotonous.’ ”
Kitt: So I begged them to give me six chaise lounges, which I don’t think I got. I think I got something like three or four. And as I was singing whatever the words were, I don’t remember them right now, but I would come on to the stage on the chaise lounge and I would do whatever … (Sings) da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da, dee-dee-da-da-da, (Dances in Paulson’s lap) monotonous for what it’s worth, throughout the Earth, I’m known as femme fatale (Overlap/Inaudible) …
Kitt: … the moon comes up like thunder, brother/Bring back the Taj Mahal!
Kitt: Now you know why I’m called the most exciting woman in the world.
Paulson: I just love showbiz.
Paulson: This could not be better.
Paulson: I’ll be sitting over here.
Kitt: After crawling across these chaise lounges, by the time I got to the other end of the stage, they had to write three or four more verses because the audience loved it so much. So thank you very much, thank you very much, thank you very much.
Paulson: Many, many people when they hear your name immediately think of Catwoman.
Kitt: (Growls) Yes.
Paulson: In your book you say, “I loved playing Catwoman.”
Kitt: I did.
Paulson: This was a situation comedy you were on for how many episodes …
Kitt: I don’t think I was on more than three.
Paulson: And it’s among the most memorable television ever.
Kitt: Thank you.
Paulson: Do you … why is it that that has such a resonance for so many years for so many people?
Kitt: Well, I cannot speak for other people. But for me, it was really making fun of ourselves. We were taking the mickey out of us. As Eartha Kitt, I’m always taking the mickey out of myself anyway because I don’t think anybody in the world has been more fortunate than I have been, and life has been so much fun for me. But to be able to do that, to make fun of oneself, I don’t believe in making fun of other people because I laugh at myself and with myself more than I think anyone else would, because I think it’s a lot of fun being Eartha Kitt. (Growls) I love every moment of it. Because I can tease myself, I can play with my mind, I can play with other people’s minds and hope that they come along with the joke rather than taking me as something that is insulting them. But Catwoman to me was really one of the best things I’ve ever done because I didn’t have to think about it. I didn’t have to think about, oh, how do you play a cat? I am a cat.
Kitt: Therefore you play the character as a cat. And I don’t think that when people are — I cannot talk for other actors, but when I am called on to do a character, I don’t have to go back into my childhood and remember when I was happy or when I was sorrowful, when I was this and that and the other thing. It’s there. So when I read the script, I already know that … who that character is, because I’ve felt it and that’s why I accepted the character.
Paulson: We hear from a lot of black performers in the ‘50s that they had to make choices.
Paulson: They had to choose whether to join the movement or stay apolitical. Where were you in that universe? Did you gravitate towards the political and the activist, or did you say, “I’m an actress, and that’s my primary ambition in life”?
Kitt: You don’t think about it, whether it’s going to ruin my career or … because I’m a human being. I’m an American citizen. I happen to love this country. And I know that we have our struggles, but we fight them from the inside of the country. And I think that when we start fighting each other, then we are self-destructive.
Paulson: What did you think …
Paulson: I know you admired Martin Luther King. What was your sense of Malcolm X?
Kitt: Oh, I was always fighting with Malcolm. He and I had tremendous discussions. As a matter of fact, the Sunday before he was killed, I had come out of Africa, I think, and we had … my daughter and I had stopped in London and we were on the BBC. And I was trying to get him to think and join Martin Luther King’s movement. And I think he was then thinking about doing that, and he came back to America … and that’s when we had this tremendous discussion, all the time. As a matter of fact, the Black Panthers threatened me many times. They caught me in an elevator at the Palmer House in Chicago and said, “We know that you are with Martin Luther King, but we want you to be on our side. And if you’re not going to be on our side, when you come to Harlem we will get you.” And of course … scared to death with these four beautiful strapping men, you know, pinning me up against the wall for the wrong reason.
Kitt: You don’t say anything. (Laughs) Absolutely quiet. And when I came to Harlem to do the Apollo Theater, they were there when I was doing speeches on behalf of Martin Luther King and trying to … they were ridiculing me, of course, and they threatened that they would get me again. But I stood my ground and walked from the Seventh Avenue Theresa Hotel to, all by myself, back to the Apollo Theater, as slowly as I could, doing the window shopping. And … no matter how many words they threw at me, I stood my grounds and no harm was done.
Paulson: This is a show largely about free expression and the First Amendment. And you had a singular experience one day having lunch at the White House. And I’d like to explore that with you because that story’s been told from a number of different perspectives. And I’d just like to walk through it very carefully. We’re going to get the definitive story of Eartha Kitt and Lady Bird that day at the White House. You were invited to lunch with fifty other women. What did you believe you were going to do? What was the expectation of that luncheon?
