Eartha Kitt blazed the trail for countless Black singers and actresses. But her rise to the top came at a horrific price, as Kitt’s journey to stardom included brushes with violence, poverty, and even surveillance by the CIA. Say “meow”—but don’t get blacklisted—as we reveal the sordid story of Eartha Kitt, Hollywood’s most fearless entertainer.
Eartha Kitt Facts
1. She Had A Chilling Childhood
The glamorous Eartha Kitt took her first breaths on a North Carolina cotton plantation on January 17, 1927. Her mother was a Black-Cherokee worker, while her father…well, to this day, we don’t know who he was. Some believe that Kitt’s mother had an affair with a local white doctor. But Kitt herself thought her roots were far more chilling.
2. Her Family Tree Was Twisted
Kitt always believed that her father sexually assaulted her mother. And even though she never learned her father’s identity, she felt certain that he was part of the plantation owner’s family. As though all that isn’t horrific enough, there’s another awful layer to Kitt’s birth: When Kitt was born, her mother was still a child herself at only 16 years old.
Sadly for young Eartha, things would get far worse before they got better.
3. She Didn’t Belong
Kitt’s ostensibly mixed-race origins put her at odds with her family. When her mother moved in with another Black man, he demanded that little Eartha stay away, saying that he didn’t want a “yella” child. Kitt’s mother actually agreed with her new beau and shuttled her own daughter away to her sister Rosa. Tragically, Eartha soon realized that living with Aunt Rosa was a waking nightmare.
4. Her Aunt Was Cruel
During her time at Aunt Rosa’s farm, Eartha felt like a “working mule.” She said her aunt used her as laborer, forcing her to wear scratchy, dirty potato sacks and making her pick cotton all day. Then, in another heinous twist, Eartha learned that her cousins were no kinder than her aunt. The boy and girl would tie Eartha to a tree and whip her. They also sexually abused her.
In short, life at Aunt Rosa’s farm was miserable. Eventually, Eartha escaped her cruel relatives—but her path to freedom came at a heartbreakingly high cost.
5. She Witnessed A Traumatic Moment
In 1935, Kitt’s mother suddenly fell ill. The family rushed Eartha to her mother’s deathbed so she could say goodbye—only for Eartha to actually see her mother die. She was just eight years old at the time. Looking back, Kitt says this experience traumatized her, especially considering how her mother’s demise was far from peaceful.
The suddenness of the illness and her mother’s intense pain actually led Kitt to believe her mother was poisoned.
6. She Went Out Of The Fire And Into The Frying Pan
At this point, young Eartha was effectively an orphan—and she refused to return to Aunt Rosa’s farm. Kitt was alone again, until her Aunt Marnie stepped up and took the young girl in. Earth moved to Harlem, New York City, and started pursuing the arts. From the outside, it looked like Kitt’s life was finally improving. But appearances can be deceiving…
7. She Was Miserable
Just like Eartha’s other so-called guardians, it turned out that Aunt Marnie had a mean streak. She abused Eartha so much that she ran away from this home, too. Kitt’s situation was so terrible that she chose homelessness over living with her aunt. She would ride on subways for as long as possible and, once the trains stopped running, she would sleep on rooftops.
8. She Was A Survivor
Eartha Kitt had a horrendous childhood. She went from one miserable home to another, and the best of them still saw her struggle. To make ends meet with her aunt in their cramped Harlem apartment, Kitt spent her teenage years working in a sewing factory. Looking back on her upbringing, though, Kitt focused on how it taught her to survive.
She once said, “I’ve used all the manure that’s been thrown on me as fertilizer.” And soon, after so many years of pain, her resilience would finally pay off.
9. She Got A Lucky Break
Kitt’s career started by pure chance. One day, the young Eartha Kitt helped a woman asking for directions. As it turns out, this woman was a dancer with the Katherine Dunham collective and advised Kitt to attend an audition. Kitt followed her advice and not only won the audition—she won a full scholarship to the dance school. By her teen years, Kitt had begun to tour across Europe and South America.
10. She Romanced An Icon
In the 1940s, Kitt began her entertainment career as a member of the Katherine Durham Company, the first African-American modern dance company in history. Soon enough, the world started to notice Kitt’s charisma and bombshell figure, leading Eartha to pursue showbiz opportunities in Paris. While there, she caught the eye of Hollywood’s most iconic leading man: Orson Welles himself…
11. He Fell Under Her Spell
When Welles saw Eartha Kitt, he immediately fell under her spell. He hired her to play Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in history, in his 1950 re-staging of Dr. Faustus. When Kitt asked Welles why he cast her, he simply replied that she was “the most exciting woman in the world.” It was a tremendous compliment—and soon, Welles’ admiration moved offstage…
12. They Had A Strange Affair
According to Kitt’s autobiography, she had an affair with Orson Welles during her stage days. However, the couple never consummated their relationship. According to Kitt, “The most exciting men in my life have been the men who have never taken me to bed.” She spoke longingly of Welles for the rest of her life.
