At the downtown nightspot called Life, where a veteran doorman called Kenny Kenny presides in tasteful pumps and pearls, the usual performers are bands with names like Suicidal Tendencies and the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. The big draw, for those fabulous enough to elbow into the VIP room, is a chance to gawk at Leonardo DiCaprio. An oldies act might be the Ramones. But not tonight.
Tonight, a sellout crowd gets to ring in the year with Eartha Kitt, who'll be slinking around the Steinway purring signature numbers like "I Want to Be Evil" and "Santa Baby," defying both gravity and age -- she's about to turn 72. After two shows, she'll yield the stage to world-class deejays GrandMaster Flash and FunkMaster Flex. What's a diva like that doing in a joint like this?
Holding on to the spotlight with both elegantly manicured hands. Pushing a career that extends from "New Faces of 1952" to recorded seat belt reminders in New York City taxis, with various show biz near-death experiences in between, into its sixth decade. Noticing that Tony Bennett has ridden the contemporary vogue in lounge music to renewed hipness at 72 -- and he never played Catwoman. "One man and one woman in their seventies out there, still going strong," she muses. She likes the sound of it.
Why, just the other day, en route to her exercise session with Radu, Manhattan's trainer to the stars, she was hurrying along 57th Street in "schleppy clothes," dark glasses and no makeup. "Here I am with a hat pulled over my face and one of the young people said, How are you, Miss Kitt?' I said, You're not supposed to recognize me.' He said, Uh-huh.' " She cackles gleefully. "I have to laugh. It's wonderful."
These reflections on life and Life, where she's reclining on a banquette after a photo shoot -- she startled the photographer by suddenly climbing onto and lolling across the cocktail table, "otherwise you're just taking an ordinary, stupid photograph" -- make clear that Kitt is still a Star, and don't you forget it. The barely wrinkled face and svelte figure endure, and so does the arched-eyebrow hauteur.
What's she wearing for her New Year's Eve gig? A green velvet gown, no beading, not too daring. "I don't want them to pay attention to the dress."
How does she feel about her heirs, performers who clearly owe a debt to her exotic sultriness? "I think it's fun that Madonna is the '90s Eartha Kitt." A semisweet smile. "I just wish I was making the kind of money she was making."
As for the prolonged half-life afforded almost anyone who's been a TV celebrity -- Kitt mmrrowed her way into boomers' memories as the bodysuited villainess in the '60s series "Batman," which still shows up on cable -- you won't hear her complaining. Much. "Everything is recycled, except the royalties you're supposed to get," she sighs. "At least somebody knows you're out there and you're never really forgotten." Now parents bring their kids over -- know who this is? -- and she obligingly provides her patented growl and then they understand. " Ahh, Catwoman. Eartha Kitt.' They never say whoever else played it" -- a jab at the Hollywood types who gave the movie version of the role to some other actress. Michelle Pfeiffer, wasn't it? "We don't remember," Kitt says regally.
Whether these younger fans know much more about her long musical career, which began in the '40s when she was a dancer, is open to question. She became a Parisian nightclub chanteuse, a co-star with Orson Welles in "Dr. Faust" across Europe, a Broadway leading lady, a co-star with Nat King Cole in the movie "St. Louis Blues." She recorded 30 or so albums for RCA, had affairs with legendary playboys, published three autobiographies, earned a star on the Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk almost 40 years back.
Her onstage persona was a knowing, openly sensual yet never crude woman of the world, one who wouldn't nag a lover for promises -- she preferred stock certificates. The original Material Girl, she's been dubbed, though she was, and is, funnier. Sometimes women in the audience suspected their dates of being a bit too interested in the vamp in the spotlight, Kitt recalls, amused and contemptuous. "Kicking him under the table! She's the one who's going to go home with him, after all."
