Eartha Kitt: 'Can't Let the Bastards Get Us Down'

The show biz star famous for her sexual energy also tackled controversy head-on.

December 26, 2008, 2:38 PM

Dec. 26, 2008— -- I suspect Eartha Kitt would approve of most of the obituaries that followed her death Thursday at age 81. They summed up a career in show business that extended more than 60 years, remarkable for a woman who always brought more than a dash of sex to her repertoire. A few years ago, a reviewer of her stage act in London noted that her sexual energy had not dimmed over the decades.

But the obits also took note of her involvement in political controversy. Most famous, or infamous, was the tongue-lashing she delivered to President Lyndon Johnson's wife, Lady Bird, at a White House luncheon in 1968. The topic was the then-raging Vietnam War. Kitt, according to some accounts, caused the first lady to cry when she said, "You send the best of the country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot."

Kitt paid a steep price for her caustic remarks. She lost bookings and had to rely on her popularity in Europe to find work. Her time in purgatory ended when President Jimmy Carter extended an invitation to the White House in 1978.

Some of her obits also noted the brickbats that came her way when she toured South Africa in 1984. The white government was still hell-bent on enforcing apartheid. Many blacks and white liberals felt that by going she gave aid and comfort to racists. But as the New York Times notes, "Kitt was typically unapologetic; the tour, she said, played to integrated audiences and helped build schools for black children."

In 1985, the Pretoria government declared a state of emergency to crack down on blacks and other protestors classified by the white authorities as colored (mixed-race). I spent much of the next two years covering the tumultuous events that eventually led to the end of apartheid and to the freeing of Nelson Mandela. During that violent period, Eartha Kitt returned to South Africa, where I interviewed her for the first time.

I knew only of the glamorous Eartha -- costumed as a femme fatale or, famously in the Batman TV series, in a feline outfit as Catwoman. That was not the Eartha I found in rundown offices in the Johannesburg building that housed the African National Congress, the main opposition to white domination. To get there it was necessary for everyone, Eartha included, to walk eight flights because the building's electricity had mysteriously shut down. Since this was the only downtown building that seemed to be affected, there was considerable suspicion that the white authorities were having a little of what they regarded as fun.

Devoid of makeup, jetlagged and bone-weary, she also seemed world-weary. And it was not the kind of weary sophistication from too many nightclubs that one might associate with a Noel Coward or, well, an Eartha Kitt.

She assumed she would have to endure more assaults from friends or former friends for returning to South Africa. It was similar to the kind of criticism she had leveled years earlier at her old friend, Sammy Davis Jr., when he supported Richard Nixon. But she was still defiant.

The criticism hurt, she said, but she could take it. What she could not take, she said, was the fact that the white government seemed to be winning. She despaired that Nelson Mandela would ever be released, much less become South Africa's first black president.

I have long since lost my notes of the interview and have no idea where the videotape is. But I remember it was not what would generally be a regarded as a "good interview" or "good television." She did not try to be cute or sexy or even likable. And she was so down emotionally that her answers lacked the crispness we like in TV news. She was, of course, critical of the Pretoria government, but on that day, at least, she was not "a good sound bite." There were long pauses in the middle of sentences. This was an interview that would require some editing.

At some point, I decided we had enough and asked the cameraman to stop shooting. He went off with the tape to make sure it reached a TV satellite. In those days, when we had a controversial interview or had pictures of the authorities violently repressing demonstrators, we would often ship the tape to a neighboring black country to avoid censorship by the whites who ran South African television.

I stayed behind and chatted a bit with Kitt. We talked about the plight of coloreds who felt they were not accepted by either whites or blacks. In my experience, the coloreds were the saddest and angriest people in South Africa. She was sympathetic to them. She, too, was of mixed-race. The illegitimate child of a black Cherokee woman and a white man, she had endured abuse from blacks as a youngster for looking too white.

Just before I got up to leave, her mood changed. She clearly had had quite enough of all this pessimistic talk. The gloom seemed to lift from her. She suddenly looked 10 years younger. The snap and crackle were back: "What the hell! Things will get better. They've got to. Can't let the bastards get us down."

I never saw her again. But I wish I could have interviewed her one more time -- on the day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison.

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