Why you should care

Grace under pressure is a beautiful thing.

Eartha Mae Keith was the unique product of an America long past. She was conceived through an act of rape and born into the cotton fields of South Carolina in 1927, her father a white sharecropper, her mother part African-American, part Cherokee. And Eartha? All 5 feet 4 inches of her? Given away by her biological mother as a baby, she made the northern passage to Harlem as a young girl, later landing in Brooklyn and dropping out of high school at 15 to do factory work.

Homelessness and hard times followed. The transformative part of Eartha’s story came as a result of happenstance: Someone dared her to try out for dance great Katherine Dunham, and as luck would have it – hers and ours – she made it and was reborn as Eartha Kitt.

Kitt, as it turns out, could dance, but she could also sing – part sultry purr, part growl. “Eartha Kitt not only looks incendiary,” said legendary New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson in 1952, “but she can make a song burst into flame.” Which she did. Often. And for her efforts there were Tonys, Emmys, hit records and a memorable turn on the Batman TV series as Catwoman. She was even fluent in four languages and performed in seven.

A later touchstone for every performer and singer from Diana Ross to Madonna, Kitt kept performing right up to her death in 2008 from cancer. She went well beyond being just a good woman gone bad, and right into a good woman gone great. Her performance of one of her signature tunes, “I Want to Be Evil,” is a bold stroke from a woman who was pro-gay marriage, anti-war and pro-civil rights well before any of those were fashionable.

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