Kitt: First of all, the invitation said, “Why is there so much juvenile delinquency in the streets of America?” And I took the subject seriously because I work with different areas of the United States among the young people. I still have an organization in Watts called Kittsville, where we bring the young people in to teach them physical therapies of the dance form, et cetera, et cetera … as well as other things. But this luncheon was with us fifty women who were to discuss the problems among the young people at that time, and when the time came, I raised my hand and told Mrs. Johnson what the young boys of this country had told me, who had fled United States, met me in my dressing rooms, no matter which part of the world I was in, such as Canada and England, et cetera. And we would sit on my floor of my dressing room, or in my hotel suite, and we would discuss what it was that they was problemed with, and the biggest problem among them was our involvement in Vietnam. And they said, “If you’re a good guy, you don’t get sent … you get sent to Vietnam. If you’re a bad guy, you have a little stigma against you and you don’t go to Vietnam.” Not that they did not love the country, but they didn’t want us to be involved there. It was a dishonorable war, and it was an unwinnable war. So when I raised my hand and told Mrs. Johnson what those boys had told me and also how I felt about our involvement in Vietnam, it seems that within two hours I was out of work in the United States, according to my dossier that was given to me not just … not the whole thing, just a smidgen. It said that I was on the CIA list in the United States of America.
Paulson: Now you spoke up during a discussion that was largely devoted to the beautification of America.
Kitt: Well, her idea, and according to the ladies there, too, was to plant wild seeds along Route 66.
Kitt: And I thought, that’s all very well and good. But what we need is education for everyone, equal education for all, and why is it that our schools are so dilapidated and our educational system so much at fault? Because I believe that if you get an education, you can cross anybody’s line. Because it’s your intelligence that counts, not what you look like.
Paulson: Did you have any sense as you walked from the White House that day what was about to hit you? Did you have any idea that you had jumped into boiling water?
Kitt: No. Because I have a feeling of freedom in my country, and we are on grounds that says you have that freedom of … freedom of speech, freedom from oppression, freedom from … all sorts of oppressions. I still feel that way. And as I said, we in our country can solve our own problems on our own home grounds, and therefore what we feel in our own country should be exercised, the freedoms that we have here.
Paulson: Did you have contracts canceled on you immediately when you went … I mean, was it a matter of weeks, was it a matter of minutes that you knew that something terribly bad was going to happen to your career?
Kitt: It was a matter of, I think, weeks because after the luncheon, three weeks later I was supposed to open at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. And I called the agency to go over the contract to see that everything was so and so and so. And they said, “What contract?” And I said, “But … blah-blah-blah.” Said that you had … don’t have a contract there. And when I called the Ambassador Hotel, they … acted as though they’d never even heard of me. And I think I still have that contract somewhere in my scrapbooks. And that’s when I began to realize what is happening. Has my popularity waned? Am I … what … what did I do wrong? Have I done something wrong? And that’s when I began to realize that I wasn’t able to get work in the United States. Not because they didn’t want me as an artist, but they didn’t want the CIA or the FBI on their doorsteps. That’s why you’re out of work, without even realizing it.
Paulson: And what we have found out since then, thanks to some investigative reporting, is there were in fact both CIA and FBI agents looking into you.
Paulson: They … the dossier, I think the most ugly thing they could find to say about you, let’s see, was … you were a sadistic nymphomaniac. That was …
Kitt: I think I lost a page in my life somewhere, but … yes.
Paulson: Which some would regard as a compliment.
Paulson: But … that was … that was the ugly thing they asserted about you.
Kitt: And that’s all they could come … back with, because they’re doing … they’re doing investigations behind your back and you don’t even know it. And all you know is that you can’t work and you don’t know why. Nothing is ever explained to you.
Paulson: By all accounts, you spent about eleven years without Stateside work. When did you know that the curtain was lifting that you were … you were in effect able to come back and work in the United States?
Kitt: When Geoffrey Holder called me … he flew to Los Angeles and he came to my house in Beverly Hills and asked me if I would do Celine LaLong in his production of “Timbuktu,” which is “Kismet,” as everyone knows. And it’s the number five character. She’s not number one, two, three or four. But I never worried about whether you are the lead character or not. The audience knows that. The audience always knows who is the star, and therefore I don’t have any arguments with that. So when he asked me … naturally, I said, it was wonderful. So I came back to do “Timbuktu.” And I was brought in on the stage in the hands of Tony Carroll, who is the … the opposite, or I suppose the same kind of person as Schwarzenegger. They were in competition with one another at one time. And he brought me in onto the stage and I had one foot on his body like that. The other foot was in his hand. And my derriere was in his hand.
