I am so grateful to have worked with Eartha Kitt. Life a lot of folks of my generation I first knew of her from her appearances as Catwoman on the 60’s Batman TV series and her holiday classic “Santa Baby”. I also heard she had dated Orson Welles and cursed out the First Lady over Viet Nam during a visit to the White House, and that her career had suffered as a result. All that made me admire her, but at the same time, I was intimidated.
When we were casting BOOMERANG, there was no doubt she was the only person who could play Lady Eloise. We offered her the part, but she had reservations about the role. Well, she told us no. So my brother and I called her in Germany, where she was doing a local production of FOLLIES, to ask her why.
She found the part insulting to elders, so we agreed to make some changes (I can’t remember what it was, but I didn’t like it either) and told her we would work the rest out together). She was tough on the phone. But eventually she agreed.
Whatever her initial hesitations, she KILLED it in every take of the film. She knew exactly how to play every scene and was hilarious. Her bedroom seduction scene with Eddie was so perfect, in part because Eddie really was uncomfortable and she was so uninhibited.
I am eternally grateful to my hair and makeup team for making sure Eartha felt like the royalty she was. They gave her temple and hand massages. She would lift herself out of the make up chair by locking her arms, shooting her legs straight out like a gymnast’s. How many of us can do that at half her age?
The moment I will never forget was when Grace Jones and Eartha Kitt finally met. “You’re doing me, but you’re doing it wrong”…and Eartha proceeded to teach Grace how to do her purr/growl to perfection. I was so proud I created the circumstance for this historic meeting of international sex symbol singing icons.
After BOOMERANG, I kept trying to find another project for us to do together. I also kept researching her history. Turns out she’s from St. Louis, right across the river from me. She got her start in Katharine Dunham’s dance troupe. Ms Dunham changed the lives of our entire family with her efforts in East St. Louis, so there was another connection. Apparently she jumped ship from the dance troupe during their historic set of performances in Paris. It was the same show where Josephine Baker showed up walking down the aisle (late of course) to disrupt the show and remind the city she was the true black diva of Paris.
I bought one of her old albums, which had I WANT TO BE EVIL and C’EST SI BON on it. Banging. I heard the story about her booking the Apollo. Everyone told her don’t do it, no one was going to show up because the black community either didn’t know who she was or didn’t like her because was too mainstream an artist. Then she pulls up to the theatre and there’s a line around the block, which made her cry.
Then I went to see her perform at Café Carlyle. The Carlyle is a tiny room…and I had never been to a cabaret show before. She gave an amazing show…but then spotted me half way through the show. She stopped everything and asked “YOU. What are YOU doing here?”
She proceeded to basically “do” the entire show (with all the flirtation, etc) to me. Both embarrassing and flattering. She later gave me a lovely introduction and we went up to her room at the hotel talked afterward. Her daughter Kitt was with her, and she talked about her grandkids. She lived for her family.
Losing Eartha Kitt, Bernie Mac and Jheryl Busby all in the same year reminds me a) how old I am b) how lucky I am to have known and worked with all these amazing talents, and c) I need to get back to work so I can work with more greats like these.