Eartha Kitt: Singer and actress with a difficult reputation who was described as 'the most exciting woman on earth'

When New Faces of 1952, a revue celebrating fresh talent, opened on Broadway, the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson stated, "Eartha Kitt not only looks incendiary but she can make a song burst into flame."

Orson Welles went further, calling her, "the most exciting woman on earth". He had backed up his opinion by featuring her in a play he produced in the French capital, and is alleged to have had a torrid affair with her some years later. It is easy to understand the impact Kitt had, for there had never been a performer quite like her.

Her lithe, feline movements, the bewitchingly provocative glances from her wide-set eyes and her unique vocal style – girlishly husky with an effective use of vibrato – were truly incomparable. Initially her image was that of a gold-digger, epitomised by such hits as "Just An Old-Fashioned Girl", "Santa Baby" and "I Want to Be Evil", but other best-selling records testify to her versatility – the seductive "Jonny", her wry "Dinner for One Please, James", a vitriolic "The Heel" and, in one of her most persuasive and touching recordings, the pathos of "The Day That the Circus Left Town". Besides stage and cabaret, she also had a film, theatre and television career, delighting a new generation when she played Catwoman in the series Batman.

She was born out of wedlock in 1927 to a white father and a mother who was African American and Cherokee in a small town called North in South Carolina, where miscegenation was deplored. Her parents worked on a cotton farm, and named her Eartha because the harvest was good that year. Abandoned by her father when young, she was later placed with foster parents by her mother, who wanted to get married. She later recalled picking cotton, cooking, gardening and doing other chores to pay for her keep.

At the age of eight she went to live with an aunt in Harlem, started to attend school, sang in the church choir and acted in school plays. When she failed to fulfil her aunt's ambitions that she should become a concert pianist (she hated practising) her aunt threw her out and she worked as a seamstress, in a factory and on a farm. Later, in 1954, she told Cue magazine, "When people come backstage and announce themselves as relatives of mine, they get the brush-off treatment. I'll never forget how my own people treated me and my mother. I had reddish hair and I was too light. Everyone called me 'that yellow girl' and nobody wanted me, Negro or white."

Her young life was changed by a casual incident. A woman asked her for directions on a New York street, and told Kitt that she was a dancer with the choreographer-teacher Kath-arine Dunham, and advised her to attend an audition. The result was a scholarship to Dunham's dance school and a chance to tour with her troupe. Still in her teens, she performed in Europe (including London), Mexico and South America, and made her screen debut as one of Dunham's dancers in John Berry's Casbah (1948).

In 1950 Kitt developed a solo act at the Paris night club Carroll's, a lesbian haunt run by a former lover of Marlene Dietrich. "Her name was Fred – one of the most beautiful women you ever want to see in your life, always dressed as a man." Kitt was such a hit she stayed there for 11 months. She was seen by Welles, who gave her the role of Helen of Troy in his production of Dr Faust, re-titled Time Runs (1951).

"After rehearsing all night, Orson would walk me up the Champs-Elysée to my hotel with the sun coming up. We would look at the sights, window-shop, and he would recite Shakespeare to me." Kitt, who had had an affair with the millionaire playboy Porfirio Rubirosa (who called her "fire and ice"), recalled the "fabulous lunches" Welles would buy her. "Orson really introduced me to a marvellous gourmet type of living. Him and Rubirosa – I tell you, I was absolutely spoiled by the best kind of men!"

Her reputation on the cabaret circuit grew, and she returned to New York in December 1951, for an engagement at the 54th Street night club La Vie en Rose. She was later to admit that it was "a horrible flop", with Variety commenting, "Miss Kitt seems to have plenty of confidence, but she lacks pace and needs to be sharply routined. Her voice is good enough without being socko ... She could conceivably build a rep along novelty lines, as a coloured songstress who bases her catalogue on French tunes."

