Remembering Eartha Kitt

In an era when manufactured "celebrities" are as common as drab backyard sparrows, Eartha Kitt, who died on Christmas day of colon cancer at age 81, was the kind of strange, wondrous, exotic bird you lay eyes on once and never forget. I first discovered Kitt when I was a young boy watching after-school reruns of Batman; she was touted in the credits as an "Extra Special Guest Villainess" for her role as "The Catwoman," and while everything about the show was pure ridiculousness — nothing more so than the way Kitt gleefully rolled her r’s on words like "prrrrrrrhaps" and "terrrrrrrrific" — it was an exercise in futility to try to take my eyes off the giddy woman in the black bodysuit who seemed to turn her every scene into a wild one-woman show.

I could pretty much say the same of Kitt’s performance in the 2000 Broadway production of The Wild Party. I remember exiting the theater and marveling how with just two solo numbers (including the show-stopping "When It Ends," a defiant ode to man’s mortality), the then 73-year-old Kitt managed to steal the show from her terrific costars Toni Collette and Mandy Patinkin.

This past summer, however, I got to see Kitt in a cabaret setting, the forum where it was said she felt most at home. Sitting maybe 20 feet away from the stage at CafĂ© Carlyle in New York City, and watching Kitt vamp and shamelessly flirt with male audience members, I was struck by how few octogenarians would still attempt to play the sex kitten, let alone pull it off (and doing two shows a night, no less). Perhaps even more impressive, though, was Kitt’s understanding that to be seductive, you don’t always have to be so bloody serious. Indeed, she broke out into her trademark cackle several times during old chestnuts like "Too Young to Be Meant for Me" and "Champagne Taste" (a clip of the latter is embedded below). Still, my favorite moment of the show — Kitt’s rendition of "La Vie en Rose" — didn’t feature any hip-gyrating or leg-flashing at all; her voice vibrating with each word like a plucked string, Kitt was so beautifully somber that the clanking of cutlery and the rumble of ice against glasses in the intimate dinner theater ceased entirely.

Speaking of ice in glasses, here’s a virtual toast to the fabulous Ms. Kitt. Check out some more fascinating footage after the jump, then share your own memories of the legendary entertainer in the comments section below.

More on celebs we lost in 2008:
Legacies ’08: Stars Pay Tribute to the Legends Who Left Us (Extended Versions)
Which celebrity death affected you most in 2008?
Remembering Heath Ledger
Remembering Bernie Mac
Remembering Paul Newman
Remembering Estelle Getty

Comments (208 total) Add your comment
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  • Richie

    She will always be the one true catwoman!!!

  • Rhonda

    My nieces know her as Yzema from “Emperor’s New Groove.” She was so perfect in that role. I just learned this year that she was the voice behind the classic “Santa Baby.” Your voice and your presence will be missed.

  • Sam

    I’m only 23, so I’ve never had the pleasure of knowing who she really was until more recently. However, when I finally learned of her greatness, it was such a pleasure watching her performances throughout the years on Youtube and elsewhere. I’ve always wanted to meet Madam Eartha. I’m so disappointed that I won’t get the opportunity, but I will never forget her beauty, her talent, her elegance, her grace. She will be sorely missed for the star that she was and the legend that she is, she was just perrrrrfect!!!

  • TBerk

    Eartha Kitt. Thank you, beautiful lady.
    We appreciate your having come this way, if for a time.

  • james cotterill

    Orson Welles described her as ”the
    most exciting woman in the world”
    how true he was, she was a beautiful
    lady who will be sadly missed by

  • KR

    Why can’t I find mention anywhere of her hilarious voice work for the cartoon “Emporer’s New Groove”? I love this woman’s singing, and yes she was very sexy but also very funny.

  • Danny Rose

    She sang in several languages,was willing subject of a classic study in abuse victim creating a second protective personality.Look up her bio.

  • Tracey

    I remember Eartha Kitt was on the Conan O’Brien Show when he first started. It was like his third day on the job and he was a bit nervous. And she was incredibly rude to him on the air. It was terribly classless, and unfortunately that’s what I’ll always remember about her.

    • Geoff

      I remember that too and I similarly was forever put off because of it. She was incredibly rude. Worse, Conan, a huge fan of everything to do with the 60’s Batman show, clearly was thrilled to have her on, making her behavior even more ghastly.

  • Shelly

    Cafe Carlyle – 98. I asked Tony if he would let you know that my guest absolutely loved you. You entered from another door so that you could put your arms around my friend and growl in his ear on your way to the stage. Then you changed your lineup and sang a song in his language first. You made his night, perhaps his life. Thank you for your kindness Eartha. Saw you fifty times at the Cafe and on the big stages. I’ll never forget you. Sending you so much love.

  • gary widener

    A very special flower graced my garden…she is sorely missed but will remain in my heart as she taught me to love true art and to love others.

  • Tyeshia Jordan

    Your uniqueness and ability to keep ones attention was greatly appreciated!! You will be missed love!

  • Dixie

    I, too, first got to know Eartha Kitt as Yzma in the Emperor’s New Groove…then after I’d seen it a few times I realized that she was Catwoman on the Batman series, which I used to watch religiously whenever I was out of school. It was several years after that I realized she was the singer of the only version of “Santa Baby” I could not only tolerate but actually liked. RIP Ms. Kitt. You were a class act.

  • DS

    I first met her in the late ’70’s when she was performing at a caberet in D.C. She was fabulous,funny, sexy, elegant, expressive, entertaining and strong. She cocked one of those arched eyebrows at me after the show when I gave her my parent’s well worn copy of her first album to sign. It came out just after she was in New Faces of 1952, a few years before I was born. I have memories of other shows, at Blues Alley one winter’s night, when my father and I were at the first show, in the front row. The snow had started as we drove into D.C. and was so deep that little of the second audience showed up. The management invited those of us who wished to stay for the second show to do so at no additional charge and almost everyone did. When she opened her next set with “I’m still here”, she did a double take as she recognized us all and then laughed and said “And you are, too!” and gave another, different show. She was a hero in so many ways, we will not see her like again. Bon Voyage!

  • Michael Daniels

    Just an incredible performer.You will be missed.

  • Jheri

    There will never be another Catwomen like you, I remember the first time I saw you. I was truly fascinated. You will never be forgotten.

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