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Famed Singer Eartha Kitt Dies of Cancer at Age 81

December 26, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Entertainer Eartha Kitt gained international celebrity for her sultry and elegant style before dying of colon cancer at age 81 on Christmas Day. Kitt recently spoke with Gwen Ifill for a PBS special.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, the incomparable Eartha Kitt, who died yesterday of colon cancer. Gwen Ifill interviewed her in September before a live audience in Chicago. She talked about her life in show business and what first attracted her to the stage. Here is an excerpt.

EARTHA KITT, entertainer: I don’t think I ever really got interested in theater. I was always interested in trying to communicate, to have a feeling from someone to make me feel that I was worthwhile.

So when my teacher, Mrs. Bishop — I will never forget her, beautiful, brown-skinned lady at P.S. 136 in Harlem — she gave me a poem because she realized I was having a problem with myself. And I never talked, because I never wanted to attract attention. And maybe that’s why I talk so much as I do today.

GWEN IFILL: You made up for it.

EARTHA KITT: I’m making up for it.

And this poem, I had no idea what it was all about, but I learned it. And I went down to the New York School of Performing Arts, where she had sent me, because it was the beginning of a drama department in that school.

And I think it was because she wanted me to come out and started to express myself. And, Gwen, I stood in front of that class and I said that poem.

GWEN IFILL: You did?

EARTHA KITT: I was scared to death. I had no idea how it was affecting people. But when everybody became so quiet, the kids were watching me as though they were hanging on to every word, which made me even more scared than I was before.

And I won that scholarship to get into that drama department, and that’s how I — and then she was the one that bought me theater tickets. I had never been to a theater before. I went to the Apollo Theater, yes, but not a legitimate theater on Broadway. I knew nothing about that.

But she bought me a ticket to go to see Jose Ferrer in “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

GWEN IFILL: Nice way to start.

EARTHA KITT: And, Gwen, when I saw this play, and saw and felt the affection that the people were giving him, and the people of the cast, I had a feeling inside of myself that maybe that’s how I can get people to want me.

'Don't follow the herd'

GWEN IFILL: You are unique. There is nobody I can point to on the scene who has replicated what you have replicated. What message can you leave for those young performers who want to be you or aspire to be you?

EARTHA KITT: If you're looking for immediate rewards, you're only looking for the money.


EARTHA KITT: And money can be very valuable. There's not much sense to it. And I think that, if you want to really be true to yourself, then do that which you know you can do best and stick with it. Don't follow the herd.

GWEN IFILL: OK, here's a part -- I don't know about you, but that I've been waiting for, a real treat, three of Eartha Kitt's biggest hits, which she will perform for you live tonight.


GWEN IFILL: Now, with the help of Darrell Waters on piano and the Evergreen Trail.

EARTHA KITT: Oh, good.

GWEN IFILL: All yours.

EARTHA KITT: (singing)

MARGARET WARNER: Eartha Kitt was 81 years old. That excerpt is from a program called "An Evening with Eartha Kitt" scheduled to air on PBS stations in February. The interview is part of the country's largest African-American oral history archive on video. It's known as "The HistoryMakers."

On our Web site, you can learn more about Eartha Kitt and check out our new "Art Beat," with features and interviews on all things arts and culture. It's all at Click on "TV Shows" and then "Online NewsHour."