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The Nth Life of Eartha Kitt

Cotton picker, dancer, multilingual singer, not to mention stage, screen and TV star, now a respected writer, educator and philanthropist--Eartha Kitt has the uncanny ability to recreate herself into an endless array of personalities. Eartha's Protean metamorphoses project diverse syncretic characters evolving into archetypal mythic avatars. This woman of a thousand faces is the incarnation of an indominable determination to thrive!

Eartha Kitt can be anything she wants to be. This crafty shapeshifter comes from rural South Carolina. "I found that to survive I had to learn to adapt." (Rejuvenate, 1) Young Eartha Mae Keith experienced an epiphany at Easter when she first sang to an audience: "It was the first time anyone and everyone paid so much attention to me." (Thursday's Child, 22) The same thing happened when she read aloud at school: "It was like a spell over the room. I didn't understand it at all, but it seemed I had some power that made people pay attention." (TC, 39) "The Call to Adventure" is "the awakening of the self" for Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces who "finds all the forces of the unconscious at his side."

Soon Eartha's fairy godmother from "Up-North" sent her a ticket to the Harlem Renaissance. Eartha's aunt was a strict churchlady who insisted on piano lessons and choir practice. "O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing" is the first song in the Methodist hymnal. This hymn enacts the equality of the fellowship who share in glorious praise. But the prophetic words can also mean that one may be granted the gift to sing in several languages. (And bear the duty to develop that talent!)

Meanwhile Eartha caught up on eight years of school in five and successfully auditioned for New York School of Performing Arts at 13 and Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe when she was 16. Dunham and Ballet Russe innovator George Balanchine choreographed the movies Cabin in the Sky with Louis Armstrong and Stormy Weather with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Lena Horne in 1943. Five years later, Kitt and Dunham were rocking Universal's Casbah starring Peter Lorre and Yvonne De Carlo. Marlon Brando also learned The Dunham Technique of interpretive dance as we see in Guys and Dolls, Last Tango in Paris and the horrific sacrificial finale of Apocalypse Now.

Katherine Dunham studied anthropology at the University of Chicago. Structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss says in his preface to Dunham's 1947 case study Dances of Haiti that whether possession is authentic or pretended, participation in the ritual strengthens social cohesion. "Katherine Dunham proposed not only to study a ritual but also to define the role of dance in the life of a society." During field studies in Jamaica and Haiti, Dunham participated in voodoo ceremonies by telling the cult's godparents that her ancestors were summoning her to join them.

During the ceremony, the dancer goes into a trance, emptying her own personality in order to be filled by an ancestral spirit admitted by the gatekeeper Legba. "It is the loa that dances, not the individual. The person possessed has no recollection of his conduct or motor expression while under possession....The body of the possessed becomes a temporary abode of the god." The loa of the earth causes one to "bend low in movements of planting," while the water spirit makes "flowing movements." There is an "Interrelation of Form and Function" as "a constant circular flow acts as a mental narcotic and neural catharsis. The dance is decidedly soothing rather than exciting, and one is left in a state of complete receptivity." (Sounds like "Lilac Wine") The priestess as medium determines the values of the individual members of the social matrix. "Mass hypnotism and catharsis might be said to be the strongest elements of organization." A year later, Eartha offered a white cock to the god Shango in Dunham's Bal Negre touring Europe.

Kitt's ballet performance won her an offer to headline at a chic Paris cabaret. Soon Eartha as Helen of Troy was getting a crash course in method acting from Orson Wells as Faust: "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" Welles' autobiodrama Time Runs combined Dante, Marlowe, Byron and puppets by surrealist Jean Cocteau with music by Duke Ellington. Eartha the euphoric protege sang, "Hungry little trouble, damned in a bubble, yearning to be, be or be free, all that you see is about me." (TC, 186) Originally one of three women, when the play went on the road, Eartha became "all women...of all times." (TC, 185)

Eartha experienced another ecstatic epiphany perusing Plato at the Acropolis. "I remained there for many hours, seeking a way to grasp the knowledge symbolized by these ruins of an ancient but never-forgotten world." (TC, 204) Then Eartha caused an uproar in Istanbul when she was mistaken for an Egyptian princess by milling Muslim masses. Finally, the secret policeman shadowing her blew his cover to quell the crowd.

