Eartha Kitt dies at 81

Singer-actress suffered from cancer

Eartha Kitt, who used her seductive purr and sultry style to charm audiences as an actress, singer and cabaret star, died Thursday of colon cancer. She was 81.

The cancer was detected about two years ago and treated, but it recurred after a period of remission. Kitt recently had been treated at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York.

"She came back strongly; she had been performing until two months ago," said Andrew Freedman, a longtime friend and publicist. "We had dates booked through 2009."

Among Kitt's hits was the Christmas tune "Santa Baby," lending poignancy to her Christmas Day death. The song went gold this year, and she received the gold record before she died, Freedman said.

Slinky and catlike, Kitt described herself as a "sex kitten": She followed Julie Newmar in the role of Catwoman on the TV series "Batman" during the 1960s.

But the seductress also could be a political provocateur. Not known to mince words, Kitt scorched a White House luncheon in 1968 with comments opposing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

After her White House criticism, Kitt claimed she unofficially was blacklisted from procuring TV, record and movie work.

During the early '70s, she also drew criticism from blacks for performing in South Africa.

"I'll be criticized, but I'm an adventurer," she told Life magazine in 1972. "I believe I'm doing something for the nonwhites by being here. Not coming would mean not knowing what it's like here, and not caring."

Playing at segregated venues, Kitt gave concerts to whites at stiff prices, which she contended helped subsidize the much lower prices blacks were charged.

"The point of the trip was to be constructive," she told the Los Angeles Times.

Kitt also supported President Ronald Reagan when it was unfashionable within the show business community.

"I like him very much," she said. "I'm not kidding. ... Basically, his ideas are good. I do not believe in giveaway programs."

With her haunting voice and tantalizing figure, Kitt earned a Tony nomination for the musical "Timbuktu!" a black version of "Kismet," which opened on Broadway in 1978. In 2000, she earned a Tony nom, for best actress in a feature role in a musical, for "The Wild Party."

For her TV work, Kitt was nominated for an Emmy in 1966 for her leading role on "I Spy." She also has won daytime Emmys the past two years, for outstanding performer in an animated program, for her voice role in Disney Channel's "The Emperor's New School."

Kitt was born Jan. 17, 1927, in North, S.C., the illegitimate offspring of a white father and an African/American Cherokee mother. She was raised in poverty, once saying, "I just ate what the animals were eating; I followed snakes who ate the berries."

Her mother gave Kitt up when she was young, and she was raised by an aunt in Harlem. As a child, she escaped into a world of fantasy and dance. At 15, she quit school and worked as a seamstress but used her savings for piano lessons at the New York Academy.



At 16, Kitt met famed dancer Katherine Dunham, who upon seeing her dazzling dance and performance skills asked Kitt to join her troupe. She soon became the troupe's vocalist, belting out songs from Africa, Haiti and Cuba.

In 1948, Kitt danced before the British royal family on opening night at London's Prince of Wales Theatre. She made her movie debut that same year in "Casbah," as an uncredited dancer in the Katherine Dunham Group.

After the troupe's European tour, she remained in Europe and lived in Paris, where she was acclaimed as a new star. With her provocative slit-to-the-hip gown and exotic beauty, Kitt was hailed as the "rage of Paris."

Befitting her notoriety, Kitt was asked by Orson Welles to audition for the role of Helen in Troy in a stage production touring Europe. They had an affair, and he proclaimed her the "most exciting woman in the world."

Kitt starred in two French films but sizzled at the nightclub and was signed to star at the posh New York club La Vie En Rose. She also brought her torrid act to the Village Vanguard and was chosen for a starring role on Broadway in Leonard Sillman's "New Faces of 1952," which catapulted her to stardom. She reprised the role in the 1954 film "New Faces."

Kitt went on to perform in such other Broadway plays as "Shinbone Alley," "Mrs. Patterson," "The Skin of Our Teeth and "The Owl and the Pussycat."

In 1953, she made her West Coast debut at the Mocambo nightclub in West Hollywood. She also recorded "The Eartha Kitt Album," a top seller, for RCA Victor.

Nearly three decades later, in 1981, Kitt starred in "Swingin' Singin' Ladies" with Patty Andrews, Lainie Kazan and Della Reese at Hollywood's Huntington Hartford Theater.

On TV, Kitt also appeared on "The Colgate Comedy Hour," "The Ed Sullivan Show," "Omnibus" and "Mission: Impossible."

In a pair of 1958 films, she starred with Sidney Poitier in "The Mark of the Hawk" and in "St. Louis Blues," a biopic of composer W.C. Handy, played by Nat "King" Cole. In 1959, Kitt played a young hooker in "Anna Lucasta," which also starred Sammy Davis Jr.

But while 2000's "The Emperor's New Groove" would bring her a new career as a voice actress for animation, Kitt said of her sporadic film career to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1981, "I have nothing to do with show business."

Director Christian Blackwood filmed her for a year for German TV, which aired 40 minutes of footage in 1982. Believing his subject matter was too ripe, Blackwood reassembled it into the 97-minute documentary "All by Myself." The film screened at the leading festivals of the day -- Cannes, Toronto and Deauville -- and at a Los Angeles charity showing in 1983.

On the L.A. stage, Kitt also starred in "Brad and Beans and Things," which played at the Aquarius on Sunset Boulevard. In 1984, Kitt starred as the wicked witch in a stage spoof of "Snow White." In the campy show, Barbi Benton played Snow White and the dwarfs were well over 6 feet tall and sang soprano.

During the 1960s, Kitt was married to William McDonald, with whom she had a daughter, Kitt.

Reuters contributed to this report.
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