"Between Mae and Kitt..."
_Written by Daniel Pettus. _
Between Mae and Kitt—Eartha’s Self-Reflective Sweet / Sweet Song “I can tease as Eartha Kitt, but as Eartha Mae, forget it.”1
The “Clairvoyant” speaks to Eartha Kitt: “You are doing exactly as you are meant to do but you are going across a long body of water, and there a lot of money is waiting. If you are not careful, this money will be taken from you by a dark man and a fair-haired lady. You will not be happy there. You have the possibility of becoming very successful there, but you will not be happy. You will then cross another large body of water where you will become successful. You will stand on a plateau of success there for a while. Then you will have problems with your health, you must be careful about this. You will travel over a body of water again where nothing can stop your star from rising. Then you will lie dormant in this success at that level before your star rises again. Then there will be no stopping.”2
Eartha Kitt, Hamburg 1950, (Susan Schapowalow.)
Eartha Mae Kitt’s life has been one of constant movement: between the Mae of the dirt and the Kitt of the stage she provided the world with a sweet, sweet song. From her early beginnings as a poor child to her final days of success Eartha was a mover and a shaker, even beyond her actual performances. Her work in South Africa during Apartheid (1974) is a perfect example of how her career as a performer was never limited to the stage.
_ Pen-drawing by AR. _
“My champagne-drinking number called ‘The Charleston’, which is all in French, calls for a waiter to bring on an opened bottle of champagne and one glass. The law in South Africa prohibits a white from drinking from the same glass as a black person. Since our company stage manager was an English white, he and I drank from the same glass and it was then passed along the front row. Blacks and whites were drinking from the same glass no matter what theatre we played.”3
After her shows she would meet with groups of people trying to eradicate Apartheid, some in favor of her being in South Africa, others very opposed to it. On her return to America she appeared on Good Morning America, Barabara Walters acting as the “interrogator.”
_“Eartha Kitt, how could you above all people go to South Africa?’ [Barabara] began before I could even say ‘good morning.’ I let her go on and on, then reminded her of what we were still going through in our own country. ‘For the same reason we went to Selma, Alabama, with Martin Luther King,’ I answered. ‘Don’t you remember, Barbara?’ I asked…She seemed to soften a little at this. She tried to interrupt me, but I went on: ‘Even now blacks have a hard time getting into certain jobs, as we women do. I am sorry if you were never touched by this. You don’t know what you missed.’”4 _
_ At the funeral of Martin Luther King, flanked by Sidney Poiter, Nancy Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr. _
Eartha Mae or “yella gal,” as she was called when she was a child, (not much different in certain respects from the mature Eartha Kitt) experienced mixed reception from the world. Her first and few memories of her mother were when they were on the run from ‘something’ (unbeknownst to her) and denied lodging from house after house, because of her skin color. Eartha didn’t know her white father: her mother was black. Sleeping in a forest for several days with her mother and younger sister they eventually found shelter from a blind woman. Soon after their arrival at the blind woman’s house Eartha Mae overheard her “Moma” talking with an unknown man: pleading with him to take her daughters from her.
_“I was always worrying that Moma might leave and never come back. I don’t remember talking ever, but I was a very keen listener and silent as a cat. I listened through the cracks in the walls. One night, I awoke to hear Moma sobbing and when I peeked through the cracks of the bedroom wall, I saw her on her knees in front of the black man who helped in the garden. A small fire was burning; the soft crackling of the burning wood accompanied Moma’s sobs. Very softly her words came through the cracks: ‘Please take my children.’ ‘No I don’t want that yella gal in my house.’ The words stung my being like a thousand bees had swarmed into my very soul. Moma continued to sob and plead.”5 _
Gordon Parks (1952.)
A short time after this night Eartha Mae was dropped off at a house by her mother and this man. Eartha Mae would never see her mother again, until visiting her grave.
For Eartha Mae, being on the run was a normal way of life. When Eartha was a teenager, living in New York with her Aunt she would often run away from her and take the train from one end of Manhattan to the other.
_“A subway was a nickel for instance…and I used to get on the subway and ride from one end to the other, hoping the conductor wouldn’t see me. Because they used to have conductors at the time. And then get off at the other end. And then get back on. And just keep riding all day long until day break.”6 _
Living with her Aunt in New York inevitably became the breeding ground for the birth of Kitt, but initially it was out of necessity to hide from her Aunt. Working at a sewing factory near where she lived Eartha figured it would be more difficult for her Aunt to find her if she changed her name. At the time she was attending the New York School of Performing Arts. Incidentally or by fate after class one day Eartha ran into a girl on the street looking for a particular make-up store.
Dancing during a performance by Jazz great, Dizzy Gillespie, (1954.)
