Thursday, January 17, 2008

Happy birthday, Eartha Kitt.

In the early 1950s, when it was difficult for an American Negro to get famous – even in show business – a young mixed-race “sex kitten” named Eartha Kitt became a sensation in nightclubs and on Broadway.

Today is Ms. Kitt’s 80th (or 81st) birthday... and she is still a cabaret star. (And a gay icon.)

To get a sense of what the fuss was about 50 years ago, click here and listen to Eartha Kitt sing “Monotonous.” This was her big number in the Broadway revue “New Faces of 1952.”

Best remembered by folks of my generation for playing Catwoman on “Batman,” Ms. Kitt made news 40 years ago, almost to the day, by shit-talking the Vietnam war while a guest at the White House.

Reportedly, she almost brought the First Lady to tears.

This incident damaged Eartha Kitt’s career in the United States for a decade... until her triumphant return to Broadway in the 1978 musical “Timbuktu!”

Kitt’s 1968 confrontation with Lady Bird Johnson prompted the Secret Service to ask the C.I.A. whether it had any dirt on her. The C.I.A. responded with a three-page report. (The spy agency had been gathering raw data on Eartha Kitt since the mid-’50s, when she traveled often to Europe.)

As Seymour Hersh reported in the New York Times in 1975:

“She was depicted in the C.I.A. document as having ‘a very nasty disposition,’ and as ‘being a spoiled child, very crude and having a vile tongue.’ Miss Kitt, who is black, was said not to associate with other Negroes and ‘often bragged that she had very little Negro blood.’ ”

Hersh also wrote: “It is known that President Johnson was upset by the [White House] episode, but it is not known whether he personally directed the Secret Service to ask for the investigation” of Eartha Kitt.

Just what did she say to Lady Bird Johnson on January 18, 1968? Below is part of a United Press International story about the incident.

(I thank Madam Jujujive for alerting me to this birthday.)
UPI: Eartha Kitt, the singer, stunned other guests at a White House luncheon today when she angrily told Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson that American youth was rebelling because of the Vietnam war.

About 50 white and Negro women invited to the White House to discuss President Johnson’s proposals to combat crime in the streets sat at their table in silence as Miss Kitt, a Negro, spoke out against the war and high taxes.

“You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed,” she said. “They rebel in the street. They will take pot and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”

A pale Mrs. Johnson later rose and looked directly at Miss Kitt, who leaned against a podium in the yellow walled Family Dining Room.

“Because there is a war on – and I pray that there will be a just and honest peace – that still doesn’t give us a free ticket not to try to work for better things such as against crime in the streets, better education and better health for our people,” Mrs. Johnson said, her voice trembling and tears welling in her eyes.

Before Mrs. Johnson’s response, however, Mrs. Richard J. Hughes, wife of the Democratic Governor of New Jersey, broke the silence following Miss Kitt’s remarks. ...

She said that her first husband had been killed in World War II and that she had eight sons, one an Air Force veteran.

“None wants to go to Vietnam but all will go, they and their friends,” she said.

Mrs. Hughes said that none of her children smoked marijuana and that youth was not rebelling because of the war. The other guests applauded. Miss Kitt... stared at her with arms folded.

After the luncheon, Mrs. Johnson remarked with a little laugh, “I do want to say this has been a lively meeting with lots of ideas.”

Miss Kitt, who was born in poverty 39 years ago in North, S.C., and made a fortune in the movies and Broadway shows, said to newsmen later:

“I see nothing wrong with the way I handled myself. I can only hope it will do some good.”

Of the First Lady, she said:

“I’m afraid she became a little flustered. She made a very nice little speech. The fact that Mrs. Johnson wants to put flowers along the driveways and trees up and down the boulevards can make a very attractive city, but that is not going to do very much good when it comes to solving the problem of juvenile delinquency.”