She'll dust off that same seen-it-all temptress on Saturday, when she begins an engagement at the flossy Cafe Carlyle, which first hired her for a three-week stint five years ago and has lengthened her stay each year since. The classic gold-digger songs will be on the agenda, along with jazz standards and a stiff dose of Sondheim. When someone asks to hear "Just an Old Fashioned Girl" (about a lass in search of an old-fashioned millionaire), "I say, I'm too old to sing that song now,' " Kitt reports. "But when the audience says, Oh, come on, Eartha,' I sing it." Now that she's appearing for 10 weeks and draws a multitude -- "it spans generations -- yuppies, Generation X, everyone," says a happy spokeswoman for the Carlyle -- it would be easy to assume that she's always been the toast of this particular town.
Younger fans probably don't know about her infamous 1968 confrontation at the White House. Lady Bird Johnson had invited 50 women to lunch to discuss crime and juvenile delinquency, and when the first lady asked for questions from the floor, Kitt offered her own explanation. "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed," she said, according to a front-page story in The Washington Post. She went on to denounce the war in Vietnam, adding, "No wonder the kids rebel and take pot, and Mrs. Johnson, in case you don't understand the lingo, that's marijuana."
Her comments were brief but the headlines large and the repercussions, in Kitt's view, long-lasting. She found her bookings drying up, had to work mostly in Europe, and didn't really pull off a comeback for more than a decade. "I lost a lot of valuable years, not only as a moneymaker but as an artist," she says. Her most recent album, "Back in Business," Grammy-nominated in 1996, marked her first U.S. recording in close to 20 years.
Of course, many singers who never uttered a peep about Vietnam also lost their livelihoods in the late '60s, as rock shut out the crooners and swingers and helped kill off cabarets and nightclubs. Asking Kitt to consider this alternate explanation is a futile exercise, however. "It seems to me it was purely political," she says. She later learned from investigative reporter Seymour Hersh that the FBI kept a dossier on her, she says; she is sure LBJ personally blackballed her. "When Johnson calls up and says, I don't want to see that woman's face anywhere,' you are out of business," she says.
But of course, she isn't. This is an entertainer, still working 40 weeks a year, who seems happy to do whatever it takes to hold the public eye. Her distinctively throaty voice has pitched Buicks and Skippy peanut butter and Milky Way bars, and she appeared in one of those dopey Old Navy commercials -- "absolutely fun," Kitt says -- with onetime fashion writer Carrie Donovan. She played the Wicked Witch of the West this year in a road show production of "The Wizard of Oz." She wants to write a fourth memoir, and she particularly wants to sell an exercise video aimed at her less aerobicized peers.
"I don't want us women, particularly, to feel that because you've passed 60 you have to give in to whatever society says you should do, retirement and all. I don't believe in that," she announces. She likes her home life -- digging in her vegetable garden at her woodsy retreat in Westchester, caring for her two grandchildren, needlepointing pillows to auction off for charity -- but that doesn't mean she wants to make a career of it.
Besides, she adds, "Age is a natural thing; get used to it. I'm not afraid of it. . . . I hope I never have to do anything to make myself look a certain way, anything artificial." The problem here is that, with or without plastic surgery, Kitt doesn't look like most 72-year-olds, any more than she looked middle-aged when she played Catwoman. "Well, it's all natural," she snaps. "You do what you can in a natural way, to keep the body healthy." Including, presumably, Work Out With Eartha.
Thank heaven for those kids out there, though. Kitt raps her knuckles on the wooden cocktail table at Life. "I'm a nervous wreck, but I'm glad the young fans are there," she says. "It means I'll probably be singing next year."
Then she places both forearms on the tabletop and -- instructing her publicist to hold firmly to the other side -- raises her body right off the floor, lifting her legs high in the air, just because she can. CAPTION: Entertainer Eartha Kitt curls up at a New York nightclub: "Still going strong," purrs the onetime Catwoman. ec CAPTION: Eartha Kitt with Lady Bird Johnson at the White House, where Kitt erupted over the war. (1968 PHOTO) ec