En español | Kitt Shapiro, the only child of actress-singer Eartha Kitt, has written a memoir of life with her mom, who was abandoned by her own mother when she was a young girl. Eartha Kitt's rise from poverty in South Carolina to worldwide fame as an entertainer — as seen through the eyes of her devoted daughter — is a tale of determination and strength. Here, author Kitt Shapiro discusses Eartha & Kitt: A Daughter's Love Story in Black & White.
Q: Your mother, who died in 2008, won three Emmys, and was nominated for three Tonys and two Grammy awards. And yet at her essence, she was a mother.
A: Yes. That's why I subtitled the book “A Love Story,” because it truly is. Somehow we were the right fit. I had the perfect personality to be second banana to her. Yet as a mother, she was very strict. I was not allowed to behave improperly, or act spoiled in any fashion. She was a stickler for being ladylike, which is so interesting, because she was such a strong-willed and independent woman.
Q: The Christmas novelty song, “Santa Baby,” which she made famous, was written for her. She was known as an international sex symbol. How different was she at home?
A: Onstage, she was more of the illusion of sex than anything else. Behind the scenes, my mother was far from risqué, in the sense of being lewd or the least bit crude. She would come offstage, and all that makeup would come off, and she'd go back to being that person who doesn't have that façade, and that was Eartha Mae. She really was most comfortable in her vegetable garden, with her hands in the soil. She would say, “Give me dirt. Don't buy me diamonds or furs. Give me land, because they're not making any more of it."
Q: She starred as Catwoman in the ‘60s television series Batman, and people would recognize her on the street and ask her to purr for them. Did she always do it?
A: Yes, she always did it. Sometimes she would say no, and then as she'd walk away, she'd turn around and purr.
Q: She was of mixed race, and shunned by Blacks for being “yella.” She said, “Eartha Kitt has no color, and that is how barriers are broken.” How would she look upon the racial struggles of today, given her outspokenness and work for civil rights?
A: I think that she would be incredibly vocal. Because the inhumanity of treating people differently because of their skin color was mind-boggling to her. She was very tiny. People are often surprised how small she was. But she commanded authority just in the way she stood and looked at you. And she was able to stand there and not back down. So she could be very intimidating. But she believed that you had to continue having conversations, that as long as dialogue could happen in a civil way, even if it was impassioned, you could have understanding and empathy for each other. I also think that she would look at that 17-year-old girl [Darnella Frazier] who was willing to step forward and not only film [George Floyd], but then take the [witness] stand, and say, “See it only takes one person. One person can make a difference.” Because my mother would teach me how to throw pebbles across the pond. She said if you drop a big stone in the water, you can see the bigger ripples, and they will effect change on the shoreline. With the little pebbles, the ripples are much more subtle. But they, too, will effect change. It just takes them longer. She was an incredibly unique human being who walked this earth for a reason.
Q: For all her success, she always felt like an urchin, “just a poor cotton picker from the South.” That comes out in so many ways. One was carrying Tupperware containers into restaurants, which embarrassed you no end.
A: Oh, yes! She would obviously take the leftovers at our table. But if she saw rolls left over at the busing stations, she would go over and help herself to those, as well. I was mortified! I'd say, “Here you are in these fancy five-star restaurants, taking food like you're a hobo!” And she would say to me, “You don't know what it's like to be hungry.” And I didn't. It didn't make it any less embarrassing, though.
Q: You managed her career, and you were the center of her life, especially as she divorced your father, who was white, when you were young. Yet you wrote that you sacrificed a lot of yourself for her, and she resented anyone else's pull on your time. How did you balance that once you married?
A: It's funny. As a teenager and young adult, I struggled with trying to figure out, “Where is my voice?” And there was guilt on my part. But I think that most working women have this, whether you work for a parent or a corporate employer. There were times when I traveled with my mother, and I left my children. But there were other times when I got to take my children, because they were her grandchildren. I think because she loved me so much, a lot of those emotions were just her fear of rejection and abandonment talking. It wasn't always easy, but I was able to work her through that.
Q: If you could have one more minute with her, what would you ask her?
A: I'd say, “Did you miss me?” (Laugh) I would just smile and look at that face of hers. It would be filled with so much incredible love.
Alanna Nash is a contributing writer who covers celebrity and entertainment. She has written 10 books, including several on Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton. She received a Country Music Association Media Achievement Award and a Charlie Lamb Award for Excellence in Country Music Journalism.