Eartha Kitt was a sex symbol who blazed the path for countless black women after her. Unlike others, Kitt’s journey to stardom was met with violence, poverty, and even surveillance by the CIA. One could never accuse the figure behind Catwoman of being shy. Say “meow”—but don’t get blacklisted—to these 42 sultry facts about Eartha Kitt.
1. A Violent Start
Eartha Kitt was born on a North Carolina cotton plantation on January 17, 1927. The circumstances of her conception have been heavily speculated upon. She was either the product of her mother’s affair with a local white doctor or, more horrifically, the result of her mother’s assault by the plantation owner’s son.
2. Hands Off Her Man
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 didn’t know he was also dating Kitt.
3. Welcome to the Big City
Upon the death of her mother, Kitt made the move to Harlem, New York City. Her new guardian, her aunt Mamie Kitty, has been speculated to have been Kitt’s real biological mother. What’s important is this move allowed Kitt to attend the Metropolitan Vocational High School, soon to be called the High School of Performing Arts.
4. First Among the First
From 1943 to 1948, Kitt began her entertainment career as a member of the Katherine Durham Company, the first African-American modern dance company in history.
5. Who Doesn’t Like Something In Their Stocking?
Kitt released her most famous hit in 1953: “Santa Baby.” It was also one of her favorite songs to record over a decades-long career.
6. Isn’t Love the Universal Language?
Kitt was fluent in French, German, and Dutch. This gift for tongues would prove useful in her non-English songs like “Je cherche un homme” and “C’est si bon.”
7. All’s Welles That Casts Well
Kitt played Helen of Troy in Orson Welles’s 1950 restaging of Dr. Faustus. Welles called her “the most exciting woman in the world.”
8. Making the Most of the Break
In 2006, Kitt was diagnosed with colon cancer. However, she was blessed with a period of remission wherein she dealt out an acclaimed 90-minute solo performance at the Shaw Theatre in London.
9. A Stich in Poverty
To make ends meet with her aunt in their cramped Harlem apartment, Kitt spent her teenage years working in a sewing factory.
10. Make Your Own Home
Her aunt’s charity towards Kitt was more out of “Christian duty,” in Kitt’s words, than love. As a result, the teenaged Kitt found herself frequently running away from home. In search of shelter, she often slept in subway cars.
11. Bringing Color to Television
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. One critic said it best: “Kitt’s performance stood in contest to the roles available to black women on television, insofar as she did not fit the proverbial mammy, Jezebel, tragic mulatta, and sapphire stereotypes that were abundant on television and in the cinema at this time.”
12. Better Late Than Silver
Despite singing since the 50s, Kitt didn’t achieve her first certified gold record until 1984. Of all the genres, this was for the disco track, “Where Is My Man.” This track also kick-started her popularity as an icon among gay men.
13. The Final Curtain
On Christmas Day in 2008, Eartha Kitt passed away from colon cancer in her Weston, Connecticut home, where she moved to be closer to her daughter’s family. She was 81 years old.
14. Hello Old Friends
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.”
15. A Star to Be Seen from Space
Eartha Kitt’s name is immortalized in cinema thanks to Ed D. Wood Jr.’s infamously bad classic Plan 9 from Outer Space 9. Her moniker can be read on a fictional marquee.
16. Do it for the Attention
A staging of Cyrano De Bergerac inspired Kitt to go into show business—or rather, the wild applause the show elicited did.
17. Three’s Company
Earth Kitt said that she had an intimate encounter with James Dean and Paul Newman, referring to it as “one of the most celestial experiences of my life.”
18. Big Ticket Lovers
Before her marriage, Kitt enjoyed romances with big breadwinners. Among her elite past lovers were the cosmetics magnate Charles Revson, and even banking heir John Barry Ryan III. In the end, she married real estate investment associate John William McDonald.
19. Going Stag
Despite her active of love life, Kitt married only once. In 1960, she wed John W. McDonald, with whom she had one daughter, Kitt McDonald. After divorcing in 1965, she never married again nor had any more children.
20. Lend a Helping Paw
A lifetime political activist, Kitt founded the Kittsville Youth Foundation in 1966. The non-profit organization was dedicated to helping underprivileged youths in the Watts area of LA. At the same time, Kitt also spearheaded a youth group in Washington DC known as “Rebels with a Cause.”
21. Someone’s Got to Do It
Kitt’s involvement with Rebels with a Cause earned her the ire of the Committee on Education and Labor, who were suspicious about their cleaning of the streets. She formally testified on their behalf, pointing out how these youths had done more with fewer resources in a single year than the powerful had done in many.
22. Love Is Love
Kitt was an early supporter of LGBT rights and marriage equality. A cultural icon among gay men, she performed at many HIV/AIDS benefits and saw the gay rights movement as folded into her civil rights work.
