The first tear was falling from Eartha Kitt's face to her tan fur coat yesterday when Lorton inmate Roy Thomas ("doing a year and a half on a robbery rap") hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his pea-green army fatigue jacket, leaned back with a knowing nod and said he could see the headlines.
". . . Eartha Kitt Cries," he said. "Lorton brings the poor girl to tears, I can see it in the papers now. Look at the stars running out of her eyes. She's an actress."
Eartha Kitt visited Lorton Reformatory yesterday and spoke to about 25 inmates of the District of Columbia's correctional facility. The men she spoke to were convicted of crimes ranging from robberies to assaults. She visited with inmates but did not perform.
Kitt, currently starring in the musical "Timbuktu!" at the Kennedy Center, made the trip to Lorton at the request of Inner Visions, a D.C. drama group that primarily works with prisoners. Members of the group asked Kitt to visit Lorton because they wanted the reformatory's inmates, especially those interested in acting, to meet a successful actress and [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
Kitt began crying when an inmate told her that [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and people with prison records are abused and discriminated against throughout the country.
As tears flowed down her face someone rushed from behind her to hand her a facial tissue. But the tears didn't stop.
They fueled inmate William T. Fulwood's speech until his comments to Kitt became a sermon-like talk on the evils of prisons.
"I can show you a man who is in here today because he was walking around Hecht's downtown," Fulwood said.He mentioned with a white coffee cup as he talked.
That store was open for business and the man was walking around shopping but one of the policemen on shoplifting detail knew that man from some old crime, sees him in the store and picks him up," Fulwood said.
"When the U.S. attorney comes around he tells that man he can plead guilty and do three years or with his record he's likely to get life," Fulwood said, bringing more tears from Kitt's eyes. "That man is here, in jail; can you believe that?"
Eartha Kitt swung her head from side to side - no, she couldn't believe that - as disbelief brought more tears to her eyes.
"Is all this going down on your tape?" Kitt asked the director of the program. "They (the public) have to hear this . . . the number one problem of the public is that we the public do not know; that's why help has been lacking."
Roach Brown, director of Inner Visiions, said the group asked Kitt to visit "because we want the prisoners to experience different kinds of people. We want them to see professional people, the people they see on TV. You can become isolated in prison."
Seated under a dirty orange basketball hoop, Kitt held a cigarette between long red fingernails, and stared intently at whoever spoke to her. The 50-year-old actress and singer, an internationally know nightclub perfomer, and "Timbuktu!" are leaving Washington today after three weeks of performances.
Kitt opened the meeting by asking the inmates, "Why are you here?"
Just then the microphone failed and Kitt shouted: "Is this microphone a representation of how lousy this place is?"
"That's right, lovely, you got it," someone in the audience said.
That prompted Kitt to say that she has visited prisons all over the world and "found them to be very interesting."
She told the inmates that she had a hand in closing Alcatraz and hopes that the old federal penitentiary is turned into an amusement park.
Then, with a few shakes of her shoulders, (Kitt said she was cold) she demanded to know what the airy, gym-like room was used for.
After an inmate told her it was used for everything from movies to church services, Kitt said that was "disagraceful."
"If this is an example of what this institution is about I think it is shameful," she went on. "Cold as it is, to have church services here and visitors come to see people here . . ."
Earlier, when she saw a pigeon flying around the room, Kitt asked if they were bats. Then she said "they call them jailbirds, too."
The inmates who attended the session with Kitt seemed genuinely pleased by her appearance.
Cecil Cheeks, an inmate who presented flowers to Kitt at the end of the hour-long meeting, said he appreciated her coming out to see them on a Saturday morning.
"Seeing you makes us feel like someone still cares," he said before he have Kitt a hug that brought oohs, ahs and laughter from the crowd.
Brother T. Foster El, who is serving five years at Lorton, said more Lorton inmates didn't come to meet Kitt because several men there "don't get up to do nothing.
"Some people our here just lose all interest in anything . . . like they don't want to live," he said. "They don't get up to shower or shave or nothing."