, who purred and pounced her way across Broadway stages, recording studios and movie and television screens in a show-business career that lasted more than six decades, died on Thursday. She was 81 and lived in Connecticut.
Eartha Kitt in 1960, performing on British television in “Sunday Night at the Palladium.”
Eartha Kitt with Nat King Cole in “St. Louis Blues” (1958).
Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Eartha Kitt performing in Manhattan in 2006.
Central Press/Getty Images
Eartha Kitt posing for her London stage show “Talk of the Town” in 1960.
Richard Termine for The New York Times
Eartha Kitt performing at the Café Carlyle in 2007.
The cause was colon cancer, said her longtime publicist, Andrew E. Freedman.
Ms. Kitt, who began performing in the late ’40s as a dancer in New York, went on to achieve success and acclaim in a variety of mediums long before other entertainment multitaskers like Julie Andrews
, Barbra Streisand
and Bette Midler
With her curvaceous frame and unabashed vocal come-ons, she was also, along with Lena Horne
, among the first widely known African-American sex symbols. Orson Welles
famously proclaimed her “the most exciting woman alive” in the early ’50s, apparently just after that excitement prompted him to bite her onstage during a performance of “Time Runs,” an adaptation of “Faust” in which Ms. Kitt played Helen of Troy.
Ms. Kitt’s career-long persona, that of the seen-it-all sybarite, was set when she performed in Paris cabarets in her early 20s, singing songs that became her signatures, like “C’est Si Bon” and “Love for Sale.”
Returning to New York, she was cast on Broadway in “New Faces of 1952” and added another jewel to her vocal crown, “Monotonous” (“Traffic has been known to stop for me/Prices even rise and drop for me/Harry S. Truman plays bop for me/Monotonous, monotone-ous”). Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times in May 1952, “Eartha Kitt not only looks incendiary, but she can make a song burst into flame.”
Shortly after that run, Ms. Kitt had her first best-selling albums and recorded her biggest hit, “Santa Baby,” whose precise, come-hither diction and vaguely foreign inflections (Ms. Kitt, a native of South Carolina, spoke four languages and sang in seven) proved that a vocal sizzle could be just as powerful as a bonfire. Though her record sales fell after the rise of rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll in the mid- and late ’50s, her singing style would later be the template for other singers with pillow-talky voices like Diana Ross
(who has said she patterned her Supremes sound and look largely after Ms. Kitt), Janet Jackson
(who recorded a cover version of “Santa Baby” in 1987).
Ms. Kitt would later call herself “the original material girl,” a reference not only to her stage creation and to Madonna but also to her string of romances with rich or famous men, including Welles, the cosmetics magnate Charles Revson and the banking heir John Barry Ryan 3rd. She was married to her one husband, Bill McDonald, a real-estate developer, from 1960 to 1965; their daughter, Kitt Shapiro, survives her, as do two grandchildren.
From practically the beginning of her career, as critics gushed over Ms. Kitt, they also began to describe her in every feline term imaginable: her voice “purred” or “was like catnip”; she was a “sex kitten” who “slinked” or was “on the prowl” across the stage, sometimes “flashing her claws.” Her career has often been said to have had “nine lives.” Appropriately, she was tapped to play Catwoman in the 1960s TV series “Batman,” taking over the role from the leggier, lynxlike Julie Newmar
and bringing to it a more feral, compact energy.
Yet for all the camp appeal and sexually charged hauteur of Ms. Kitt’s cabaret act, she also played serious roles, appearing in the films “The Mark of the Hawk” with Sidney Poitier
(1957) and “Anna Lucasta” (1959) with Sammy Davis Jr.
She made numerous television appearances, including a guest spot on “I Spy” in 1965, which brought her her first Emmy nomination.
For these performances Ms. Kitt likely drew on the hardship of her early life. She was born Eartha Mae Keith in North, S.C., on Jan. 17, 1927, a date she did not know until about 10 years ago, when she challenged students at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., to find her birth certificate, and they did. She was the illegitimate child of a black Cherokee sharecropper mother and a white man about whom Ms. Kitt knew little. She worked in cotton fields and lived with a black family who, she said, abused her because she looked too white. “They called me yella gal,” Ms. Kitt said.