23. Tone It Down
Eartha Kitt’s turn as Catwoman in the Batman meant the sexual 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 was positioned as a love interest for the caped crusader.
24. Sing Your Way Back to Employability
After a longtime career stall resulting from her political views, Eartha Kitt made a comeback via her first love: music. She starred in a stage adaptation of Timbuktu!, an all-black version of the musical Kismet. This role netted Kitt the first of two Tony Award nominations.
25. This Voice Gets Gold
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, and I guess she took the memo. She also reprised her role in the Disney animated series The Emperor’s New School, which paid off with two Emmy Awards and another two Annie Awards.
26. Not Clowning Around
In one of her last roles, Kitt played herself in a Season 21 episode of The Simpsons. In “Once Upon a Time in Springfield,” Kitt is one of Krusty the Clown’s bitter ex-wives. Her self-caricature reveals that she divorced Krusty just six hours after the wedding.
27. Look Down to the Stars
Eartha Kitt’s star has been on the Walk of Fame since 1960. It can be located on 6656 Hollywood Boulevard.
28. Kiss and Make-Up
In 2007, Kitt became the face and voice for MAC Cosmetics’ Smoke Signals campaign. She re-recorded her 1952 hit “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” for the collection. If you entered a MAC store during August of 2007, you probably heard Kitt’s remix.
29. Prostrated to Silence
In a 1989 interview with TV host Terry Wogan, Kitt was snidely asked, “You’re always perceived as a wicked female, aren’t you?” and had her iconic purr described as a “sophisticated gargle.” Kitt shot back by flirtatiously sliding her foot across Wogan’s lap on live TV.
30. Between Two Worlds
Kitt struggled with her mixed-race status all her life. In a 1954 interview, she confessed: “When people come backstage and announce themselves as relatives of mine, they get the brush-off treatment. I’ll never forget how my own people treated me and my mother. I had reddish hair and I was too light. Everyone called me ‘that yellow girl’ and nobody wanted me, Negro or white.”
31. You Learn Something Every Day
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.
32. Better Off Fred
In 1950, Kitt performed an 11-month long solo act in drag in one of Paris’s biggest lesbian night clubs. Her character was named “Fred”—a beautiful woman who spent her life dressed as a man.
33. Misstep Your Way Back Home
They can’t all be hits. In 1951, Kitt returned from the European cabaret circuit and brought her act to New York City. Even she admitted it was an initial flop. The stand-out of this show was certainly her personal style. According to one review: “Miss Kitt seems to have plenty of confidence, but she lacks pace and needs to be sharply routined. Her voice is good enough without being socko…she could conceivably build a rep along novelty lines, as a colored songstress who bases her catalogue on French tunes.”
34. Absolutely Purrfect
Long before she was Catwoman, Kitt was ascribed with feline-like charms in her live acts. According to one review of from her 1950s cabaret shows, she was a “fetchingly cat-like songstress.”
35. Kitten Literature
Eartha Kitt wrote four books over the course of her life: Thursday’s Child (1956), Alone with Me (1976), I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten (1989) and Rejuvenate: It’s Never Too Late (2001). She had initial trouble selling it to the publishers, who wanted her life to be more “sensational” than she was willing to describe. She insisted on a raw policy of “No four-letter words, no spice for the sake of spice…You don’t have to hit anybody on the head to be sexy.”
36. Can’t Touch This
According to Kitt’s autobiography, Confessions of a Sex Kitten, she had an affair with Orson Welles during her stage days. However, this relationship was never sexually consummated. According to Kitt, “The most exciting men in my life have been the men who have never taken me to bed.”
37. Home Isn’t Where the Heart Is
Kitt’s ostensibly mixed-race origins put her at odds with her family. When her mother moved in with another black man, the young Kitt was not allowed to join them, because her light complexion deemed her untrustworthy. Instead, she moved in with an aunt named Rosa and endured further abuse from relatives.
38. Six Reasons Why
By the end of her life, Kitt summarized her eventful but harrowing life in six words: “Rejected, ejected, dejected, used, accused, abused.”
39. Not a Kitty to Sit Pretty
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. In contrast, when it was Kitt’s turn to talk, she said: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.”
40. So, No Dessert?
Kitt’s anti-war statements made Lady Bird Johnson burst into tears. During the “White House Incident,” Kitt formally declared: “The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. We don’t have what we have on Sunset Blvd. for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons—and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson—we raise children and send them to war.”
For speaking her mind, Kitt’s career was derailed over the next few decades.
41. Victim of the Telephone Game
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 sex life and family history to be published in 1975. From then on, her work mostly took place in Europe and Asia.
42. Rough Ride Home
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, she heard radio news already breaking down her words on the commute.