Eartha Kitt, the actress and singer perhaps best known for playing the role of Catwoman on the campy '60s live action series Batman died after a long battle with colon cancer on Christmas Day. She was 81. What follows is a tribute posted to Justin Bond's personal website in honor of the late, great entertainer.
Eartha Kitt was, without a doubt, one of the greatest inspirations of my life. I remember first seeing her as Catwoman and recognizing her tantalizing "otherness." She wasn't like any other creature I had ever seen before but I knew if she was possible so was I.
This is the story of how I met and had lunch with Eartha Kitt.
For my birthday in 1994 the lovely man I was dating at the time took me to see Miss Eartha Kitt perform at Kimballs East in the East Bay outside of San Francisco. I can't remember if it was a surprise or not because it was a long time ago and I've had a lot of champagne since then. I remember he told me I should get dressed up. I'm sure I was wearing the blue gardenia print shift dress my friend Scott Pimentel made for me out of some gorgeous vintage 50's fabric his grandmother had given him. And I'm sure I felt like Samantha Stevens because at this point I was heavily into my Bewitched phase.
The idea of seeing Eartha Kitt live was one of the most thrilling experiences I could imagine. Not only had I been a fan of her as Catwoman when I was a child, but also several years later when she was making the rounds of talk shows after her return to America. I remember being mightily impressed by her story of having performed exclusively in Europe for several years prior because she was blacklisted after confronting Ladybird Johnson about the Vietnam War at a White house luncheon in the late 60s.
For some reason I think a lot of people are under the misconception that blacklisting only happened during the communist witch hunts of the 1950's but that isn't true and Eartha Kitt, along with many other people suffered for speaking out against the war. Even today it's very dangerous to speak your mind -- or to throw your shoes in protest. What's the latest on the Iraqi shoe tosser? He may be an international hero, but I haven't heard much of an outcry for his release here in America.
But I digress.
Eartha took the stage with a rousing rendition of 'I'm Still Here' which got me so excited I spontaneously (rather embarrassingly for my very gentlemanly boyfriend) jumped out of my seat screaming with delight. That would have been appropriate behavior at a rock concert and to me Eartha Kitt was much bigger and more wonderful than any rock star so I was slightly offended that the rest of the audience of older, bourgeois people weren't following suit (or cocktail dress as the case may be). Quickly my date grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back into my seat. After sussing out the situation I realized I'd better calm down.
The rest of the show is a total blur but I remember the divan, the flirting, the stunningly precise physicality, total command of the audience, her voice and something else -for lack of a better expression I would have to call it a Divine Feminine mystic spell she as casting. A challenge. I feel that everyday she walked the Earth, Eartha Kitt was a challenge to the status quo. That's why she was so powerful. Her gaze was fierce and unflinching.
Before the show Blake, my lovely fellow, had sent one perfect rose in full bloom and an engraved invitation to join us for drinks after the show at the Redwood Room at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco.
We went and stood in line to meet her in her dressing room. I was so nervous. I didn't know what I was going to say until finally, when we were shaking hands I blurted out, 'Thank you for teaching me that it is possible to be both glamorous and political. You taught me a very valuable lesson at an early age.' She cocked an eyebrow and Blake asked if she had received our invitation. She had. She demurred on joining us for drinks which was a bit of a disappointment but countered by asking if we would like to take her to lunch the following day as she was supposed to have with a dear friend named Christobel who had recently gone through a bitter divorce. Maybe we could all try and cheer her up?
I gave Miss Kitt my phone number and Blake and I continued our evening by slipping off into the night for fancy birthday drinks at the Clift.
The following morning I woke up to the sound of a decidedly over-enthusiastic knocking at my door and a pounding in my head.
At the time I was living in the Upper Haight in a house with four lesbians, two cats and a very anxious canary.
Through the door burst our friend David, a very adorable young queen who was staying with us at the time. He was in a terrible state of agitation and was practically bouncing up and down' the way he was shaking and quaking' I was terribly alarmed. 'What is it?'
