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Photo by Central Press / Stringer via Getty Images

The Enduring Legacy of Eartha Kitt, a Subversive Icon Targeted by the CIA

Fran Tirado

The "Santa Baby" singer was so much more than a captivating entertainer—she was also an international political provocateur whose career was nearly ruined after she condemned the Vietnam War.

Photo by Central Press / Stringer via Getty Images

Whenever “Santa Baby” comes on at a holiday party or in a group setting, it is of vital importance that someone take that opportunity to educate everyone in the room on the song’s criminally underappreciated originator, Eartha Kitt.

I am always that person. In a compulsion beyond my control, I will always start spewing out her biography: the fact that she was an internationally renowned actor, singer, and civil rights advocate, as well as a political provocateur. Some know her for her iconic portrayal of Catwoman, or more recently as the voice of Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove. To Orson Welles, she was “the most exciting woman in the world”; to the CIA, she was a threat to national security. To me, she is a symbol of triumph and resilience, a cultural icon representing feminism, sex positivity, and the fight for civil rights. “Santa Baby” is all well and good, but Eartha Kitt was so much more than that.

Kitt, who was born on a cotton plantation in South Carolina, never really knew who her father was — though later she said he was the son of a plantation owner, and that she was the product of rape. Kitt’s mother, who was black and Cherokee, gave her up for adoption when she was five, and Kitt’s adoptive family raised her in abusive conditions, forcing her to pick cotton to “earn her keep.” Her adoptive siblings would beat and abuse her, she said, because she was biracial: “Not black enough to belong to the blacks, and not white enough to belong to the whites,” as she put it.

When Kitt was about eight, her biological aunt took her in, and the pair lived in a cramped apartment in Harlem. (According to Kitt, this was more out of “Christian duty” than actual familial affection.) She worked through her adolescence in a sewing machine factory, and constantly ran away from home, sleeping in subway cars. When she was 21, she landed an audition at the pioneering African-American dance company of Katherine Dunham and got in, catalyzing her career in entertainment.

Over the next few years, she would dance her way with the company through New York’s stages, then London’s, then Paris’s, until encountering one Orson Welles, who was so entranced by her performance that he courted her and then cast her as Helen of Troy in Dr. Faustus. She says in her autobiography Confessions of a Sex Kitten that their relationship was an affair, but never sexual: “The most exciting men in my life,” she wrote, “have been the men who have never taken me to bed.”

Kitt in 1962. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Within three years, Kitt had produced her first album, which had “Santa Baby” on the track list, trademarking her raw, sexual energy and signature purr she let out in her vibrato. She quickly became, in the words of the New York Times, “known for her sultry voice, her persona as a golddigger who renders men into helpless little boys with her sexual power.” And Kitt seemed to love this persona—she seemed to love being bad, being the object of affection, using men, and talking about it into a microphone later, which is why “Santa Baby” suits her so well: a song in which she coyly asks a childhood myth for diamond rings, yachts, and deeds to platinum mines. The Santa in the song, I would intuit, is perhaps not really actually Santa.

But back in the 50s and 60s, sex positivity was barely a thing (and especially not for a black woman). Eartha Kitt became a sex symbol in a postwar America where Marilyn Monroe’s rising popularity was seen widely as an “immoral” and “vulgar” threat to American purity, and where Hugh Hefner was suing the United States Post Office because they would not distribute Playboy. Mainstreaming the sexual revolution was slow-going, and Eartha’s rise came at a time where African-Americans were still struggling for basic human rights—a time at which it was still illegal for an African American to have sex with a white person in 28 out of 50 American states.

In 1966, during the height of Kitt’s career, polls found most white Americans believed that African Americans were moving “too quickly” in their pursuit for racial equality. Her come-up, in other words, fiercely defied both race and gender expectations of her time.

In 1967, Kitt took over the role of Catwoman on the Batman TV series, clad in a sexy leather suit, with her iconic purring prominently featured. This was a major moment for black female representation—at the time, JET magazine ran a back-page feature simply called “TV-Radio” that published a weekly rundown of every black person who appeared on prime-time TV or radio. It was typically a very short list, featuring less than a dozen people each week, one or two of whom were usually women (if any). And having Kitt take on this beloved role was groundbreaking beyond simple representation: As Deborah Elizabeth Whaley, a professor of American studies at Iowa University, argues in a 2010 essay, “Kitt’s performance stood in contest to the roles available to black women on television, insofar as she did not fit the proverbial mammy, Jezebel, tragic mulatta, and sapphire stereotypes that were abundant on television and in the cinema at this time.”

