US music and screen legend Eartha Kitt dies at 81

Eartha Kitt, the versatile American singer and actress who died on Thursday at 81, mesmerised audiences worldwide for over six decades with her sultry voice and sensuality on stage and screen.

Kitt, whose outspokenness was a mainstay of her career but also led to a self-imposed exile to Europe in the 1960s and 70s after her stinging critique of the war in Vietnam, won two Emmy television awards and was nominated for two Tony awards and a pair of Grammys.

She was being treated for colon cancer at a New York hospital, said her friend and publicist Andrew Freedman.

“She was certainly a legendary performer and while I think there may have been many imitations, she was an original,” Freedman said. She was one of the few artists nominated for Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards.

A self-described “sex kitten”, Kitt famously played the role of Catwoman in the US hit TV series Batman in the 1960s. Her feline purr and uncanny persona won her millions of fans, among them Hollywood’s Orson Welles, who called her “the most exciting woman in the world”.

She acted in movies as well, starring with Nat King Cole in St Louis Blues (1958) and with Sydney Poitier in The Mark of the Hawk (1957).

“I do not have an act.
I just do Eartha Kitt,” she told the British newspaper the Times in April. “I want to be whoever Eartha Kitt is until the gods take me wherever they take me.”

I Want to Be Evil and Santa Baby, still a Christmas favourite today, were among her best-selling songs. She produced another hit in 1984 with the disco song Where is My Man.

Kitt rose to fame from humble origins as a mixed-race child who grew up in South Carolina’s cotton fields.

The performer spoke out about the rise of African-American artists. “It’s time that people of colour start to break into the area of being recognised for their work—not because of their colour,” Kitt told a Washington Post online forum in 2005.

“But it does encourage others of colour that we’re getting there, that we’re progressing,” she said of recent Oscar wins by Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman.

But, Kitt said, “I don’t carry myself as a black person but as a woman that belongs to everybody.”

She was blacklisted in the United States during the late 1960s after speaking out against the Vietnam war during a luncheon at the White House. “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed,” she told a group of women hosted by Lady Bird Johnson in 1968. “No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.”

Singing in 10 different languages, Kitt performed in over 100 countries.

She launched her career as a dancer in Paris with the famed Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. Before hitting age 20, she had already toured the world as a dancer and vocalist with the company.

“Since that period in the early 40s and 50s, Europe has always held a special place in her heart, particularly Paris,” Freedman said.

“Paris was one of her great loves. One of her first big hits was La Vie en Rose,” the Edith Piaf original.

Kitt worked abroad for years until her triumphant return to Broadway in 1974. She received her second Tony nomination in 1978 for her role in the musical Timbuktu. In 2003, she replaced Chita Rivera for a remake of the Broadway musical Nine.

In December 2006, she returned to the White House to light the National Christmas Tree alongside President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

Kitt was known to have legions of fans sometimes less than half her age. She was the voice of the flamboyant Yzma in the animated Disney movie The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), and continued to voice the character in a sequel and subsequent TV series.

In the sixth decade of her career, Kitt did not tire. She kept up her Broadway theatre work and continued her cabaret stints, performing at the reopening of New York’s Cafe Carlyle in September 2007. - AFP

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