A NY Times ad heralded her debut at La Vie En Rose with "Learn to say Eartha Kitt". After a boffo run at Village Vanguard, she joined Paul Lynde in New Faces of 1952 on Broadway scripted by young Melvin Brooks. Her hit record "C'est Si Bon" insured a movie version of New Faces. Eartha soon filmed Mark of the Hawk with Sidney Potier and St. Louis Blues with Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson and Nat "King" Cole as W.C. Handy--then an Oscar nomination for Anna Lucasta with Sammy Davis, Jr. Eartha spent her Hollywood nights on a motorcycle listening to James Dean complain about Rock Hudson's superficial acting style. After a Tony nomination for the tragic Mrs. Patterson, Eartha rejoined Mel Brooks in Broadway's Shinbone Alley based on archie and mehitabel by Don Marquis illustrated by Krazy Cat's Creole creator George Herriman. As the alleycat Mehitabel, Eartha insisted that she was Cleopatra in a past life. Kitt would also ask Einstein what he thought about reincarnation.

Eartha's recordings are rekindling interest in new generations of fans. The most collectable Eartha Kitt single is her Afro-Cuban debut on Seeco Records (C&SM #21). Kitt's prior 1950 EP of four standards with Doc Cheatam would be next in rarity. Eartha's RCA career is ably represented on Paul Williams' compilation purr-fect with stunning inner pic from a wild French photo session that brought chastisement from Ms. Dunham. Nevertheless, only an hour of Eartha can get as "Monotonous" as a bimbo's affected boredom--so a true enthusiast will want the Bear Family's Eartha-quake! This box set contains many of the Latin numbers that have always been a staple of Eartha's act and several down home blues tracks as well. Noteworthy RCA LPs include Down to Eartha (1955) and Thursday's Child (1956) produced by Hugo "Canadian Sunset" Winterhalter (arranged Ames Brothers, Count Basie, Perry Como, Tommy Dorsey, Billy Eckstine, Eddie Fisher, Mario Lanza, Raymond Scott, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Kate Smith, Kay Starr) as well as St. Louis Blues (1958) with trumpeter Shorty Rogers and His Giants (produced Herb Alpert and Sergio Mendes: C&SM #20). Eartha attributes her first Las Vegas success to arranger Bill Loose (scored Russ Meyer films: C&SM #22).

In the 1960s, Eartha cut several fine sides for MGM including "Love for Sale" and interpretations of The Very Best of Cole Porter. As Catwoman on Batman, Kitt's popularity took off. Then Lady Byrd Johnson henpecked Eartha for opposing the Vietnam War at a White House luncheon. After playing "Cycledelic" bass on biker movie soundtracks with Davie Allan & the Arrows (C&SM #11) but before becoming a "California Uber Alles" politician, Mike Curb took over A&R for MGM, promptly purging Kitt with other controverial acts such as The Animals and The Mothers of Invention. Luckily Eartha Kitt In Person at the Plaza is still available on GNP Crescendo. President Carter invited the Kismet adaptation Timbuktu! to the White House with a hearty "Welcome back, Eartha!" Under Carter's Freedom of Information policy, Kitt published her extensive CIA file as the appendix to Alone With Me.

The '80s marked Eartha's triumphant return to the pop charts with "Where Is My Man" and "I Love Men" by Georgio Moroder and "Cha-Cha Heels" with Bronski Beat. In 1988, Eartha recorded My Way, a tribute to Martin Luther King with a choir led by Billy Preston's sister Rodena. In the '90s, Kitt has honored Billie Holliday and The Cotton Club with The Ink Spots. And true to type, Eartha recently played the fairy godmother in the stage tour of Rogers & Hammerstein's Cinderella.

In her new book Rejuvenate, Eartha appears at chapter headings wearing a toque like we see crowning portraits of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. The cosmic dancer is poised as human heiroglyphic for such symbolic concepts as Stretch (your mind), Bend (your will), Rock'n'Roll (social injustice), Release (material bonds), Balance (priorities) and the catchall portmanteau Etceterate, where Kitt appears as Egyptian hierophant. Whereas Eartha's first three books were chronological memoirs, Rejuvenate is a transcendental choreography of life via symbolic gestures for self-reliance through civil disobedience. Autobiographical souvenirs illustrate principles of living in harmony with the planet, who will provide for us if we show her proper respect.

"I strive to make the body love the mind, and the mind love the body, keeping the spirit vigorous as a consequence....I embrace the reality that life is a cycle....When we open ourselves to a situation we revitalize our minds, our spirits, absolving the hurt and thus becoming able to use it in a positive way....It is a way of centering myself in the where-I-am....we do well to do some bending so our minds and spirits do not become stiff and brittle by not allowing other thoughts to come in....sometimes we need to be flexible to find out where we really need to be rigid....This is bending to your own tide....Rocking against what is an outrage to your being and rolling with your flow...enable you to maintain your identity and individuality....When I have defied a rule, I have done so to shed light on the nonsensical." This is the way to rejuvenate!