13. Things Got Out Of Control
But don’t get it twisted—Welles and Kitt shared a fiery passion during Dr. Faustus’s stage run. Kitt received glowing reviews, leading Welles to get more than a little jealous of his leading lady. Some nights, he’d use his tall, broad frame to actually block the audience from seeing the tiny but mighty Kitt. Then one night, he took it way too far.
14. He Drew Blood
One night, in front of a packed house, Welles leaned in to give Kitt a kiss. This wasn’t unusual—their characters embraced in the script. However, the next thing he did took Kitt by surprise. He bit down on her lip, breaking the tissue so that Kitt began to bleed. Ever a star, Kitt got through the scene, even though the audience could see blood dripping from her bottom lip.
15. She Had A Scandalous Reputation
But fighting with Orson Welles was just one of many scandalous things that Eartha Kitt got up to in the 1950s. In 1950, she performed a controversial solo act at one of Paris’s biggest lesbian night clubs. What was so scandalous about the show? Kitt’s character was named “Fred”—a beautiful woman who spent her life dressed as a man.
Audiences flocked to see “Fred” and cooed over Kitt’s star power—but Eartha soon learned that everything that goes up must come down.
16. She Crashed And Burned
They can’t all be hits. In 1951, Kitt returned from the European cabaret circuit and brought her act to New York City…where it failed big time. Reviews admitted that Kitt had confidence, but said that her actual singing and dancing needed work. Ouch. And as if that wasn’t harsh enough, Kitt’s personal life was going through a rocky patch too—to say the least…
17. She Had A Dark Premonition
In the 1950s, Kitt became extremely close friends with the film star James Dean. However, in 1955, Kitt says she began to feel wary about Dean’s wellbeing. Once, when she hugged Dean, she said “What have they done to you? I can’t feel you, your spirit is gone.” Dean just laughed at Kitt’s superstitious streak, but looking back, she was right to be worried.
18. She Lost A Dear Friend
Kitt claims that on another occasion, when Dean drove her around in his Porsche Spyder, she suddenly felt a wave of terror wash over her. She said, “Jamie, I don’t like this car, it’s going to kill you.” As all film fans know, Kitt was right. Dean tragically perished when he crashed his Porsche in 1955. Even into the 1980s, whenever Kitt discussed losing Dean in interviews, she teared up.
19. Her Heart Was Broken
Shortly before Dean’s demise, Kitt underwent another heartbreak. In 1954, she fell head over heels for Arthur Loew Jr., whose family founded Paramount Studios. Loew returned Kitt’s feelings, but when the couple discussed getting married, everything suddenly changed. Loew’s mother intervened because, as Kitt believes, she refused to let her son marry a mixed race woman.
Kitt never quite got over losing Loew, later saying that she wished “he was the father of my child.”
20. She Felt Torn
Life wasn’t easy for Eartha Kitt. White audiences often thought she was too Black, while Black viewers thought she was too white. For instance, when she starred in a movie with Sammy Davis Jr, a whopping 2,500 (!) theaters refused to screen the film. According to them, as Kitt said, “I wasn’t black enough to be making love to a black man on the screen.”
21. Men Were Cruel To Her
Sadly, even Kitt’s own friends and lovers treated her with prejudice. For example, Kitt revealed that she and the singer Harry Belafonte had a brief romance. Why so brief? Oh, because the morning after they slept together, Belafonte got up from the bed and said, “I don’t want you to take this seriously. No Black woman can do anything for me.” And that wasn’t the end of it, either.
22. She Was Rejected
According to Kitt, Belafonte was far from the only Black man who rejected her. In her later years, she revealed that she pursued men like Belafonte and the iconic actor Sidney Poitier—only to be rejected because, as Kitt said, “they dated predominantly white women.” And when her co-stars did reciprocate her feelings, well, things got complicated fast.
23. She Romanced A Co-Star
While filming Saint Louis Blues with Nat King Cole, Kitt struck up a flirtation with her co-star. There was just one problem with this: Cole was married at the time. Despite this, Cole and Kitt stayed in touch, with Kitt even flying down to Los Angeles to help him with a television show he was working on. During one of her visits, Cole’s wife realized what was going on—and she was furious.
24. His Wife Was Enraged
As a “thank you” to Kitt for helping with his television show, Nat King Cole unsubtly sent her so many red roses that they covered every surface in her hotel room. He also included a note about how happy he was that they had met. Apparently, Cole’s wife caught onto his more-than-friendly gestures, because Kitt received a letter from her.
The vicious note lay down the law, simply reading: “I don’t know if you think of yourself as some kind of temptress siren but the film is over and Go-Go [Eartha Kitt’s character in the film] is gone, let’s leave it that way.”