At 8 she was sent to live in Harlem with an aunt, Marnie Kitt, who Ms. Kitt came to believe was really her biological mother. Though she was given piano and dance lessons, a pattern of abuse developed there as well: Ms. Kitt would be beaten, she would run away and then she would return. By her early teenage years she was working in a factory and sleeping in subways and on the roofs of unlocked buildings. (She would later become an advocate, through Unicef
, on behalf of homeless children.)
Her show-business break came on a lark, when a friend dared her to audition for the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. She passed the audition and permanently escaped the cycle of poverty and abuse that defined her life till then.
But she took the steeliness with her, in a willful, outspoken manner that mostly served her career, except once. In 1968 she was invited to a White House luncheon and was asked by Lady Bird Johnson
about the Vietnam War. She replied: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” The remark reportedly caused Mrs. Johnson to burst into tears and led to a derailment in Ms. Kitt’s career.
As bookings dried up, she was exiled in Europe for almost a decade. But President Jimmy Carter
invited her back to the White House in 1978, and that year she earned her first Tony nomination
for her work in “Timbuktu!,” an all-black remake of “Kismet.”
By now a diva and legend, Ms. Kitt did what many other divas and legends — Shirley Bassey and Ethel Merman
among them — did: she dabbled in dance music, scoring her biggest hit in 30 years with “Where Is My Man” in 1984, the same year she was roundly criticized for touring South Africa. Ms. Kitt was typically unapologetic; the tour, she said, played to integrated audiences and helped build schools for black children.
The third of her three autobiographies, “I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten,” was published in 1989, and she earned a Grammy nomination for “Back in Business,” a collection of cabaret songs released in 1994.
As Ms. Kitt began the sixth decade of her career, she was still active. In 2000 she received her second Tony nomination, for best featured actress in a musical in “The Wild Party.” Branching out into children’s programming, she won two Daytime Emmy Awards, this year and in 2007, as outstanding performer in an animated program for her role as the scheming empress-wannabe Yzma in “The Emperor’s New School
All the while she remained a fixture on the cabaret circuit, having maintained her voice and shapely figure through a vigorous fitness regimen that included daily running and weight lifting. Even after discovering in 2006 that she had colon cancer, she triumphantly opened the newly renovated Café Carlyle
in New York in September 2007. Stephen Holden, writing in The Times, said that Ms. Kitt’s voice was “in full growl.”
But though Ms. Kitt still seemed to have men of all ages wrapped around her finger (she would often toy with younger worshipers at her shows by suggesting they introduce her to their fathers), the years had given her perspective. “I’m a dirt person,” she told Ebony magazine in 1993. “I trust the dirt. I don’t trust diamonds and gold.”
On Christmas Day the world lost a one-of-a-kind diva, a gift from God given 82 years ago, and taken away from us to leave us in a world bereft of such profound magnitude. Eartha was a chanteuse the likes of which this world had never known. Eartha was a dancer, singer and artist extradinaire. Eartha was an activist who spoke her mind and never backed down from the truth. Eartha was the original pussycat doll.
Earth knew what it was like to be abandoned as a child, and as an adult. She knew what it was like to stand up to the president of the United States and his wife, President Lyndon Johnson and “Lady Bird” Johnson, on the moral hypocrisy of the Vietnam war. Eartha knew what it was like to have no one stand up for her when she spoke out against that administration’s use of young men as cannon fodder for a war that still did not stop communism nor prevent the rupture of Vietnam into two countries—-North and South.
I got to see the legend herself years ago at a wonderful performance she gave at Jones Hall in Houston, Texas. I got to see her up close and speak to her. I was still a very young teenager, but I definitely remember Ms. Kitt. I am so glad I was able to see her before she left this world.
A brilliant and beautiful light has gone out from among us.
No more will we be able to hear—live—the lilting, purring, sexy, voice, that made “Catwoman” Eartha’s role. No more will we be able to see—-live—-those lovely cheekbones. No more will be be able to see—live—those lips that spoke in that uniques voice that was Eartha’s alone; those alluring eyes; that smile that radiated such insousiance. Her wit. Her sass. Her elan. Her verve.
Earth was attacked in life, and now she is lauded to the high heavens in death.
Would that she could have received such praise while she lived.
Rest en pacem, Eartha.
EARTHA MAE KITT January 17, 1927 – December 25, 2008
JAMES L. BEVEL, AN ADVISOR TO DR. KING
The Rev. James L. Bevel, an adviser to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
whose influence spurred a pivotal event of the civil rights movement, the “children’s crusade” in Birmingham, Ala., but whose reputation was later marred by fringe political associations and a criminal conviction this year on incest charges involving a teenage daughter, died Friday in Springfield, Va. He was 72.
