Hollywood Flashback: Before 'Hamilton,' Eartha Kitt Spoke Truth to Power
The actor-singer shared her opposition to the Vietnam War at an event hosted by President Johnson and, following a media backlash, left the country for a few years as the CIA labeled her a "sadistic nymphomaniac" with a "very nasty disposition."
When Mike Pence saw Hamilton on Nov. 19, he didn't expect a post-performance lecture on diversity, but the cast couldn't resist the opportunity to express their views to the vice president-elect. In 1968, Eartha Kitt, then 41, did something similar with Lady Bird Johnson and later felt it seriously damaged her career.
Debuting on Broadway in 1943, Kitt, born dirt-poor on a South Carolina cotton plantation, built a multifaceted show business life that included stage acting, dancing, singing (a come-hither 1953 hit version of "Santa Baby") and movies. When she made the 1958 film Anna Lucasta with Sammy Davis Jr., THR said her performance "is best summarized by the word 'great.' " In 1953, Kitt was making $10,000 per week ($90,000 today) singing at the El Rancho Vegas casino/hotel. By 1968, she was playing Catwoman on ABC's Batman — and was famous enough to be invited to the 50-women luncheon the first lady hosted (with seafood bisque, chicken and ice cream on the menu) to discuss "What Citizens Can Do to Insure Safe Streets."
The irrepressible Kitt immediately brought up the Vietnam War and, while waving a cigarette, said: "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot. And Mrs. Johnson, in case you don't understand the lingo, that's marijuana." There was more to her rant, and Kitt was unrepentant. She later said: "I should put on my claws. I am the Catwoman of America. If Mrs. Johnson was embarrassed, that's her problem."
The media backlash led to Kitt leaving the country for a few years and the CIA compiling a dossier on her (she was labeled a "sadistic nymphomaniac" with "a very nasty disposition"). But she did return to the White House. In 1978, Jimmy Carter invited her, along with Vincent Price, to a celebration at Ford's Theatre. Kitt, who died in 2008, took the invite "as a personal message."
This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.