25. She Had A Wild Love Life
After flirting with the Welles, Belafonte, and Cole, Kitt moved on to even bigger game. She got cozy with the legendary playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, romanced Revlon’s founder Charles Revson, and shmoozed with the heir John Barry Ryan III. However, after all these dalliances, Kitt finally found lasting love in 1960—or at least, she thought she did.
26. Her Husband Was Haunted
In 1960, Kitt married a man named Bill McDonald. At first, the newlyweds were incandescently happy, but soon enough, things took a dark turn. Shortly after welcoming a baby girl in 1961, Kitt and and McDonald’s marriage started to deteriorate. You see, a grenade explosion in the Korean War both injured and traumatized McDonald. He began to use opioids to cope with the pain and psychological torment. By 1964, Kitt and McDonald divorced.
27. She Did The Work
A lifetime political activist, Eartha Kitt dedicated much of her time in the 1960s to effecting social change. She founded a non-profit organization and spearheaded a Washington DC youth group called “Rebels with a Cause” (perhaps a tribute to her old friend, James Dean?). Kitt worked tirelessly to help underprivileged children—but her good-hearted actions had chilling consequences.
28. She Spoke Up
Kitt’s involvement with “Rebels with a Cause” earned her the ire of US government. The Committee on Education and Labor felt suspicious about the kids (who were literally cleaning up the streets!). Kitt didn’t take that nonsense sitting down. She formally testified on the kids’ behalf, pointing out how they did more with fewer resources in a single year than the powerful did in many. Tell ’em, Eartha!
But as we’ll see, not everyone appreciated her outspokenness…
29. She Netted A Legendary Role
In 1967, Julie Newmar left the role of Catwoman in the Batman TV series. Donning the sexy leather catsuit, Eartha Kitt stepped into the traditionally white part and revolutionized Black female representation in Hollywood. Instead of playing a stereotypical role of a mammy or a Jezebel, Kitt’s Catwoman was fierce, clever, and confident.
In other words, her career was on fire—but even then, prejudice stepped in to derail her success.
30. Prejudice Derailed Her Role
Eartha Kitt’s sultry turn as Catwoman in the Batman show meant the romantic tension between her and Batman had to be toned down. Catwoman was now a Black woman, but Batman was still a white man; by 1960s standards, an interracial “foe”-mance was deemed wholly unacceptable for TV audiences. Instead, Batgirl became a love interest for the caped crusader.
And then, after getting rebuffed by Hollywood, Kitt would be rejected by the American government.
31. She Made Waves
In 1968, Kitt turned her invitation to the First Lady’s luncheon into a public denunciation of the Vietnam War. The luncheon aimed to raise awareness about juvenile crime on the streets of America. As only one of just seven Black women among the 41 guests, Kitt endured speech after speech that saw beautifying neighborhoods as a remedy to social woes. Eventually, she had enough.
32. Her Words Changed Everything
Kitt waited until Lady Bird Johnson and her ladies-who-lunch friends stopped cooing over how they’d solve poverty by planting flowers. Then she stood up and spoke her mind. She said, “I have lived in the gutters. That’s why I know what I’m talking about. You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street…they don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”
The aftermath of Kitt’s speech hit hard and fast.
33. Her Career Was Over
After Kitt’s speech, you could have heard a pin drop—at least, until Lady Bird Johnson burst into tears. Once the First Lady started crying, the event wrapped up quickly. As Kitt left, she knew she’d spoken her mind and told the truth, but she didn’t realize that her speech would haunt her and her once-promising career for the next two decades.
34. She Caused A National Scandal
The US government made its stance on Eartha Kitt very clear following her anti-war comments. She had arrived at the luncheon via arranged car, but she found none waiting to help her leave. She had to cab her way back. Of course, on the way, the driver turned on the radio—only for Eartha to hear radio news already breaking down her speech.
In a heartbeat, the luncheon went from a typical government event to a national scandal deemed, “The White House Incident.”
35. Dark Rumors Swirled
After Kitt’s conduct at the luncheon, she was effectively blacklisted from work in the United States. It’s said the CIA spread rumors about her being “a sadistic nymphomaniac” and even planted a dossier about her intimate life and family history to be published in 1975. From then on, her work mostly took place in Europe and Asia.
36. She Was Black-Listed
For Kitt, being banished from American audiences was a traumatic experience. To her, the audience wasn’t just the audience; her fans were her family. As she said, she felt like an orphan until “the public adopted me” and became her “only family.” As such, being expelled from her fans was heartbreaking. Thankfully, there was a light at the end of this dark tunnel.
