Eartha Kitt, the sultry triple threat who rose from South Carolina cotton fields to become an international symbol of elegance and sensuality, died of colon cancer Thursday in Connecticut. She was 81.
A self-proclaimed “sex kitten” famous for her catlike purr, Kitt was one of America’s most versatile performers, winning two Emmys and nabbing a third nomination. She also was nominated for several Tonys and two Grammys.
Her career spanned six decades, from her start as a dancer with the famed Katherine Dunham troupe to cabaret gigs and acting and singing on stage, in movies and on television.
Kitt persevered through an unhappy childhood as a mixed-race daughter of the South and made headlines in the 1960s for denouncing the Vietnam War during a visit to the White House.
Once dubbed the “most exciting woman in the world” by Orson Welles, she spent much of her life single, though brief romances with rich and famous men peppered her younger years.
After becoming a hit singing “Monotonous” in the Broadway revue “New Faces of 1952,” Kitt appeared in the show “Mrs. Patterson” in 1954-55. She also appeared in “Shinbone Alley” and “The Owl and the Pussycat.”
Her first album, “RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt,” came out in 1954, featuring such songs as “I Want to Be Evil,” “C’est Si Bon” and the saucy golddigger’s theme song “Santa Baby,” which is revived on radio each Christmas. The next year, the record company released a follow-up album, “That Bad Eartha.”
In 1996, Kitt was nominated for a Grammy for traditional pop vocal performance for her album “Back in Business.” She had previously been nominated for a children’s recording for “Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa” (1969).
In movies, Kitt played the lead female role opposite Nat King Cole in 1958’s “St. Louis Blues” and more recently appeared in “Boomerang” and “Harriet the Spy” in the 1990s.
She was the sexy Catwoman on the hit “Batman” TV series in 1967-68, replacing Julie Newmar, who originated the role. A guest appearance on “I Spy” brought her an Emmy nomination in 1966.
Kitt was plainspoken about causes she believed in. Her antiwar comments at the White House came at a luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson.
“You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed,” she told the group of about 50 women. “They rebel in the street. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”
For four years afterward, Kitt performed almost exclusively overseas. In 1978, Kitt returned to Broadway in “Timbuktu!,” which brought her a Tony nomination, and she was invited back to the White House by President Carter. In 2000, she earned another Tony nom for “The Wild Party.”
As recently as October 2003, she was on Broadway after replacing Chita Rivera in a revival of “Nine.”
Kitt is survived by a daughter and two grandchildren.