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung says that the shaman has the ability to dissociate personality to allow possession by the totemic bush spirit. Eartha is gifted with the rare talent to project whatever persona she wishes. She can leave behind introverted Eartha Mae who hid under the porch because she was different and become Eartha Kitt the extrovert. In 1994, Eartha played Molly Bloom in the Penelope episode of James Joyce's Ulysses with tunes by Edith Piaf's songwriter Charles Aznavour such as "Yesterday When I Was Young." Eartha can warble with the vibrato of "The Little Sparrow" Piaf or stomp with the twang of Gunsmoke's Miss Kitty on a "Lovin' Spree." Eartha even changes characters within songs when she goes from "prim and proper" to "I Want To Be Evil" or the phony "Old-Fashioned Girl" is caught showing her roots in Las Vegas "at the spinnin' wheel!" The song that comes closest to home is Kitt's paean to vitamins and exercise "I Want You Around."

Eartha's best interpretations are often the Latin dance tunes learned from streetcorner singers in Spanish Harlem. This class act is a good listener with a phonographic memory that can replay Turkish, Swedish or French as crisp and distinctly articulate as her Continental Standard English. Eartha could have been a blues singer, but it was easier to compete with Marilyn Monroe satirizing the smirking golddiggers sneering in the ringside seats with "Mink, Schmink" or Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." "You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think!" (T.S. Eliot wrote Cats for Kitt.)

Eartha is constantly cast as highly archetypal mythological characters from exotic dancer Salome televised on Omnibus in 1952 and storyteller Scheherazade in 1970 film Up the Chastity Belt to the witches in The Wizard of Oz stage tour and Earnest Scared Stupid. Kitt can play the Norse goddess Freya in Terry Jones' Eric the Viking or an Incan bruja in The Emperor's New Groove--talk about latitude! Eartha can depict wicked femmes fatale because she has experienced cruelty and injustice. It isn't only The Shadow who knows what evil lies deep in hearts of men. "Although a kitten cries tonight, a panther waits to claw and bite--The Heel!"

When Eartha does play realistic characters, the roles become universal types motivated by her own wide experience. We see this method acting in the application of personal reminiscences that earned Kitt an Emmy nomination for "The Loser" with Bill Cosby on I Spy. Eartha's observations of the tough streets of New York actualized the horrors of heroin withdrawal in Synanon (aka Get Off My Back) and made her an effective foil for Pam Grier as Friday Foster. Atavistic acting skills were further developed on stage in The Skin of Our Teeth, The Owl and the Pussycat, Bunny and The High Bid. As Dolores in Broadway's The Wild Party says, "the second you think you know it all, life goes and takes a big bite outta your ass. And I've got the scars to prove it."

Eartha's forte is working up a live audience where she can modulate the values of the social matrix through the various roles that she satirizes. Kitt's comic influences are Imogene Coca, Bea Lillie and Carol Burnette: all adept in the manipulation of a crowd. The theater audience is a sophisticated community of taste. Listeners respond to in-jokes which reinforce their social cohesion by sharing sensibilities that wink at Eartha's satirical references and innuendoes. This is how the scapegoat is sacrificed to ridicule and ostracism in our so-called civilized social rituals.

Yet joined to this inspiration is much perspiration. Good has never been good enough for Eartha. She has always already had to be better than good. Kitt's been honored several times from Carver Memorial Institute in 1960 and NANM's Woman of the Year in 1968 to her third Grammy nomination in 1996 for Back in Business. And Eartha has always shared her skills with others. She taught dance classes in Harlem in the 50s and set up her Kittsville community center in Watts in the 60s featuring homegrown health & soul food. In the 70s, Eartha boldly crossed the color lines of apartheid to build schools in South Africa. In 1997, the prodigal returned home to endow a dance scholarship at Benedict College in South Carolina. Thus her talents are multiplied manifold in a corps of students.

Kitt's cult of fans can catch her on cable reruns of "The Traitor" on Mission Impossible or 1961 movie Saint of Devil's Island. How about the outlandish 1965 German fantasy Oncle Tom's Hutte? As Eartha sang in Stephen Sondheim's Follies, "I'm Still Here." And as the immortal Mehitabel, "Cheerio, my deario! There's life in the old girl yet!" And as Eartha Mae Keith, "Thursday's Child has far to go...."