- - Thursday, August 28, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

AMERICA’S MISTRESS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF EARTHA KITT
By John L. Williams
Quercus, $26.99, 336 pages, illustrated

If Eartha Kitt is remembered at all today, it is either because of her appearances as Catwoman on the ultra-campy 1960s “Batman” TV series, or (by political junkies) because she made Lady Bird Johnson teary after a luncheon at the White House by delivering a rambling, alcohol-fueled rant against President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies.

This neglect is too bad because Kitt was not only a hoot, as they used to say, but a shrewd, one-of-a-kind entertainer who made the most out of her limited talents. Author John L. Williams‘ fast-paced, well-written and exhaustively researched book should give his subject a chance at being re-evaluated. He has a genuine feel for the times in which she lived, knows the ins and outs of show business, and is judicious in his judgments of her many flaws.

By all the usual standards, she should not have become a star in the 1950s. She was the daughter of a black woman and a white man at a time when Doris Day and other white women totally dominated the airwaves. She was undeniably attractive, but not conventionally beautiful. She wasn’t a particularly gifted singer, but she had her own immediately identifiable sound, the sine qua non of pop stardom. But what made her famous was a persona that radiated what we would today call “attitude.” And, yes, the French have word for it: blase.

By the intimate tone of her purring voice, the languorous way she moved, and the sly, knowing expressions on her face, she communicated to her audiences that she was bored with the sweet romance and endless love the pop songs of the day glorified. All she wanted was a good time, but strictly on her terms, and she wasn’t going to get all excited about it. There was nothing salacious in her presentations because they were always done with a touch of good humor. So, in songs like “C’est Si Bon” (sung in French), “Uska Dara” (sung in Turkish) and “Santa Baby” (sung in sexy), she mocked the pieties of pop music and let the audience know she was in on the joke.

I remember her early success very well, because it occurred when I was in my late teens, a time when music takes on a special importance. At that time, pop music was for the most part in the doldrums, and I had already escaped to Frank Sinatra, jazz, and rhythm and blues. But I felt that Kitt’s recordings, because of their oddness (an anyone imagine a pop singer today having a success with a Turkish song?) deserved respect. As the author points out, she herself deserved respect because, in the catchphrase of the day, she had come a long way, baby.

She was born into rural poverty, picked cotton as a child in her native South Carolina and then moved to Spanish Harlem to live with an aunt. A high-school teacher taught her not only how to speak English well, but how to read a menu and have table manners. She learned to dance by becoming a member of the popular all-black Katherine Dunham dance troupe. She became a student (and evidently more) of then well-known blues-folk singer Josh White. In Paris, with the Dunham troupe, she appeared as Helen of Troy in Orson Welles’ theatrical adaptation of “Dr. Faustus.”

Welles, in his usual over-the-top fashion, called her “the most exciting woman in the world.” Then Broadway producer Leonard Sillman asked her to appear in his revue “New Faces of 1952.” The show was a hit, and in her sly rendering of “Monotonous,” a hymn to the joys of ennui (she is bored silly, even though “T.S. Eliot writes books for me/King Farouk’s on tenterhooks for me”), she stopped the show. Life magazine did a four-page spread on her, and she appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which bestowed on the exotic Eartha Kitt the blessing of pop acceptance. She even had tea with Albert Einstein. She fought racial discrimination, but many in the civil rights movement felt she wasn’t militant enough. She always had more white fans than black ones.

She reached the peak of her fame in 1953-1954. By 1968, her career was, for all practical purposes, over. The author deals with the next 40 years of her life in two brief chapters. She married, had a daughter, divorced, fell in and out of love, drank too much, had mental problems and died from cancer on Christmas Day 2008, with only her daughter by her side.

In the great scheme of things, Kitt was not a major force in American entertainment. But during her relatively brief moment of glory, she demonstrated a unique kind of style and class that should be remembered. Despite Mr. Williams‘ claim, she was never America’s mistress. At best, she was an enjoyable one-night stand, quickly forgotten as the great American audience continued on the eternal quest for the different, the shocking and the new. Her offbeat appeal was the kind of thing Gerard Manley Hopkins had in mind when he wrote: “Glory be to God for dappled things/All things counter, original, spare, strange.” It is to Mr. Williams‘ credit that he has reminded us that idiosyncratic performers can offer pleasures about which mainstream stars know nothing.

William F. Gavin is the author of “Speechwright: An Insider’s Take on Political Rhetoric” (Michigan State University Press).

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