Eartha Kitt: Young Catwoman of 'Batman,' And 'Santa Baby' Babe
Eartha Kitt, Batman's Catwoman and sweetheart of Santa (baby), was a barrier-breaking actress with a song-and-dance background -- an all-around sex symbol of the '50s, '60s and beyond. As she herself might have asked...
Meow, dear reader, everyone has a favorite Eartha Kitt performance, what’s yours? When did you first become aware of Kitt’s ermine, smoldering sexuality? Was it when she squeezed into the black leather suit and curled up as Catwoman on Batman? Or was it a decade earlier when she coaxed a series of gifts out of Saint Nick in the still hot “Santa Baby?”
Kitt spent her life speaking her mind and living her life unapologetically. Even when she faced a Hollywood blacklist and harassment by the CIA she never stopped being herself. She pranced off this mortal coil in 2008, but she left us with a legacy of saucy entertainment.
Kitt was born into poverty and didn’t know her father
Born Eartha Mae Keith, the girl would be a Catwoman came to be on January 17, 1927, on a cotton plantation outside of North, South Carolina. Her mother, Annie Mae Keith, was a mix of Cherokee and African descent, but the identity of her father was a mystery. One thought is that her father was the son of the owner of the farm, but no one knows for sure.
After leaving the farm, Kitt’s stepfather refused to accept her as his own because of her complexion so she left her mother to live with her Aunt before moving to Harlem, New York to live with a relative and attend Metropolitan Vocational High School. It’s here that she decided that she was meant for the stage.
Kitt goes to Broadway
It didn’t take long for Kitt to become a mainstay on the New York scene. She was only in her only 20s when she was cast in the Broadway revue New Faces. Her raspy voice, exotic look, and amazing timing made her a quick standout among the rest of the performers and she quickly earned a recording contract. In 1954 she released first album with the singles “I Want To Be Evil” and “ C'est si bon.”
While those singles showcased Kitt’s sultry swagger, she was also onstage in the Broadway show Mrs. Patterson. The role garnered her a Tony nomination for best actress in ’54.
She gave “Santa Baby” some much needed pizzazz
When it came to the writing of “Santa Baby” Phil Springer didn’t understand the appeal. While speaking about the song in 2017 he told the LA Times that he’s written plenty of better songs but none of them have endured like Kitt’s sultry take on his track. He said:
I ask myself, ‘How come? I've written so many songs that, to me, musically are much better than ‘Santa Baby,’ and they're not popular. The answer has to be that ‘Santa Baby’ has a magic that goes beyond a composer's plans.
Even though he didn’t get it, Springer penned the sexy song about Santa’s mistress asking him for gifts and when it made its way to Kitt in the recording studio she recorded a track that turned the holiday on its head. Record in July of 1953, Kitt says that “Santa Baby” was one of her favorite songs to record, and to date its the baseline for sexy yuletide tracks.
She was a lifelong flirt
Kitt was never one to stay in a relationship. She was briefly married to real estate mogul William McDonald in 1960, they had a daughter but divorced shortly afterwards. From then on Kitt remained single. Rather than wallow in her solitary life, Kitt explained that she liked to flirt and leave it at that because that’s just the kind of gal she was. She said:
In the old days they called it IT. It's something you're born with, there's nothing you can do about it. I play with my sensuality because of who I am. I love teasing men. We don't have much of the teasing factor any more because of feminism. God, it drives me nuts. Men don't flirt with us anymore. They don't tease us because it's called harassment. I used to love it when I walked down the street and construction workers would whistle.
Catwoman gave a whole new jolt to her career
In 1967 Kitt took over the role of Catwoman from Julie Newmar on the Batman TV show, something that surprised viewers as the last two Catwomen were white. As shocking as that was in 1967, Kitt quickly showed that she was the perfect actress to take over the role of the sultry and slinky Selina Kyle. Producer Charles Fitzsimons explained her casting:
We felt it was a very provocative idea. She was a cat woman before we ever cast her as Catwoman. She had a cat-like style. Her eyes were cat-like and her singing was like a meow. This came as a wonderful off-beat idea to do it with a black woman.
Batgirl actress Yvonne Craig was just happy to be able to act with someone who wasn’t towering over her. She said:
I thought Eartha was perfect because she was very catlike anyway. And I liked that she was my size. I could beat her up. I came up to Julie [Newmar] bellybutton. Not good in a fight.
She was blacklisted for speaking out against the Vietnam War
Kitt wasn’t just some sexpot that lounged around all day trying to seduce men. She was a staunch supporter of human rights and opposed to the Vietnam War. Her political views landed her on the CIA’s naughty list, and they did everything they could to ruin her reputation. While speaking at a White House luncheon party given by Lady Bird Johnson in 1968 Kitt said:
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.
Kitt’s comments allegedly brought the First Lady to tears and landed her on the blacklist. The CIA investigated Kitt and in their files they referred to her as “a sadistic nymphomaniac whose escapades and loose morals were the talk of Paris.” This effectively made it so Kitt had to work mostly in Europe.
Kitt was a major advocate for LGBTQIA rights
Even after Kitt was out of the spotlight by her 40s thanks to being blacklisted following her comments at the White House she continued to advocate for underprivileged people. She appeared at LGBTQIA conferences and fundraisers to raise money for civil rights and to put a spotlight on the need for gay rights. In 1992 she told Dr. Anthony Clare:
We're all rejected people, we know what it is to be refused, we know what it is to be oppressed, depressed, and then, accused, and I am very much cognizant of that feeling. Nothing in the world is more painful than rejection. I am a rejected, oppressed person, and so I understand them, as best as I can, even though I am a heterosexual.
Late in life Kitt was still her sultry self
Throughout the last decades of her life Kitt still appeared in films and performed in cabarets across the world. Long after he blacklist, Kitt appeared at the White House in 2006 to light the Christmas decorations with President George W Bush.
Kitt’s daughter said that her mother didn’t stop being herself in her final days, even though she was wasting away from colon cancer:
I was with her when she died. She left this world literally screaming at the top of her lungs… The doctor told us she will leave very quickly and her body will just start to shut down. But when she left, she left the world with a bang, she left it how she lived it. She screamed her way out of here, literally. I truly believe her survival instincts were so part of her DNA that she was not going to go quietly or willingly. It was just the two of us hanging out [during the last days] she was very funny. We didn't have to [talk] because I always knew how she felt about me. I was the love of her life, so the last part of her life we didn't have to have these heart to heart talks.
Kitt passed away on Christmas Day 2008 at her home in Weston, Connecticut.