_“’Can you tell me where this make-up shop is?’ she asked, looking at me. She showed me a list detailing enough make-up for the cast of Cyrano. ‘Why do you need so much make-up”’ I asked. ‘Oh no, it’s not for me,’ the little voice said. ‘It’s for Katherine Dunham.’ The bulbs went off in my head like a bomb. ‘Do you know Katherine Dunham?’ I asked in great curiosity. ‘I’m one of her dancers, she sent me for this make-up,’ said the little voice. ‘If you take me to meet Katherine Dunham, I’ll show you where the shop is,’ I said surprising myself. ‘Okay. As a matter of fact, Miss Dunham is looking for new dancers.’”7 _
Netherlands. (Ben Van Meerendonk, 1962.)
Eartha arrived at Dunham’s dance school, not thinking much of it because she did not consider herself a dancer. Her friend Joyce accompanied her. Auditions for new dancers were underway when the girl with the little voice approached Eartha and asked her to join the audition.
**“I don’t know anything about dancing,” I said. “’I dare you, I dare you,’ said [her friend] Joyce… I laughed as I went off to the girls’ room to change. I laughingly joined the class, followed the teacher, and joked my way up and down the dance floor to the rhythm of African drums. When the class stopped, I playfully returned to my place next to Joyce. We were both laughing like two hyenas when a tall, black-haired lady squatted in front of me. With a very strong foreign accent she asked, ‘Can you come back on Monday at ten a.m.?’ ‘What on earth for?’ I asked, still kind of laughing. ‘You have won a full scholarship.’”8 **
Hence, the beginning of the new Eartha: Eartha Kitt.
Eartha Kitt performed with the Katherine Dunham Company, traveling from Mexico to Hollywood, London and on to Paris. She performed in the Broadway musical Blue Holiday (New York), her first solo number in Mexico: La Bamba, the Casbah a musical adaptation of the film Casablanca (Hollywood). She continued with the Dunham Company, dedicated as ever to the Dunham repertoire, until their performances in Paris. She was asked to replace a Cuban singer at a local club and Kitt was excited about the opportunity to prove herself and further her career on her own. Since she would not go on at the club until after her performance with The Dunham Company she figured there would be no issues. On the contrary, Dunham would have nothing of it. That being the case, Kitt submitted her two weeks notice ending her career with the Katherine Dunham Company.
After Eartha Kitt left the Company she began to find success on her own. She is widely known for her performances of “C’est Si Bon” “Love for Sale,” “Santa Baby” “I Want To Be Evil,” and of course her role as Cat Woman (among many others).
In Kitt’s later life she articulated (in print and in interviews) the dynamism concerning the in-between of her childhood and adulthood. She understood well the gap separating the introverted Mae and the extroverted star, Kitt. Eartha eloquently speaks about arriving at her performances early prior to their beginning dressed as Mae, navigating the lines of people awaiting entrance out front. As Mae, she would go unnoticed, while relishing in the success of Kitt. ** “Eartha Mae was happy for Eartha Kitt but sad for herself…Eartha Mae was never supposed to have anything, and was now beginning to feel whatever Eartha Kitt achieved did not belong to her, it belonged solely to Eartha Kitt, the achiever, the survivor. I could feel the separation of the two of me as I stood in front of the theatre, analyzing both of us.”9**
Eartha (whether feeling and/or thinking from the perspective of Mae and/or Kitt) knew all too well the pain of Mae and the success of Kitt. Strangely keeping the two separate, when consciously grappling with her own subjectivity, Eartha knew the Kitt within her made the life of Mae better.** “I find happiness within myself and the wonderful feeling you find on that stage with that audience.”10 **Through Kitt, Mae’s subjectivity took on an understanding that would have been impossible otherwise. Not that Mae would have been subjectively un-known to herself without Kitt. Rather, Mae experienced a different Mae, via Kitt. Yet, it is the Eartha Mae of the dirt, the disavowed un-recognizable ‘Yella Gal’ that fuels Eartha Kitt as well.
Fortunately, the world had the privilege of receiving both Kitt and Mae and the lively in-between of them both. Eartha Mae both/and Eartha Kitt, the disavowed child and the elegant and eloquently irresistible star has been and will continue to be recognized, not only for her talent, but more importantly for the sweet, sweet wisdom her life imparted. The Clairvoyant’s predictions were in fact true: there truly was no stopping Eartha Mae Kitt.
_Daniel Pettus is a contributing writer for by such and such. Adam Rogers is a contributing artist for by such and such. _
_1. BBC interview
2.Eartha Kitt, Confessions of a Sex Kitten (Barricade Books INC., 1989), 69.
- Ibid., 243.
BBC Radio Interview.
7.Kitt. Confesssions of a Sex Kitten, 42.
- Ibid., 43.
- BBC interview._
Photo Credits: Movies Reels.