The New York Times
The Rev. James Bevel in 1967.
Another daughter, Sherilynn Bevel, confirmed the death, The Washington Post reported. Mr. Bevel had been released from prison in November because he had pancreatic cancer.
Charismatic and eloquently quick-witted in a vernacular style, Mr. Bevel was known as a man of passion and peculiarity. He often wore overalls over a shirt and tie; he shaved his head and sometimes covered it with a yarmulke in honor of Old Testament prophets.
“A wild man from Itta Bena, Mississippi,” Taylor Branch called him in “Parting the Waters,” the first volume of his history of the civil rights movement, “a self-described example of the legendary ‘chicken-eating, liquor-drinking, woman-chasing Baptist preacher.’ ”
Nonetheless, Dr. King relied on his counsel. A loud opponent of American involvement in Vietnam, which he viewed as an extension of white oppression of nonwhites, Mr. Bevel was instrumental in Dr. King’s increasingly vocal opposition to the war.
In 1963, as the Alabama
project director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization led by Dr. King, Mr. Bevel persuaded Dr. King to allow children to participate in antisegregation demonstrations, in which they would almost surely face arrest. Though initially reluctant, Dr. King finally agreed.
The demonstrations, early that year, overwhelmed the city, and the news coverage, complete with televised images of black children being arrested or soaked and bowled over by law enforcement officers wielding powerful fire hoses, helped rally much of the American public to the side of the civil rights movement.
In March 1965, Mr. Bevel, a fiery orator, spoke at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Ala., the starting point of a symbolic march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where demonstrators had been beaten two days earlier — a day remembered as “Bloody Sunday” — in a first attempt to march to Montgomery to protest discriminatory voting practices. (The completed march, which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, took place two weeks later.)
James Luther Bevel, one of 17 children, was born on Oct 19, 1936, in Itta Bena, in central Mississippi, and divided his childhood between there and Cleveland, where he worked in the steel mills as a teenager. He appeared headed for a career as a pop music singer — he had signed a contract with a record label — when he felt called to the ministry and enrolled in the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, where he joined the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In 1968, Mr. Bevel was at the Memphis motel where Dr. King was assassinated, and in a bizarre post-mortem, he claimed that the man who was arrested for (and later convicted of) the shooting, James Earl Ray
, was not the killer and that he had evidence — which he declined to reveal — that Mr. Ray was innocent.
Though not a lawyer, Mr. Bevel offered to represent Mr. Ray in court. This was followed by a number of erratic-seeming episodes in his life. John Lewis
, another King confidant who has been a Georgia congressman for more than 20 years, recalled in a memoir that at Spelman College in Atlanta, Mr. Bevel once declared himself a prophet and made his student disciples drink urine to signal their loyalty.
Politically Mr. Bevel drifted to the right, supporting Ronald Reagan
’s presidency and tying himself to Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., the perpetual fringe candidate for president. Mr. Bevel was Mr. LaRouche’s running mate in 1992, a time when Mr. LaRouche was serving time for fraud and tax evasion.
In April of this year, Mr. Bevel was convicted of having sexual intercourse with one of his daughters in the 1990s, when the girl was a teenager. Court testimony revealed that accusation had stemmed from a family reunion during which several family members recalled having been molested by Mr. Bevel. He told the court that he was the father of 16 children by 7 women.
“I’m very proud to be the daughter of a man who contributed so much to the world through his civil rights work,” one of his daughters, Chevarra Orrin, of Winston-Salem, N.C., told The Associated Press. “I am equally devastated and disgusted by his pedophilia.”
HAROLD PINTER, PLAYWRIGHT OF THE PAUSE
, the British playwright whose gifts for finding the ominous in the everyday and the noise within silence made him the most influential and imitated dramatist of his generation, died on Wednesday. He was 78 and lived in London.
Julie Christie and Harold Pinter on the set of the 1971 film “The Go-Between.” Mr. Pinter adapted the screenplay from a novel by L. P. Hartley. More Photos »
John Gielgud, left, and Ralph Richardson performing in Harold Pinter’s play “No Man’s Land” in 1975. More Photos >
The cause was cancer, his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, said Thursday.
