The idea was to talk with Eartha Kitt about age.
Anybody at "50-plus," as she puts it, who can prowl the stage turbaned, spangle-toed and green-eyeshadowed and look not ridiculous -- but like a timeless kitten -- must have something to say about it all.
She enters a restaurant with the same regal presence, head back, feet testing the air in front of her. You can almost see an entourage, such as the one for her opening performance in "Timbuktu!" now at the National. And then you realize that she's refusing to parade ahead, insisting on following, behind in the long walk to a far corner table.
A brandy, some small talk. No. Strike that. Eartha Kitt may be incapable of small talk. Everything she touches on is charged with her own electricity. Immediate. And never boring. From labor pains -- "I don't want to forget them" -- to the '40s in Paris when, over small glasses of grog, she read and discussed Moliere and Dostoevski with Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Jean-Paul Sartre.
"We were all poor, and whoever had money at the time would buy the food."
It is as if Eartha Kitt carries all of her life far forward in her consciousness, etched in the lines on her forehead and ready to be plucked out whole, not in fragments, but with complete names, places, precise feelings at the moment.
"I really should eat calves liver," she says in that voice that is somewhere between a growl and a caress.
And then, "I'm so glad to wake up in the morning at 50-plus. Every stage of my life is important. . .Why would anyone want to stay young, when aging is so beautiful.
"I hope to hell I am never vain enough to have my face lifted. . .I'm not saying I won't, but this is how I feel about it now."
She asks the waitress where she is from (Nigeria) and talks with her about that country's politics.
And then, "I don't look at myself as an age. That's just a number. And some people use it as an excuse to stop. To stop what? To stop living. This gray patch on my head is a notch on my belt. Every line is a notch on my belt."
She brings up her daughter Kitt, 17, who will enter Hunter College with a major in business and drama. "And then she can take over. Why do I need an accountant, when I have my daughter?"
While traveling as an "international personality." as she once described herself, Kitt took her daughter everywhere. "We played a game every night before she went to bed. I'd have her go all around the room, connecting everything into a story, and without ever saying 'and' or 'but'. She called me recently to say 'I want your recipe to bring up my own children.'"
It's simple: "Let her be the child and let me be the mother."
And then the brown eyes that look at once like they've seen everything and can't get enough of everything go soft and the graceful fingers do a kind of dance in the air. "One must have a sense of timing in life. . . the same thing I do on stage. There's a time to step away from a friend, or from a child, and a time to step forward. The cosmos is telling us all the time. . .telling us what to do. Why don't we listen to it?"
Somewhere there is a reluctant mention of that long-ago 1968 outburst at a White House luncheon given by Mrs. Lynbon B. Johnson, during which Kitt turned a discussion of juvenile delinquency into a diatribe against the Vietnam war.
She comes back instantly. "Do I want to forget it? Never. I might as well be dead. I adore this country. I did it all. Everything this country says you are supposed to be able to do. And I thought I could speak up on what I believed in. Everybody was so upset because I was a guest in their house. Well, it wasn't their house; it's our house."
Later, as she pokes at what is now cold liver on her plate, she says, "What hurts me most is the abuse of a friendship. . .trust and abuse, like what this country did to me after I spoke up."
From out of nowhere, she announces, "I'm tired of this goddamned black and white business. Everyone is using it for the dollars."
At the table she demonstrates shadow-dancing, which she learned in Hong Kong. "I followed a group behind the Mandarin Hotel. They didn't know I was there, and I'm not sure they would have liked it." Besides dancing, she jogs, "when I feel like it."
She talks about life being "a learning process, and we're all in school every day" and, "There should be a recognition of those of us who have survived. A club for survivors."
"Should I punish myself for what happened to me? That my mother gave me away, that my skin is neither black nor white, that people said I don't want this yellow girl in my house?"
She rolls her head back and laughs deep down, captivated by her sense of irony as she plucks out still another memory.
"I was sitting in the Churchill Hotel in London. I had a Polish boyfriend at the time. We were having Dom Perignon champagne, steak au poivre , fresh asparagus, salad endive, Beluga caviar. Through the window came this bomb. . .And my Polish boyfriend was saying 'you're older than I am.'
"I took my Dom Perignon champagne, my steak au poivre , my fresh asparagus, my salad endive and Beluga caviar up to my room and got out my typewriter -- I always have one with me -- and wrote a song, "Life Made Me Beautiful at 40."
. . . I've been loved and I've been lied to
And found few shoulders I could cry to
And all those years I thought life naughty
She made me beautiful at forty. . .
. . .Now that I seem to have passed her censors
It seems that this is where life commences . . .
Leaving the restaurant, her antennae are everywhere. A pause and a nod for maintenance men, a warm and long conversation with the hotel concierge, a break into Spanish for a couple she somehow recognizes as Spanish.
"When will the world be ready for me?" she asked once.
"They're coming around," she says now.
And then Eartha Kitt of "C'est si Bon" and "I Wanna Be Evil" pronounces: "Americans are all on Valium." And goes out and stands on her head for the photographer.