Kitt: I’ve always wanted a man like that. I haven’t found one yet. But when I walked up … when I came on the stage, before I could take my body and my feet down, the audience … the audience stood up and gave me a standing ovation, even before I opened my mouth. That’s when I realized …
Kitt: … I was okay. (Laughs)
Paulson: And there was another special moment at the White House, shortly thereafter with a new … a new president.
Kitt: Yeah. While I was doing “Timbuktu,” it was President Carter who asked me to come to the White House. And I went with my daughter, and he said, “Welcome home, Eartha.” And that made headlines across all the papers in the United States, and that opened the doors for me to come back to American stage. So thank you again.
Paulson: Given your experiences at being outspoken and being punished for it, did you temper what you had to say for the next twenty years?
Kitt: No. As I said, we live in a free democratic world. And unless we are exercising those freedoms, with discretion of course, I mean, with good manners and do unto others as you would have them to do unto you, you never know if you have them or not.
Kitt: So speak out. This is what this country’s all about. Speak out. And do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Paulson: You’ve written books. You’ve been nominated for almost every possible professional award. What have you not done that you’re saying, “I’ve got to get to that?”
Kitt: Well, I haven’t died yet.
Kitt: Oh, boy. Well, like I say, you know, what haven’t I done? I would just like to keep on working and keep on living because as I said before, my life has been extremely interesting and I wouldn’t want to have missed it for the world. And that’s one of the reasons why I wrote this book now that’s out called “Rejuvenate, It’s Never Too Late.” Because those of us who have come through the years, we begin to realize, I think all of us do at a certain stage of our lives, what life has really meant to us and the value of that life. And if we didn’t do that, we’re absolutely out of our minds. And particularly when we get to an age like seventy-something, darling, life has just begun.
Kitt: I’m having more fun now. I don’t have a man in my life, it’s not that kind of fun. (Laughs) But it’s not that kind of thinking that I’m thinking about. It’s the real value of life that you greatly appreciate, and the fact that I could have lived in any country in the world but this one is the one that I chose to live in and to live out the rest of my years in.
Paulson: What …
Paulson: We want everyone to go out and buy the “Rejuvenate” book. But if you can distill one piece of wisdom for people to … to take from that book, what would it be?
Kitt: Life is not problematical. We make it problematical because we are all listening to something … to someone else, to some thing without listening to ourselves. We’re buying a lot of junk, for instance, that we know damn well we don’t need. (Laughs) We clutter up our lives with insignificant things that have no value at all. But when we start to think about how simple life is and how simple it should be lived, then we begin to realize I have no problem. I don’t have a real problem. Problem is something you make. Life is something you live.
Paulson: But if you’re talking to a young girl who’s ten years old and is interested in … in making the world a better place, do you recommend … what would you recommend? What are your thoughts? If you were … if you were gonna give that valedictorian speech at the grade school, what advice do you have to pass on to the next generation?
Kitt: Get education. It’s the most important thing, because like I said, you can find a … a way of communicating and you can break through all barriers once you’ve had that education. But go for what you really love, not because the money is more important than anything else in the world. Because if you go for what you really love and what you really want to do, you’ll do a better job at it. And money will always come and make you comfortable if you love what you do.
Paulson: I have one more question for you. You mentioned you’re about 75 years old and you’ve had a rich and full life. Are you … do you step back and go, “I’m simply amazed at the last 75 years?”
Kitt: I’m simply amazed at my whole life, are you kidding? (Laughs) Because I had … I’ve had more fun being Eartha Kitt, I think, than anybody has had being themselves, whomever they have become.
Kitt: ‘Cause I think I’m the … not only am I the funniest person in the world, but when you think about me being an orphan given away, nobody wants you, you’re a reject and a downtrodden, you don’t … and you’re living in the most wonderful house, not that it’s the biggest house in the world, I never wanted the biggest house, I just wanted to be comfortable. And because nobody came to adopt you, but the people did. How … how wonderful can that be? The people adopted me. My greatest family is the … are the people, the people, the people. That’s why I say when anybody asks me what do I think of myself, I think, (Inaudible), thank you very much. You adopted me when nobody else did.
Paulson: Thank you very much.
Kitt: Thank you.
Paulson: Our guest today has been the shy, the retiring Eartha Kitt.
Kitt: (Laughs) (Growls) Yes.
Paulson: I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about free expression, the arts, and America. Hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”
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