Singer, Performer Eartha Kitt Dies at 81

BY Arts Desk  December 26, 2008 at 12:32 PM EST

Eartha Kitt’s first album, “RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt,” was released in 1954, featuring “Santa Baby.” The song has since remained a radio staple every holiday season, and there’s no doubt countless heard it on Christmas Day, the day she died.

Kitt, the singer, dancer and actress, who amazed and seduced audiences for six decades, died Thursday at age 81. The cause was colon cancer, a family spokesman said.

That sultry song and her good looks and purr for a voice helped make her a universal sex symbol. The self-proclaimed “sex kitten” performed the song as recently as 2006 at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree.

Kitt was born in North, S.C., to a black and Cherokee mother and white father. She was raised by relatives after her mother’s new husband objected to taking in a mixed-race girl. An aunt brought her to live in New York, where she attended the High School of Performing Arts.

She began her career in the 1940s, dancing in New York with the Katherine Dunham troupe. During a trip to Paris traveling with the troupe, she was spotted by Orson Welles, who cast her in his production of “Faust.” Welles called her “the most exciting woman alive.”

She became a Broadway star in the ’50s, singing the hit “Monotonous” in “New Faces of 1952.” More than 50 years later, she was on Broadway again, performing in a revival of “Nine” in 2003.

Every decade, she seemed to gain a new generation of fans: In the late ’60s, Kitt was the Catwoman on the “Batman” TV series, stealing just about every scene. In 1978, she was nominated for a Tony award for the Broadway musical “Timbuktu!” She recorded her biggest hit in 1984 with “Where Is My Man?” In 1996, she was nominated for a Grammy for the album, “Back in Business.” In 2000, Kitt earned another Tony nomination for “The Wild Party.”

“Generally the whole entertainment business now is bland,” she said in a 1996 Associated Press interview. “It depends so much on gadgetry and flash now. You don’t have to have talent to be in the business today. I think we had to have something to offer, if you wanted to be recognized as worth paying for.”

Gwen Ifill talked to Eartha Kitt in September for a program called “An Evening with Eartha Kitt,” scheduled to air on PBS stations in February. The interview is part of the HistoryMakers, the country’s largest African-American oral history video archive.