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Obituary: Eartha Kitt

Eartha Kitt in 2000
Eartha Kitt: Versatile diva
Once described by Orson Welles as the most exciting woman in the world, Kitt's smouldering, feline drawl in memorable hits, such as Santa Baby, Old Fashioned Millionaire and I Wanna Be Evil conveyed a wealth of innuendo.

Ostracized at an early age for her mixed race heritage, international star Eartha Kitt defied criticism of her illegitimate past and conquered the entertainment world with finesse.

Born in 1927, she endured a tough childhood. Kitt's mother, who worked on a cotton plantation, was just 14 when she gave birth, the white father thought to have been the son of the plantation owner.

Kitt's features, neither black nor white, led to her being accepted by neither community. She was given away by her mother at the age of eight to live with an aunt in Harlem, New York City. Little did she know that this would be the start of a long showbiz career.

With a flair for the dramatic, Kitt, aged 15, auditioned for the famed Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe and won a spot as a featured dancer.

The work took her worldwide, and her unique style was enhanced as she became fluent in French during the European tour. It was during a performance in Paris that she caught a certain director's eye, and was cast as Helen of Troy in Orson Welles' production of Dr Faust.

Eartha Kitt in 1956
Eartha Kitt had a tough upbringing
Kitt made her name back in New York in the 'New Faces of 1952' revue. Her show-stopping performances, which ran for a year, led to a national tour and a follow up feature film with the same title.

Other films followed, such as St Louis Blues with Nat King Cole, and she played the title role in Anna Lucasta alongside Sammy Davis.

For her succession of best-selling records Kitt earned a Grammy nomination, she received her first Tony nomination for her acting, and also managed to complete her first volume of autobiography Thursday's Child.

There is nobody who could possibly replace her and she will be sadly missed.
Joy Pattinson, Switzerland

One of Kitt's more recognisable roles was her part as Catwoman, in succession to Julie Newmar, in the late 1960s television series Batman. She excelled in the part, and her trademark growl became a part of pop culture.

In the late sixties, however, Kitt's career encountered a substantial setback after she made her anti-Vietnam war views explicit during a White House luncheon.

The CIA put together a dossier on her and she became professionally exiled from the US. She worked abroad for 11 years, where her reputation remained unscathed, but returned triumphantly to New York in 1974 to star in a Broadway spectacle of Timbuktu!

One-woman show

Kitt became a firm fixture on the Manhattan cabaret scene. Live theatre was always her passion and, in 2001, Broadway critics singled her out for praise for her role in The Wild Party.

Eartha Kitt in 2002
Sophisticated: Kitt's exotic style kept her at the top for decades
More recently, she starred in US tours of The Wizard of Oz, and Cinderella, and appeared as the Fairy Godmother in The New York City Opera production.

Her distinctive voice and great versatility enthralled an entirely new generation of fans when she lent her services to the role of Yzma, the villain, in Disney's animated feature The Emperor's New Groove.

In 1994 she also was part of BBC Radio's adaptation of The Jungle Book, where her role as Kaa the python was performed with a ferocity and bite.

She visited England many times throughout her career, firstly in the early 1950s and, most recently, for Follies in 1988, which she followed with a one-woman show in March 1989.

Eartha Kitt will be remembered as a distinguished and charismatic performer who, up to her death, could boast she had worked in more than 100 countries.

Alongside her cabaret performances, her singing career and her roles in film and television, Kitt was also a prominent jazz singer to which the "sex kitten" in her voice seemed aptly suited.

She appeared at legendary venues, such as The Cafe Carlyle, Detroit's Music Hall and Seattle's Jazz Alley, where she became the epitome of chic.

Her strong onscreen independence was mirrored off screen, since Kitt spent most of her life alone.

She was married briefly, from 1960 to 1965, from which a daughter, Kitt McDonald, was born in 1961. She became her mother's manager.

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US singer Eartha Kitt dies at 81
25 Dec 08 |  Americas

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