Eartha Kitt, the alluringly feline entertainment icon, has died at the age of 81.
Starting in the 1940s, the South Carolina-born Kitt was a triple-threat sex symbol in a time when few women of color attracted mainstream success. Despite a famously soigne image, Kitt came from a hardscrabble background: the product of a black sharecropper mother and a white father whom she never knew, as a child Kitt worked in the fields, suffered abuse and later lived homeless in New York. She started as a dancer and quickly moved to a career as a cabaret singer and actress in movies and on TV. Dubbed “the most exciting woman alive” by a smitten Orson Welles, Kitt was known for an over-the-top, pragmatist persona in songs like "Monotonous," "Love For Sale," "C'est Si Bon" and "Santa Baby" - a persona reinforced by her numerous offstage love affairs. In the 60s, she played a memorable Catwoman on the Batman TV series.
Kitt was also known for being tough and outspoken. She caused a major scandal by telling First lady Ladybird Johnson, "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot,” - an utterance that led Kitt to work for the next few years in Europe. Later she courted more criticism by touring South Africa under apartheid (for integrated audiences.) Despite a diagnosis of colon cancer, Kitt continued to perform until last year, launching a smoking show at the Cafe Carlyle which, let me tell you, was something to see for a woman of any age. Kitt was a true original: a tough, independent lady riffing on a sex kitten image, playing with sexual dynamics on her own terms. Her contradictions and her talent will be missed.