With her role on Batman, Kitt’s career had reached a new peak. One year later, however, it would come crashing down: In January of 1968, she attended a White House luncheon on the subject juvenile crime in America. She’d been personally invited by the First Lady because of work she did for inner city youth organizations, and was one of seven black women to attend out of the 41 guests. But while Lady Bird Johnson and the other speakers pontificated at length about projects to beautify highways and plant trees in disadvantaged areas, Kitt took a notably different tack: When it was her turn to speak, she vehemently denounced the Vietnam War.

Kitt as Catwoman in 1967. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In her autobiography Confessions of a Sex Kitten, Kitt describes becoming increasingly frustrated as the luncheon continued. She watched white woman after white women give anodyne speeches about the “beautification of America, flower pots on the windowsills of poverty.” Kitt raised her hand several times, she wrote, but was never given the floor until the end, and by that time she was livid. Her ongoing advocacy working with at-risk youth was informed by her own upbringing, the ways in which she never felt supported by family or by the government. Her remarks that day opened with that context: “I have lived in the gutters,” she said. “That’s why I know what I’m talking about.”

“You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed,” she went on, according to a New York Times report from the time. “They rebel in the street… They don't want to go to school because they're going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.” After Kitt’s lengthy and impassioned speech, according to the Times, Lady Bird Johnson began to cry, “her voice trembling and her eyes welling with tears.”

According to Kitt’s autobiography, after the luncheon, the White House did not arrange a car for her, even though she’d had one on the way there. She had to catch a cab to her hotel; on the radio, en route, she found that reporters were already dissecting what had happened. The dominant narrative, she recalled, was simply “Eartha Kitt made Mrs. Johnson cry.” (According to social identities researcher Sarah J. Jackson, at least a third of the news stories on this incident painted Kitt as the antagonist, an “attacker” of the First Lady, with one news source even describing her as “shrill.”)

The repercussions were massive. Within days, according to a 1975 report from the New York Times, the CIA had compiled a dossier of secondhand gossip about Kitt at the request of President Johnson himself, based on data the organization had been collecting since 1956. The CIA report alleged that Kitt’s “escapades overseas and her loose morals were said to be the talk of Paris.” It also accused her of having “a very nasty disposition” and “a vile tongue,” and of behaving like “spoiled child.” Most infamously of all, it reportedly referred to her as “a sadistic nymphomaniac,” an epithet she would then carry in most articles written about her for the rest of her life. (“What has that got to with the CIA if I was?” she quipped dismissively in an interview years later.)

Kitt’s work “was very little or none at all” following the White House luncheon, but she had no idea why until she learned of the CIA dossier from a New York Times reporter six years later. In a 1995 interview, she claimed that the dossier contained specific instructions to defame her in the United States “so that I would be not seen, and therefore I’m out of work.” And it seemed to have worked: Nightclubs and other venues were not asking her to return for the same engagements, she said, and WME “lost her contract.” As a result, she was forced to perform mostly in Europe, touring bars across the continent. Later in life, Kitt would have a major comeback, returning to Broadway, starring in films, and receiving Tony and Grammy nominations. She would even be invited back to the White House by President Jimmy Carter. But her career was never the same after the luncheon in 1968.

Kitt refusal to compromise her beliefs may have lost her jobs, but that’s also what made her so iconic: She was so consistently herself. Throughout her life, she never backed down—and in every interview I’ve seen or read, she stood by her statement at the White House despite being forced out of the limelight for several years. She continued to support underprivileged youth in DC and LA, and was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She also leaned into her sexual personal well into her old age. (Please enjoy this interview, in which a 62-year-old Kitt extends her leg onto the interviewer’s lap, in front of a live audience, while purring, “How wicked do you think I am?”) Her audacity knew no bounds, and her sense of self was one for the ages.

There’s one interview, from the documentary All By Myself, that represents everything I love about Eartha Kitt: When asked if she’d ever compromise for a man, she smiles, throws her head back, and starts to laugh maniacally. “Compromising for what reason? To compromise for what? To compromise? What is compromise?” she says, indignant. “Stupid. A man comes into my life and I have to compromise? You must think about that one again… A relationship is a relationship that has to be earned!”

Kitt had never compromised herself in any other part of her life, so why would she do it in romance? “When you fall in love, what is there to compromise about?” she continues. “I fall in love with myself, and I want someone to share it with me. I want someone to share me with me.”