Appreciation: Eartha Kitt, The Purrfect Diva, Had a Taste for the Best Things in Life

Eartha Kitt, the singer, dancer and actress who rose from South Carolina cotton fields to become a symbol of elegance and sensuality, has died from colon cancer. She was 81.
By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2008

In her fantastical life, Eartha Kitt came to like a great many things. Men, sex, bawdy songs. I personally know about the lemon sorbet, the mango sorbet and the strawberry sorbet.

I found myself dining with Kitt -- who died of cancer at the age of 81 yesterday -- at the swanky Cafe Carlyle in Manhattan several years ago. I was working on a book about Sammy Davis Jr., once a romantic interest of Kitt's. Kitt's office suggested the Carlyle. Being on book leave, without a steady income and counting pennies, I gulped: The Carlyle wasn't the place for a penny-pincher. But I needed the interview, so I dared not back out of the chance to talk with her. Kitt had known Davis when both were very young and both were hanging out at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.

Arriving early on the day of our meeting, I was led to a table. There was fine sunlight, lovely wood and an attentive waiter. I looked at the prices on the menu and wanted to scram. Kitt was late -- first 10 minutes, then 20. She may have been born poor, but she traveled through life with the blood of a true diva. So, of course, she'd be late. But I fretted she might have forgotten, or changed her mind. Then I noticed heads swiveling toward the entrance -- and there stood Eartha Kitt, wearing a short, bone-white fur coat, white slacks and a canary yellow turban atop her head. She had a white poodle cupped in each arm. I gave a wave, and she strode over, the poodles twisting in her arms.

"Let's order!" she demanded. She said she didn't care to remove her sunglasses because it was still early in the day. It was around 1:30 in the afternoon.

A waiter came over and took the poodles away, delivering them to Kitt's suite upstairs. She had a gig going at the Carlyle, and most of the shows were sold out.

The next 90 minutes were unforgettable. There were stories of men she had conquered (Sammy Davis Jr. among them), foreign lands she had traveled to, songs she had sung. I remember what she ordered because I held on to the receipt for years to show to people: salmon, asparagus, white wine, two glasses, which turned into three glasses. I wanted to cry every time I saw her motioning for the waiter: "Water, please, and bottled." But every other minute brought forth some delicious revelation, a tale of a child born in South Carolina to sharecropper parents and who forced the entertainment world to take notice of her.

Consider the era she thrived in -- and the competition she faced. Kitt came of age when a bevy of sepia beauties were just starting to strut their stuff from Broadway to Hollywood. It was the 1950s, and Madison Avenue may have ignored these women, but they were seen now and then in the pages of Life and Holiday magazines.

Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Hazel Scott, Joe Lewis's wife, Marva, Sugar Ray Robinson's wife, Edna Mae, and Kitt were different from the darkly hued and heavy-set black women of 1940s Hollywood, women like Hattie McDaniel, Ethel Waters, Butterfly McQueen and Louise Beavers. Those women were known mostly for playing maid roles in cinema.

This new group of beauties changed the way that America looked at the black woman. They went to parties hosted by Joe Louis in Chicago or Manhattan; they hung out at Sugar Ray's nightclub in Harlem, their images reflected in the long mirror behind the bar. They all came to admire themselves in some of those old Negro periodicals -- Sepia, Ebony and Brown. Their pictures hung in hair salons in black communities throughout America. They competed against one another for movie roles: Kitt got "Anna Lucasta" alongside Davis, among other roles. And she had to sweat her way through the "Anna" auditions.

"The camera couldn't conceal the fact that Eartha was not a beautiful woman," Philip Yordan, the writer of "Anna" told me.

But no one, absolutely no one, could have told Eartha Kitt she was not beautiful. She refused to be in the shadow of Horne or Dandridge. Kitt had a repertoire that ranged from nightclubs to Broadway to dramatic roles in movies and TV.

Maybe it was because she was born poor, and maybe that birthright either scars you or propels you into other dimensions, but Kitt fought harder than Horne, Dandridge and Scott for recognition. She took risks, kept an edge about her, singing sexually suggestive songs and parading her body onstage in a way that some thought was too provocative. Her rendition of "Santa Baby," for instance, could be described as For Adults Only. She wore her political beliefs out in the open, too, and was on Richard Nixon's enemies list. She was ashamed of Davis when he supported Nixon and told him so to his face.

I wrote furiously during our interview. I laughed -- loud -- when Kitt told me she had flipped Davis over her shoulder one day when he came to see her after one of her stage shows. Davis grimaced, but "I was just fooling around!" she said.

Lunch finished, I tensed as I got ready to ask for the bill. But Kitt wanted dessert. She tried a scoop of the mango sorbet. She loved it, so much so that she now wanted a scoop of the lemon sorbet. I wanted to cry. Sorbet at the Carlyle is not cheap.

She did not detect from my body movements that I was quite ready to go. "Let me try that strawberry sorbet, please," she said in that famously Kitt-enish voice. I smiled as my shoulders sagged.

But there were more stories! About her and Orson Welles, her and Sidney Poitier, her and Sammy when he tried to take back the engagement ring he had given her. There was more laughter.

Then the bill came: $138.06.

It remains, to this day, the most expensive lunch I have ever paid for. But it was Eartha Kitt, in white fur, with poodles. It was worth every penny.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company