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Trips to Europe with the Dunham dance company helped: she had a natural flair for languages and picked up her rolled “r” learning French chansons.Europe still saw black people as unthreateningly exotic at that time, but back in America tensions were mounting.Best known at that point for playing Catwoman in the camp, Sixties television show Batman, she’d just been prowling around his studio, growling her 1953 single: I Want to Be Evil.
Wogan gently mocked her trademark purr as a “sophisticated gargle”. “A man has always wanted to lay me down but he never wanted to pick me up.” By the time she died in 2008, she had a habit of summarising her life in six words: “Rejected, ejected, dejected, used, accused, abused." Although she wrote three fanciful and contradictory autobiographies, John L Williams is the first biographer to take her on.
She parried by sliding a flirtatious foot across his lap. He turned a piercing eye on the casual racism and sexism of Fifties and Sixties showbiz in Miss Shirley Bassey (2010) and became fascinated by the way in which – for a short while – Eartha Kitt appeared to operate beyond those prejudices.
But when he returned to the question of her “wicked” persona she became tearful. “How odd,” he writes, “that one of the most popular postwar sex symbols should have been a black woman who sang in a dozen languages, favouring French chansons and Mexican ballads over rhythm ’n’ blues or jazz.” How remarkable that this girl, born dirt poor and illegitimate into segregated South Carolina, was able to seduce Mr Middle America.
The public loved her man-eating stage act, she said, but only her daughter had ever truly loved the woman beneath it. Her glamorous act affected ennui for the jewels, champagne and art dropped at her feet by the world’s richest white men, at a time when most black Americans were struggling for basic human rights, and it was still illegal for a black person to have sex with a white one in 28 out of 50 American states.
There are lurid stories of her being stripped and whipped.
She was certainly used as a domestic drudge until – deus ex machina, or possibly guilty pater ex machina?When she finally got married – to a white real estate investor – the union was short-lived, although it did yield the daughter (Kitt Mc Donald) to whom Kitt would remain devoted.Alas, Kitt Mc Donald didn’t speak to Williams, whose book would have benefited from a daughter’s humanising insight. Her 1953 recording of "Santa Baby" is still a favorite today.Her mother abandoned her, and she was left in the care of relatives who mistreated her.– a train ticket arrived to whisk the eight-year-old up to another aunt in New York.