Underneath it all was Eartha Mae. I can still hear the thrill in Eartha Kitt’s voice in 2001 as she explained how she had recently learned her actual date of birth: January 17, 1927. Students at Benedict College, a historically Black college in Columbia, South Carolina, researched the details of her birth prior to a visit to their campus in 1997. For years, Ms. Kitt believed she had been born on a different January day in 1928 and wasn’t sure of many firm details of her childhood with the exception of the facts she knew for sure: hardship, rejection and backbreaking work in the cotton fields.
A move to Harlem with an aunt in the early 1940s would lead to the breaks that would allow her to leave poverty behind for good, but she experienced a different type of hardship, rejection and backbreaking work throughout her six-decade career: Endless hours of dance rehearsals and classes, both as a student and a teacher. Lessons to strengthen the distinctive, ambitious voice that alternately purred, seduced and cajoled. The stress of putting her own money into film projects, like 1958’s Anna Lucasta, and writing letters to southern theater owners who refused to show the film purely on “racial grounds.”
Catwoman? “Santa Baby”? Lady Eloise? Why, yes. But Eartha Kitt was an icon of style and substance. She owned her sensuality in her music, on the stage and screen and in life, and it was displayed in her style choices: From the skin-tight mermaid gowns and smart, lady-like suits of the 1950s to the dramatic turbans, jewels and animal prints of the 1960s and beyond. Eartha Kitt can’t be reduced to a mere purr or come- hither wink, because there was always so much more – that unique blend of grit and sparkle that makes her unforgettable to this day.
And underneath it all was Eartha Mae. The rejuvenated Eartha may who literally loved nature and the earth. The Eartha who went without makeup and gardened, collected bird’s nests and relished the feel of the earth beneath her manicured nails. “I’m a dirt person,” she told EBONY in 1993. “I trust the dirt. I don’t trust diamonds and gold.” —Nichelle Gainer
Nichelle Gainer is a beauty, fashion and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in magazines and websites including GQ, InStyle, Glamour, Newsweek.com and Essence.com. She is currently working on the book version of Vintage Black Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter at @VintageBlkGlam.