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Eartha Kitt dies of cancer, aged 81

Eartha Kitt, the actress, diva and timeless sex symbol whose career spanned six decades and whose extraordinarily sultry voice propelled her from the cotton fields of South Carolina to the heights of global stardom has died, at the age of 81.

Andrew Freedman, Mrs Kitt's longstanding agent, announced last night that she had lost a long battle against colon cancer on Christmas morning at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York. Her daughter and manager, Kitt Shapiro, was at her side.

Famous for the seductive feline "purr" she perfected in the role of Catwoman in the Batman TV series of the 1960s, Kitt's voice was also behind the original version of "Santa Baby," the festive song that spawned countless cover versions.

She boasted a Hollywood career that stretched back to the 1940s, and saw her win two Emmys and get a third nomination, while also being nominated for two Tonys and a Grammy. Orson Welles, perhaps her most important mentor, once described her as "the most exciting girl in the world."

Kitt carried on performing almost to the end, appearing in dozens of TV shows in recent years, and making her final public appearance in Chicago last month to perform in a PBS special about her life and career, which is due to be screened in February.

She was also, for a time, at the centre of a potent political storm. In 1968, she spoke out against the Vietnam War at a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson, and was subsequently unable to secure work in the USA for almost a decade.

Kitt originally achieved fame as a singer with the Katherine Dunham Company, the world's first African American cabaret troupe, which began touring Europe and the USA during the late 1940s.

Her hits included Let's Do It, C'est Si Bon and Just an Old Fashioned Girl, while her feature film career began in 1958 opposite Sidney Poitier in The Mark of the Hawk and continued well into the late 1990s, when she played an ageing cosmetics mogul who seduced Eddie Murphy in the film Boomerang.

It was a far cry from her humble background in the Deep South, where she born in 1927 to a black cotton picker who had been raped by a white plantation owner. She was originally raised by a black woman called Anna Mae Riley, but at the age of nine sent to live in Brooklyn with Riley's sister Mamie Kitt.

In her three autobiographies, Thursday's Child, Alone With Me, and I'm Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten, Kitt later said that she believed Mamie Kitt to have been her biological mother. She never knew her father's first name, but he was apparently the son of the owner of the plantation where Mamie worked.

Although Kitt was removed from High School at the age of fifteen and sent to work in a factory, she managed to sing her way out of poverty after being spotted by Katherine Dunham.

Her acting career began in 1950, when Orson Welles was mesmerised by a solo performance she delivered during one of the company's European tours, and cast her as Helen of Troy in his staging of Dr Faustus. She reputedly began a somewhat torrid affair with Welles soon afterwards.

The height of Kitt's fame arguably came during the 1960s, when her role as Catwoman turned her into one of the definitive screen symbols of the era (she dubbed herself a "sex kitten"). At the time, she was married the socialite Bill McDonald, who was the father of her only child In her last published interview, in this month's issue of the black lifestyle magazine Ebony, she was asked how she wished to be remembered: "I stayed on my own path and did not follow the herd," she replied. "I made a way for myself."