37. She Made A Powerful Comeback
After a longtime career stall resulting from her political views, Eartha Kitt made a comeback via her first love: music. She accepted a supporting role in the Broadway musical Timbuktu! In some ways, the role was a step down—Kitt had been a superstar, now she was the fifth-billed actor in a musical—but the second Kitt walked onstage, the crowd went wild.
After being black-listed, America was finally ready for Eartha Kitt’s triumphant return.
38. Justice Was Served
This part is satisfying for Eartha fans. After decades away, her American comeback was a smash success. She received a Tony nomination for Best Actress for her work in Timbuktu! And, even better, the new American President Jimmy Carter personally invited her to the White House. He apologized for the way she’d been treated and said, “Welcome home.”
39. She Was Fearless
Credit to Eartha Kitt: She was fearless. Even after getting black-listed for voicing her views, she continued to support those in need, no matter what anyone else said. She was an early supporter of LGBT rights and performed at many HIV/AIDS benefits. She also became a gay icon in the 1980s with disco songs like “Where Is My Man” and “I Love Men.” In a career full of extravagance, this might have been Kitt’s peak extra period.
But a chilling revelation was right around the corner…
40. She Unveiled A Personal Mystery
In the 1990s, Kitt turned her mind to a mystery that had haunted her since childhood: Who was her father? After searching through official records, Kitt finally managed to locate a copy of her birth certificate. She requested to see the paperwork for herself, saw that it was approved, then patiently waited. Finally, the precious paperwork arrived. But there was one final twist in store.
41. Her Heart Sunk
As Kitt opened her own birth certificate, her heart sunk. South Carolina’s authorities censored the certificate and blocked out the name of Kitt’s father. The experience deeply saddened Kitt, who believed that the authorities were protecting a well-to-do white family and leaving her, their unrecognized relative, with nothing.
42. She Voiced A Beloved Character
Kitt’s personal life was, as usual, full of ups and downs, but on the bright side, her career was going swimmingly. In the early 2000s, Kitt lent her voice to the role of Yzma in Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove. The part netted Kitt her first Annie Award, along with a generation of young fans. She also received two Daytime Emmys for her work on the TV spinoff of the movie. Sadly, though, all good things must come to an end.
43. She Was Horribly Ill
In 2006, Kitt made a horrific discovery: Her doctor told her that she had colon cancer. Though the news was devastating, Kitt fought the disease with everything she had. She was even blessed with a period of remission where she gave an acclaimed 90-minute solo performance at the Shaw Theatre in London. Tragically, though, the cancer returned. And this time, no remission lay ahead.
44. She Struggled
Eartha Kitt spent the last days of her life with her only daughter, Kitt McDonald. The legendary singer had also started to see people who weren’t there. McDonald would tease her mother lightly and say things like, “I’m going to go in the other room, and you stay here and talk to your friends.” They handled Kitt’s troubles with humor, but the truth was that Eartha didn’t have much time left.
45. She Breathed Her Last
In 2008, Eartha Kitt passed from colon cancer in her Weston, Connecticut home. Her beloved daughter was by her side when she took her last breaths. At the time of her passing, Eartha Kitt was 81 years old. And, like a true Hollywood star, Kitt knew how to time her exit. The woman who became famous for singing “Santa Baby” passed on Christmas Day.
46. She Was Rightfully Angry
By the end of her life, Kitt summarized her eventful but harrowing life in six words: “Rejected, ejected, dejected, used, accused, abused.”
47. She Made Headlines From Beyond The Grave
In 2019, actress Jackée Harry opened up about the time Eartha Kitt “slapped the f— outta me!” Answering a Twitter thread about surreal celebrity encounters, Harry described Kitt attacking her because she thought Harry was sleeping with her boyfriend. As it turns out, Harry was sleeping with her boyfriend, but she didn’t know he was also dating Kitt.
48. Hollywood Commemorated Her
Want to pay homage to Eartha Kitt? Start with listening to her classic songs, “I Want To Be Evil,” “Santa Baby,” “Monotonous,” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Then watch some of her incredible interviews, including a viral clip of Kitt’s sage love advice. But if you want an in-person experience, your best bet is visiting Kitt’s star on the Walk of Fame at 6656 Hollywood Boulevard.
49. She’s A Legend
Eartha Kitt’s life had some truly harrowing lows, but it’s important to remember that she was a woman who knew how to have fun. Kitt relished new experiences and lived life to the fullest. One example of her gung-ho style? Kitt once had an intimate encounter with James Dean and Paul Newman…at the same time. She referred to it as “one of the most celestial experiences of my life” and purred, “White boys are delicious.”
50. Men Didn’t Treat Her Well
Despite her active love life and reputation for being a maneater, Eartha Kitt married only once. After divorcing McDonald, she never married again, nor did she have any more children. In a late-in-life interview, Kitt revealed part of her decision to stay single. She sadly reflected that, “A man has always wanted to lay me down, but he never wanted to pick me up.”
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25