Max Gordon, the enterprising owner of the Village Vanguard, spotted Kitt's potential and two months later she opened at his club to a great reception. She then appeared at the sophisticated night club The Blue Angel on 55th Street, a haunt of such luminaries as Lena Horne, Truman Capote and Tallulah Bankhead, her repertoire including several songs with which she would become identified – "C'Est Si Bon", "I Wanna Be Evil", "Santa Baby" and "Uska Dara". She also gained a reputation for temperament and for snubbing visiting celebrities. "I'm not cold," she told Cue magazine, "Just a little numb, sometimes, courtesy of my childhood." One of the composers who worked on New Faces of 1952, Murray Grand, told me that he could think of nothing kind to say of her – "She sang 'I Wanna Be Evil' – and she was!"

A sparkling example of the revue genre with Mel Brooks as one of its writers, the show cemented her stardom, Walter Kerr in the Herald Tribune describing her as "a fetchingly cat-like songstress who does inexplicably pleasant things with a little French lyric, 'Bal Petit Bal', and who drives home a sulky number called 'Monotonous' to top the second act."

The latter was the quintessential number for Kitt at that time, a vibrant lament of a blasé seductress who bemoaned, "I met a rather amusing fool, while on the way to Istanbul – he bought me the Black Sea for a swimming pool... monotonous!" as she slithered and postured over a row of sleek divans. For "C'Est Si Bon" she wore a black skirt and leopard-skin top, whipping off the skirt near the close to reveal that the top belonged to a provocative, one-piece bathing suit.

She was already being referred to as "the sex kitten", but insisted, "I don't sing naughty songs. Innocence is one of the most exciting things in the world. When I sing something like 'I Wanna Be Evil', I'm not trying to indicate an adult evil. It's a little-girl mischief, like going out and throwing stones at windows." Perhaps because she felt her repertoire might alienate a female audience, she began to end her more suggestive numbers with a chuckle, intimating that it was all in fun. "I have a great need for affection from an audience," she said. "I don't know whether this is because I had such a tough life when I was a child."

Kitt returned to Broadway in December 1954, to star in Mrs Patterson, the story of an adolescent girl in the Deep South in the 1920s who fantasises conflicting dream lives – one as a dignified, rich white woman, the other as a black hellion – before accepting reality. Though she sang six songs, the show was primarily a straight drama. On 17 June, 1956, it was transmitted live on the BBC, starring Kitt and Elizabeth Welch, as a "Sunday Night Theatre" presentation, the first BBC production to be televised from the new Riverside Studios in Hammersmith.

But Kitt's single-mindedness was again to prove controversial. Cast in a supporting role was the 80-year old veteran Connie Smith, and Welch recalled to her biographer, Stephen Bourne: "Eartha Kitt was a strange creature. During rehearsals she didn't socialise with any of the cast and one day she upset me. Connie was beginning to lose her sight and had trouble remembering her lines. She needed the job. She didn't have many opportunities to work at her age, but Madam had her thrown off Mrs Patterson. I never forgave Eartha Kitt for that."

Kitt's next Broadway role was in Shinbone Alley (1957), a dramatisation of Don Marquis's "archy and mehitabel" stories about a cockroach who has an unrequited passion for a neighbour-hood cat played by Kitt. But the play, by Mel Brooks and Joe Darion, failed to bring the characters to life, and the show closed after 49 performances. (It was during the run of Shinbone Alley that Kitt allegedly had her affair with Orson Welles.) She was not to return to Broadway until 1978, when she starred in Timbuktu, an opulent all-black version of Kismet. Songs based on African folk music were added to the original score, and though reviews were mixed it proved a success.

Kitt made her film debut as an actress in The Mark of the Hawk (1958, UK title, Accused), as the wife of an educated African (Sidney Poitier) who returns home to find his loyalties are divided when his brother leads a revolt. Her next two films gave her the best of her screen roles. St Louis Blues (1959) was a dull account of the life of the great blues composer W.C. Handy, with Nat "King" Cole miscast in the lead, but Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey each had a song in it, and, as a singer who is one of the first to recognise Handy's talent, Kitt had the most colourful role and sang four songs, including "Careless Love" and the title song. RCA issued an album of Kitt singing Handy songs, with the trumpeter Shorty Rogers leading a Dixieland band behind her, plus a backing chorus, and the result was one of her finest recordings, with an outstanding performance of "Beale Street Blues".

