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Published: 1/3/2009

A 'purrfect' life

EARTHA Kitt's life was larger than most; so large, in fact, that it took her three autobiographies just to tell her story up to 1989. At the time of her death from colon cancer on Christmas Day at the age of 81, she was a legend whose sultry voice and blatantly sexy style was instantly recognizable to even casual fans.

Born in segregated South Carolina to a black Cherokee mother and a white father, young Eartha Rae Keith initially was rejected by both worlds. Disavowed by her father and abandoned by her mother, she was working in the cotton fields by age 6 before being sent at 8 years old to Harlem to live with an aunt, Marnie Kitt, whose last name she adopted.

But the world had not reckoned with the aptly named Eartha Kitt. Like a cat, this earthy, direct, opinionated woman repeatedly displayed a talent for landing on her feet. In 1995, she told the Chicago Tribune that she "took fate as she presented herself to me, and did whatever I could, however I could, the best I could. I had a very strong desire to survive."

But she did more than survive. She didn't just sing, dance, and act for audiences, she seduced them, fostering a reputation as a "sex kitten" that lasted into her 60s and 70s. From the Paris cabarets of the 1950s, where she was touted as the next Josephine Baker, to the campy 1960s TV series Batman, where she played Catwoman to "purrfection," and her two Emmy Awards for her work on the animated series The Emperor's New School, Ms. Kitt's "growl" captivated generations of ardent admirers.

Orson Welles called her "the most exciting woman alive," and legendary New York Times theater critic Brook Atkinson wrote that "Eartha Kitt not on looks incendiary, but she can make a song burst into flames." She was linked romantically with Welles, cosmetic magnate Charles Revson, Arthur Loews, Jr., scion of the Loews theater chain, and banking heir John Barry Ryan III.

Ms. Kitt also survived being blackballed in the 1960s for speaking out against the Vietnam War at a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson. Engagements in the United States suddenly were cancelled, she was investigated by the CIA and FBI, and she spent much of the next several years working overseas. But she returned in triumph in 1978, earning a Tony nomination for her role in the Broadway musical Timbuktu! and an invitation to return to the White House by President Jimmy Carter.

Ms. Kitt revived her career again in 1995, when she was nearing 70, performing at the Cafe Carlyle in New York and Chicago's Navy Pier and earning a Grammy nomination for her CD "Back in Business." She continued to perform until shortly before her death, winning that second Emmy last year.

All in all, Eartha Kitt was a remarkable woman. Starting out with less than nothing, she created an enduring persona that was larger than life. Who better, then, to write her epitaph than the redoubtable Ms. Kitt herself? "When I look at my Eartha Kitt scrapbooks today," she told the Tribune in 1995, "I think, 'You know, she did a pretty good job of herself. She didn't do too badly - for an ugly duckling.' "



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