EARTHA KITT'S catlike face is an emotional battleground, its muscled hardness marked by trenches. The battles fought on that terrain have been the battles for recognition, for survival, for respect. They have not always been won, but they have always been fiercely fought.
Distance and makeup turn her softer, but in a late-afternoon rehearsal at Charlie's Georgetown, Kitt's face echoes her voice--taut and field work-weary. She is sandwiching the rehearsal between a morning run of television appearances and an evening of shows, and her body, six feet of sultry energy on a five-foot chassis, defies her weariness.
But Kitt's eyes are full of fire. At 55 the perennial diva for whom yesteryear seems just yesterday, Kitt is using Charlie's (where she is appearing through July 31) as a launching pad for what she hopes will be a Lena Horne-like return to Broadway. The show is intended to rekindle and reconfirm a frenetic career that began in 1945 and found its best legs in the '50s and '60s.
Just now, Kitt and her five-piece band are working their way through "Where Is My Man," a fluffy piece of boudoir disco written and produced by Jacques Morali, the mind behind the Village People. It is Kitt's first recording in more than 15 years, and Morali seems to envision her as an older version of Grace Jones.
"I refused to record for years because nobody was thinking, lyric-wise or music-wise, in terms of an Eartha Kitt." She says this not smugly but proudly. "And I do not see why I should ride somebody else's pony. I am myself. I am me. I am Eartha."
What's also true is that the spectacular mix of sensual mystique and continental decadence evident in songs like "C'est Si Bon" and "I Wanna Be Evil" had run its American course by the mid-'60s, to be revived in Europe during the late '70s by Donna Summer and Grace Jones. Without an Eartha Kitt, they might not have been possible, just as Kitt's way was prepared by Josephine Baker.
You can navigate Eartha Kitt best by following her deep brown eyes. They are direct, unaffected.
Her moods are harder to gauge. She is like a coastal wind, at times calm and informative, other times tempestuous and revealing. The lilting voice, so distinctive that its points of reference are unique as well--Marlene Dietrich, Yul Brynner as the King of Siam, Betty Boop--is cadence-rich. A single sentence can blow hot and cold, Kitt's body rearing back for emphasis, punching away at doubts.
Talking about "I'm Still Here," which has become something of a theme song, she manages to look both sheepish and defiant. It is based on a well-known Stephen Sondheim song of the same name. Same melody, too. Kitt liked the music and "revamped the lyrics according to my interpretation of my career," she says. She says Sondheim is upset about what she has done. "I did the same with Noel Coward's 'Mad About the Boy,' rewrote the lyrics to personalize me. And he sent me a thank-you letter saying, 'Eartha, it's okay.' " Obviously, for Kitt, this seems the civilized solution.
Top billing one day, the next day you're touring in stock but I'm here
I was a new face in '52
Maybe I'm older but so are you
But just like wine we get better every year
Like Dom Perignon I am vintage, Now I'm here --From Eartha Kitt's version of Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here"
"Just a moment, would everybody shut up so I'll know where the hell I am?" Kitt growls gently, the mother cat disciplining the litter of musicians. "Who's got the words? Where are my glasses?" Focused and prompted, she works her way through the song, trying to erase the tentative. There are more stops and starts than rush-hour traffic as the musicians try to figure out bridges and when to cross them.
Eventually, the song slips into a semblance of completeness, except for the closing line, "Where is my man, where is my baby?" Kitt shakes her head adamantly. "I think it should end on 'man,' not 'baby.' I'm looking for a man, damn it, not a baby."
It's a variation, of course, of the vibrantly sensual "Bad Eartha" image she's projected since drumming herself out of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company in the mid-'40s. She'd been born as backcountry as could be, in the tiny hamlet of North, S.C. Her birth coincided with the first good harvest in years and her sharecropping parents named her to "thank the earth."
But her father disappeared soon after and when she was about 6, "my mother was murdered, somewhere around the area of early memory." For two years Kitt drifted from neighbor to neighbor, picking cotton in exchange for food and shelter until an aunt sent for Kitt to live with her in New York. When she arrived, the only clothes she owned were on her.
At 14, Kitt left school to work in a Brooklyn factory sewing military uniforms, setting aside precious money for piano lessons. Two years later she auditioned for the Dunham company. "I never dreamed about being in show business. It just happened. One of my girlfriends dared me to go for an audition. I took the dare and won a scholarship." Within a year, she was not only dancing, but singing. "Someone was late for a show and they said, 'Kitty knows the songs.' I knew everything. I was a dancer, singer, rehearsal pianist, drummer, linguist, seamstress, everything. I scrubbed the floors, wiped the walls, cleaned the windows. When they needed someone to fall in, I fell in. That's how I got into show business."
Kitt was with Dunham for five years and after one European tour, chose to remain in Paris, which promptly began to sizzle. Famous designers tossed their creations on her perfectly proportioned figure ("I was the most well-dressed pauper in Europe"), entrepreneurs built nightclubs for her, royalty commanded her performances (though she was instructed not to look at Queen Elizabeth's box when singing "An Englishman Needs Time").
Her return to America in 1952 was the beginning of a dizzying decade of successes, beginning with Broadway's "New Faces of 1952" (it ran well into 1954), sell-out engagements at stellar nightclubs (at one point, her weekly salary jumped from $350 to $10,000 in less than a year), movies, television and stage shows (though the opportunites were limited or defined by skin color). She made records that each sold half a million copies. And she wrote autobiographies: "Thursday's Child" (that's the one who has far to go) and "Alone With Me." Kitt's now at work on the third volume, tentatively titled "How Do I Tell It Now?
There was a novel, too, "A Tart Is Not a Sweet," now being revised. "Everything that I write has something to do with me," Kitt says matter-of-factly. "The subject of 'Tart' is prostitution. If the public had not accepted me, maybe I would have been a prostitute. Who knows? I had tremendousss opportunities to become the richest, the most wealthy concubine in the WOOOOORLD." Satisfied with that bald fact, she dismisses it. "But I don't like sex that much," adding with a hearty laugh that "I like really working for a living."
I've worked on committees to aid the conditions of blacks and I'm here
Because I'm outspoken I've suffered many attacks but I'm here
I went to a luncheon for Lady Bird, the White House rocked I'm sure you heard
The reverberations are still ringing in my ears
Well I just said what I felt needed saying, now I'm here
Until the staging of "Timbuktu" in 1978, Eartha Kitt was absent from Broadway for almost 20 years. Much of her energy was directed to her cabaret career, or to touring shows like "The Owl and the Pussycat" (she was not the owl). But after 1968, she tended to be in the public consciousness mostly for creating a little civil disorder at the Johnson White House when she extended her lifelong social activism into a polite first lady's luncheon, asking some hard questions and making harder statements about poverty, drugs and Vietnam that did not endear her to the government (an FBI dossier, begun the next day, is included in "Alone With Me"). "My face has been slapped so many times" is all she'll really say about her bad times, but the tears are only a sentence away.
"I really am a farm girl and I like the feeling the able of being to survive on my own with the dirt. If I am not able to put my fingers in the dirt, I do not feel comfortable about anything, really. I'm exhilarated about my position in show business. It's given me a tremendous education, allowed me to travel all over the world, allowed me to be recognized when I was considered an ugly duckling and unwanted and all of that. I brought a little light somewhere."
"But I always know when I'm Eartha Kitt and when I'm Eartha Mae. And I like both of me."