Saturday, December 27, 2008

Al Young Remembers Eartha Kitt

“We 13-year-olds at Hutchins Intermediate in Detroit didn’t really know what to make of Eartha Kitt, billed as a chanteuse, when she broke on the scene in the early 1950s with hit records like ‘Ç’est Si Bon,’ ‘I Want to Be Evil,’ or ‘Santa Baby.’ But we could imitate and sing right along with her, French and all, clueless nonetheless. We read all the gossip about how she was dating actor-director Orson Welles and running around Europe with him. We didn’t know what that meant, either. We knew Eartha must’ve been hip or cool since she was making headlines and hits. She could sing in French and Turkish, and she’d danced with Katherine Dunham. Clearly she was someone you followed. Years later I would come to love the story she tells in one of her memoirs about the London opening of New Faces of 1952, the Broadway review in which she steals the show with ‘Monotonous,’ songwriters Ronnie Graham and Arthur Siegel’s sensuous tribute to world-weariness. One of the lines goes: ‘T.S. Eliot writes books for me, / Sherman Billingsley cooks for me.’ In one of her memoirs Kitt discloses that Mr. Eliot himself (author of The Wasteland and The Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats) turned up backstage after the show to present her with flowers. Still, for eleven years Eartha Kitt was blacklisted, as it were, for patriotic remarks she made to Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson at a White House dinner to which she’d been invited as an honored guest. I loved Ms. Kitt for her moral courage to speak the truth about the American war in Vietnam. ‘The thing that hurts, that became anger,’ she later told Essence magazine, ‘was when I realized that if you tell the truth — in a country that says you’re entitled to tell the truth — you get your face slapped and you get put out of work.’ Like most American originals — Walt Whitman, Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, Buster Keaton, Mae West, Billie Holiday, Oprah, Madonna — Eartha Kitt was self-invented. She came to attention in the heart of the McCarthy era, and died Christmas day on the crest of another wave of official repression. For decades Eartha Kitt brightened our dark, brutal, and increasingly loveless world with spirited movement, dance and song.”
– Al Young

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