Miss Kitt, her eyes flashing while she puffed on a cigarette and jabbed a finger at her startled audience, said that American youths were “angry because their parents are angry, because there is a war going on that they don’t understand, that they don’t know why.” ...

19 comments:

Thembi said...

I'm not dead yet ;)

I had to give you a shoutout because it was your from the picket-line post that made me realize I AM writer and even if I spend my days wheelin and deelin in the business world, write is what I must do.

But I digress.

Oh yeah..."Mahhhcus Dahhhling..."

Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

Thanks for this one. I'm looking at 1968 on my site, and I had the date for the Kitt-Johnson brouhaha as the 19th. Oops. Of course, I can now link to your post, which has all the good stuff anyway!

Comb & Razor said...

ha... for some reason this makes me think about a story in an old issue of Ebony (or was it Jet?) from the 1950s: "Why Some Negroes Don't Like Eartha Kitt"

evansgreene said...

WOW thank you for that post!

Undercover Black Man said...

Thembi's back in the mix! Your comeback post is hilarious.

Mon-sewer: Yeah, Jan. 19 was when it hit the newspapers.

Comb & Razor: Word? And do you collect old Ebonys and Jets or what??

Evansgreene: Welcome to my spot.

dnA said...

You know, every time I see a picture of Eartha Kitt back in the day, I think "Gawd she was hottttt" and then someone inevitably reminds me how fucked up she was about race, and it ruins everything.

But really though, she was pretty fly back in the day.

Comb & Razor said...

i used to have a great collection of old Ebonys and Jets, but they got damaged in a flood... i'm trying to rebuild, though!

(got some good issues of Players, too!)

Undercover Black Man said...

^ (got some good issues of Players, too!)

Yo, I'm being totally serious when I say... I bet there are some great '70s interviews in those. Richard Pryor, probably. Filmmakers, actors, musicians...

Andy said...

Amazing what a whiny ...lady Lady Bird was.

I'm too young to have a good perspective on the Vietnam/Johnson years, but when I hear about someone crying just because someone else told them something they didn't want to hear, I laugh. Especially someone in a position of prestige like that. What a poor role model for young women she was (at least in this case, bear in mind I don't have a degree in history so hey, maybe she was great elsewhere and when).

Wow. Women have come a long way haven't they? I know I'm glad.

And "Lady Bird"? Really? People make fun of names now...but we had a first lady named "Lady Bird".

Thembi said...

Thanks for the shoutout!
I'm going to NEED you to take your light self back to my blog for my Debarge post. Gotta round things out...

Comb & Razor said...

UBM:

yeah... Players had some great interviews... closest thing we had to the Playboy interview.

thembi:

you're making a DEBARGE post?????

okay... you KNOW i got to be there to show love for the First Family of Light-Skinnded R&B!

Bklyn6 said...

Miss Kitt, who is black, was said not to associate with other Negroes and ‘often bragged that she had very little Negro blood.’ ”

Never knew she said that.

Well, you can practically see the "Negro blood" being diluted in front of your very eyes in this picture. That's her with daughter Kitt, and granddaughter.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Dang. They crossed the line and ain't looking back.

SJ said...

Heh it is quite a progression isn't it...Eartha is brown, her daughter is tan and her granddaughter is white.

Oyn said...

That's funny, because I am listening to the lovely Ms. Kitt as I read this.

Happy (belated) Birthday indeed.

Anonymous said...

Eartha is my favoite celeberity! I really would like to know her feelings about on being Black...

Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

I have always loved and respected Eartha Kitt. I was a tad dismayed to see her hanging out with George W. Bush at the White House a year or so ago. Has she changed her political stripes? She was at one time a dedicated lefty.

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY

Anonymous said...

Remember she is only 1/4 black herself...so her daughter and grand daughter are pretty much not black. So, if she says she has very little black blood she is not hating...she is stating a fact. May she rest in peace.

Anonymous said...

Another self loathing black, how sad!!! Too bad she did not know that she is True Israel (Jew)