'Justin, um... This may sound weird but' EARTHA KITT IS ON THE PHONE!!!'
Oh. My. God.
Maybe I had thought she was just being nice, or that I had dreamed the whole thing -- I don't know what I thought. I certainly never expected that the fantastical events of the night before would carry through into into the morning light in my bedroom on a decidedly hungover and very real Saturday morning.
I grabbed the phone.
'Good morning Justin, this is Eartha Kitt''
And with those words a great adventure began. Evidently her girlfriend Christobel, the down-in-the-dumps-divorcee, lived in a very difficult to find house in the hills near Sausalito so we would need to pick up her friend Jerry, who was in a more convenient and easy to find location, and he would direct us up the windy roads to Christobel's house where we could pick up Christobel and then drive to the hotel in Oakland where Ms. Kitt was staying. Then we could take them all to lunch at Trader Vic's. It looked like we were in for what promised to be a very expensive Polynesian themed tiki-rific! luncheon for five.
'See you at one o'clock!'
It was 11.
Needless to say we panicked. First of all we didn't have a car. Blake had borrowed his friend's beat up old Toyota to take me to the show the night before which quite impressed me but I couldn't imagine Eartha Kitt or a down-in-the-dumps-divorcee (who I vaguely recall being referenced to as 'the mother of Andre Agassi -- don't say anything about that though'') -- I couldn't imagine either of them crawling into the back seat of that particular model of gas efficient vehicle.
Secondly, how long would it take us to pick up all those people by 1 o'clock -- even if we did have a car -- and, most importantly, how long would that leave me to wash the sex and booze off me, do my hair and make-up and work a fierce day look appropriate for a lunch I couldn't possibly afford at Trader Vic's with Miss Eartha Kitt et al?
We were young. We were enthusiastic. We were scrambled. Somehow we did it. Blake borrowed his mother's very nice late-model four door sedan WITH air-conditioning. I showered, slapped and grabbed a 'Pucci-inspired' linen zip-front dress out of my closet and we were off'
As instructed we picked up Jerry who, in another place and time, would be referred to as a 'walker' but who in this case was more of a 'pointer' as he led us up those crazy weeny-windy roads to Christobel's house. I don't know what I expected Andre Agassi's (but don't say anything) mother to look like but Christobel was this very beautiful 'plus-sized' woman in a black and white caftan with pink birds of paradise on it and a salt and pepper top-knot, gorgeous sweeping eyebrows and a LOT of perfume. She took the front seat and I was seated in back with the 'pointer'. We all gaily set off for the Oakland Park Plaza Hotel.
As we approached the hotel Christobel began to wonder 'which Eartha we were going to get.'
'Which Eartha?' I inquired.
'Yes, 'Glamour' Eartha or 'Earth' Eartha.'
When we got to the hotel, Miss Kitt came out through the sliding doors wearing a purple, teal and white jogging suit and a matching turban with no make-up.
''Earth' Eartha it is!" proclaimed Christobel.
When she got into the car she sat -no crouched- between Jerry and I poised and tensed like an athlete. She had been up since five and had worked out and was very hungry. Charming and intense she began to regale us with her upcoming projects.
'They want to me to come to Edinburgh to the Festival to play Molly Bloooom.'
'Will you be singing?' asked Christobel.
'Of course! When people come to see Eartha Kitt they want to hear her sing!!!'
'What will the music be. Will the songs be originals for the production?'
'Yes. They are commissioning the music especially for me,' she purred.
'Who will be writing it?' I asked.
She took a deep breath for dramatic effect and then slowly released the word, 'Aznavourrrrr''
I would have been completely beside myself except there was no room for another me between myself and Eartha Kitt! Words cannot express how hard I was trying to play it cool. Basically I just tried to keep my mouth shut and let Christobel, who by now I absolutely adored, keep up the interrogation.
'Who's managing you now Eartha? Do you have a manager?'
'No, I don't have a manager. They just take your money and do nothing. Kitt [her daughter] is my lawyer and she handles all of my contracts.'
