In a word, she was…purrrfect. Preternaturally alluring and charismatic, Eartha Kitt achieved worldwide fame at a time when most mixed-race performers couldn’t even get hired. Whether she was acting in the films of her mentor and friend, Orson Welles, belting out nightclub staples like Santa Baby (in four languages!), wowing TV audiences as Batman’s most sensual nemesis, Catwoman, or breathing life into animated films with her one-of-a-kind voice, Eartha worked hard to become one of Hollywood’s brightest stars.
And nearly 15 years after her passing, her legend still looms large. Yet Eartha’s greatest joy in life was found out of the spotlight. “[She] was a mother first and foremost — that was her most important role,” Eartha’s daughter, Kitt Shapiro, 60, tells Closer. “It was truly a blessing to be able to live a life knowing how much I was loved.”
Eartha never experienced that blessing. The child of a mother of Cherokee and African descent and a white father she never knew, Eartha Mae Keith was sent away at a young age and raised in a relative’s home, where she was physically and sexually abused. “She spoke about her childhood a lot,” recalls Kitt, who details her relationship with her mom in the memoir Eartha & Kitt: A Daughter’s Love Story in Black and White. “There was so much pain, but I think she was a born survivor.”
Salvation came when Eartha moved from Southern California Harlem to live with another relative, Mamie Kitt, and enrolled in the Metropolitan Vocational High School (later renamed High School of Performing Arts). At 16, she became a member of the Katherine Dunham dance company — and her career took off from there, with singing gigs in Europe and, later, roles on stage and screen.
Eartha’s love life wasn’t as spectacular. While she enjoyed close friendships with men like Welles, Sidney Poitier and James Dean (“She called him Jamie,” Kitt recalls. “They were like brother and sister.”), boyfriends such as movie studio heir Arthur Loew Jr. — whom Kitt says was Eartha’s greatest love — wouldn’t marry her because of her mixed-race heritage. Her one marriage, to real estate investor John McDonald, lasted just four years.
“I think my mother had a hard time being married,” says Kitt. Still, that brief union produced the true love of Eartha’s life. From the moment her little girl was born, Eartha dedicated herself to giving her the happy childhood she never had, whether she was taking Kitt along on her many travels, teaching her how to tend the vegetable garden at their Beverly Hills home, playing games or imparting words of wisdom. (“One of her quotes I liked most was, ‘I’ve used all the manure that has been thrown on me as fertilizer,’” Kitt says.)
They also enjoyed sharing a laugh. “She found me very funny,” smiles Kitt, a married mother of two. “The rest of [my family] doesn’t seem to think so, but my mother thought I was hysterical. I miss her laughing at the things I would say.”