Mr. Pinter learned he had cancer of the esophagus in late 2001. In 2005, when he received the Nobel Prize
in Literature, he was unable to attend the awards ceremony at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm but delivered an acceptance speech from a wheelchair in a recorded video.
In more than 30 plays — written between 1957 and 2000 and including masterworks like “The Birthday Party,” “The Caretaker,” “The Homecoming” and “Betrayal” — Mr. Pinter captured the anxiety and ambiguity of life in the second half of the 20th century with terse, hypnotic dialogue filled with gaping pauses and the prospect of imminent violence.
Along with another Nobel winner, Samuel Beckett
, his friend and mentor, Mr. Pinter became one of the few modern playwrights whose names instantly evoke a sensibility. The adjective Pinteresque has become part of the cultural vocabulary as a byword for strong and unspecified menace.
An actor, essayist, screenwriter, poet and director as well as a dramatist, Mr. Pinter was also publicly outspoken in his views on repression and censorship, at home and abroad. He used his Nobel acceptance speech to denounce American foreign policy, saying that the United States had not only lied to justify waging war against Iraq, but that it had also “supported and in many cases engendered every right-wing military dictatorship” in the last 50 years.
His political views were implicit in much of his work. Though his plays deal with the slipperiness of memory and human character, they are also almost always about the struggle for power.
The dynamic in his work is rooted in battles for control, turf wars waged in locations that range from working-class boarding houses (in his first produced play, “The Room,” from 1957) to upscale restaurants (the setting for “Celebration,” staged in 2000). His plays often take place in a single, increasingly claustrophobic room, where conversation is a minefield and even innocuous-seeming words can wound.
In Mr. Pinter’s work “words are weapons that the characters use to discomfort or destroy each other,” said Peter Hall, who has staged more of Mr. Pinter’s plays than any other director.
But while Mr. Pinter’s linguistic agility turned simple, sometimes obscene, words into dark, glittering and often mordantly funny poetry, it is what comes between the words that he is most famous for. And the stage direction “pause” would haunt him throughout his career.
Intended as an instructive note to actors, the Pinter pause was a space for emphasis and breathing room. But it could also be as threatening as a raised fist. Mr. Pinter said that writing the word “pause” into his first play was “a fatal error.” It is certainly the aspect of his writing that has been most parodied. But no other playwright has consistently used pauses with such rhythmic assurance and to such fine-tuned manipulative effect.
Early in his career Mr. Pinter said his work was about “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.” Though he later regretted the image, it holds up as a metaphor for the undertow of danger that pervades his work. As Martin Esslin wrote in his book “Pinter: The Playwright,” “Man’s existential fear, not as an abstraction, but as something real, ordinary and acceptable as an everyday occurrence — here we have the core of Pinter’s work as a dramatist.”
Though often grouped with Beckett and others as a practitioner of Theater of the Absurd, Mr. Pinter considered himself a realist. In 1962 he said the context of his plays was always “concrete and particular.” He never found a need to alter that assessment.
Beginning in the late 1950s, John Osborne
and Mr. Pinter helped to turn British theater away from the gentility of the drawing room. With “Look Back in Anger,” Osborne opened the door for several succeeding generations of angry young men, who railed against the class system and an ineffectual government. Mr. Pinter was to have the more lasting effect as an innovator and a stylist. And his influence on other playwrights, including David Mamet
in the United States and Patrick Marber
and Jez Butterworth in England, is undeniable.
The playwright Tom Stoppard
said that before Mr. Pinter: “One thing plays had in common: you were supposed to believe what people said up there. If somebody comes in and says, ‘Tea or coffee?’ and the answer is ‘Tea,’ you are entitled to assume that somebody is offered a choice of two drinks, and the second person has stated a preference.” With Mr. Pinter there are alternatives, “such as the man preferred coffee but the other person wished him to have tea,” Mr. Stoppard said, “or that he preferred the stuff you make from coffee beans under the impression that it was called tea.”
As another British playwright, David Hare
, said of Mr. Pinter, “The essence of his singular appeal is that you sit down to every play or film he writes in certain expectation of the unexpected.”
Though initially regarded as an intuitive rather than an intellectual playwright, Mr. Pinter was in fact both. His plays are dense with references to writers like James Joyce
and T. S. Eliot
. The annual Pinter Review, in which scholars probe and parse his works for meaning and metaphor, is one of many indications of his secure berth in academia.