Her next film, Anna Lucasta (1959) was the second screen version of Philip Yordan's 1944 play, inspired by Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, about a prostitute returning to her home town. Kitt's leading man was Sammy Davis Jnr. She was also working regularly in nightclubs, on television and in recording studios. In 1960 she was one of several American stars to headline at London's Talk of the Town.

In 1967 Kitt gained new fans when she succeeded Julie Newmar as Catwoman in the Batman TV series. Then in 1968 came a setback when she attended a White House luncheon at the invitation of the Johnsons and interrupted a speech by the hostess Lady Bird Johnson to make an emotional outburst against the Vietnam war. "I am a mother and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my gut," she said. "I have a baby and then you send him off to war. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot."

Her action reputedly made the First Lady weep, and for the next decade, Kitt found herself substantially blacklisted in America. She worked extensively in other countries and for a time lived in London, where one of her film roles, in Up the Chastity Belt (1971), required her to vamp Frankie Howerd. Later, she confessed she had not realised the effect the White House incident would have on her career, but she averred that knowing the outcome she would still have done the same thing. In 1974 she provoked controversy by appearing in South Africa, but she declared that the integrated touring show helped weaken apartheid, and the money she made selling her autograph at department stores built two schools for black children.

Timbuktu marked her acceptance back into US showbusiness. She was nominated for a Tony Award, and when the show played Washington, President Carter greeted her with, "Welcome home, Eartha."

In 1984 she had another hit, "Where Is My Man?", a disco number that appealed particularly to gay fans, who formed a large part of her audience. Kitt later gave benefit performances in support of HIV/AIDS organisations. She also became a spokesperson for Unicef on behalf of abused children.

She had a great success in London when she succeeded Dolores Gray in Follies (1987), giving a highly stylised, electrifying account of Sondheim's oft-sung anthem to survival, I'm Still Here, and two years later she performed her one-woman show, "Eartha Kitt in Concert", at the Shaftesbury. Her distinctive voice was often sought for radio, and in 1994 she was Kaa the python in a BBC Radio adaptation of Kipling's The Jungle Book. She also provided the voice for Yzma in the animated film, The Emperor's New Groove (2000).

Kitt, who was married to the estate agent Bill McDonald from 1960 to 1965 and had a daughter, Kitt, wrote four books, Thursday's Child (1956), Alone with Me (1976), I'm Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten (1989) and Rejuvenate: It's Never Too Late (2001), though she initially had trouble with publishers because she insisted they not be sensational. "No four-letter words, no spice for the sake of spice," she said. "You don't have to hit anybody on the head to be sexy."

Asked recently to define her sensual appeal, she replied, "In the old days they called it IT. It's something you're born with, there's nothing you can do about it. I play with my sensuality because of who I am. I love teasing men. We don't have much of the teasing factor any more because of feminism. God, it drives me nuts. Men don't flirt with us anymore. They don't tease us because it's called harassment. I used to love it when I walked down the street and construction workers would whistle."

In 1995 Kitt received a Grammy nomination for her album Back in Business, and returned to Broadway in 1998 to play the witch in The Wizard of Oz. In 2000 she starred in The Wild Party, a musical based on the Arbuckle scandal, and in 2003 she replaced Chita Rivera in a revival of Nine.

Though diagnosed with colon cancer over two years ago, Kitt had a period of remission during which she made a vibrant return. Earlier this year she performed a dazzling 90-minute solo show at the Shaw Theatre in London, still displaying a seductive figure in a gown split to the waist. Last month she was in Chicago performing for a TV special on her life due to be screened in the US next February.

Eartha Mae Keith (Eartha Kitt), singer, actress: born North, South Carolina 17 January 1927; married 1960 Bill McDonald (marriage dissolved 1965, one daughter); died Connecticut 25 December 2008.

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