That was interesting to me. You didn't need a manager if you had a lawyer or -- more precisely -- a daughter who was a lawyer. Duly noted.
'It seems there is a musical being written for me as well by' I can't think if his name' The one who writes such wonderful vehicles for women? Tell me his name!'
And just then she poked me in the ribs with a very hard, bony finger.
'JERRY HERMAN!' I spat out abruptly having no idea how or why I came up with that name' I mean, Jerry Herman?!?
She looked impressed, 'Yes. That's it. The project is still in the early stages of development.'
As all of this was happening poor Blake was desperately trying to find Trader Vic's. The Pointer wasn't quite sure where it was. Finally we pulled into a parking lot and' Trade Vic's had gone out of business.
Instead Blake suggested we go to Chez Panisse, an organic and extremely expensive (at least to us at the time) restaurant in Berkeley.
It was so delicious to walk into a restaurant with such a star. Their was an immediate frisson as people began to realize that Earth Kitt was on the premises. I felt so incredibly special and blessed to be in her presence.
After we ordered luncheon the 'girls' started to get into a real gabfest.
Christobel: 'And how is Jane? Where is Jane? I haven't seen Jane in years.'
Eartha: 'Jane is still living in Arizona, we have been promising each other we would go on a cruise together for years, but we still haven't done it.'
Eartha, Christbel and Jerry continued talking about Jane for awhile -- how Jane had gotten drunk and 'mistaken' Jerry for her 'husband' and crawled into bed one with him one night after a party at her house' Jane this and Jane that until finally Eartha leaned over and whispered in my ear, 'Jane Russell.'
'Oh'' I nearly choked.
Eartha spoke about her work as an activist, how she had an organic garden in Connecticut where she grew food for needy children, she spoke about politics, about being blacklisted -- she had a few choice words for Ladybird Johnson. She talked about singing' how much she loved dancing to Duke Ellington's music' It was amazing.
One of the most interesting things she told us about was when Nat King Cole was given his own television show in the 1950's. Evidently he was the first African-American entertainer to be given his own TV show so the stakes were very high within the African-American community that his show be a success so Eartha, along with many other entertainers -- black and white -- would fly themselves to LA on their own coin to be guests on the show. She spoke very eloquently about Nat King Cole and the struggles they all went through to break down racial barriers in the entertainment industry.
Part of why this resonated so much with me was that at the time I was involved with Queer Nation, we were working very hard to demand the establishment of queer visibility in the media and I had been involved in several events in San Francisco such as the Queer Kiss In at the Cable Car turn around, The Queer Be In (this was before Ellen came out, Will and Grace, etc.) and it seemed to me that there were a lot of parallels between what was going on with African-Americans in the '50s and LGTBQ people in the '90s.
Blake and I were in her thrall.
When it came time for coffee and desert Ms. Kitt inquired if they had any fresh fruit and was brought a beautiful piece of mango.
'This mango is delicious! Would you like to try some?'
'Yes please.' And the next thing I knew she was feeding me mango. I nearly died, but since I was living with a bunch of lesbians who would be hanging on my every word when I got home I knew I had to make the most of this moment so as she put the mango in my mouth I met her gaze and gave her my best 'come hither' look. For a split second she looked slightly startled and then she laughed and put it in my mouth' I was treated to that world famous grrrowl.
Come on!!! I mean really -- Eartha Kitt purred at ME! I was living'
Blake and I spent more on lunch that day than we had probably spent on anything before in our lives outside of rent, but we were treated to one of the most amazing afternoons we had ever had. For me, it was the most informative lesson on show business, politics and just plain fabulousness I could have possibly imagined.
Gurrl, it was spiritual experience.
Two years ago I saw her again at the Carlyle and that show was even more stunning than the first. 'Earth' Eartha was a blessing to this world and we are all better off for her having graced us with her fierceness for so long.
We will miss you Miss Kitt! The stars in Heaven will shine brighter in your company.
Justin Bond will perform Justin Bond Rites at the Zipper Factory on January 11, 18, and 25. For more details click here.