Coming down to Eartha
biography America's Mistress: The Life and Times of Eartha Kitt John L Williams Quercus, £20, hbk, 320 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
'You're always perceived as a wicked female, aren't you?" was Terry Wogan's opening question when Eartha Kitt appeared on his chat show in 1989. Best known at that point for playing Catwoman in the camp, 1960s television show Batman, she'd just been prowling around his studio, growling her 1953 single: 'I Want to Be Evil'.
Kitt first recorded it as a haughty sex kitten, but since then she'd clawed her way through decades of personal and professional knock-backs, and though still compellingly sensuous in her 60s, she snarled out the novelty number like a battle-scarred alley queen.
Wogan gently mocked her trademark purr as a "sophisticated gargle". She parried by sliding a flirtatious foot across his lap. But when he returned to the question of her "wicked" persona, she became tearful. The public loved her man-eating stage act, she said, but only her daughter had ever truly loved the woman beneath it.
"Never a man?" probed our host. "A man?" She sniffed. "A man has always wanted to lay me down but he never wanted to pick me up."
By the time she died in 2008, she had a habit of summarising her life in six words: "Rejected, ejected, dejected, used, accused, abused."
Although she wrote three fanciful autobiographies, John L Williams is the first biographer to take her on. He turned a piercing eye on the casual racism and sexism of 1950s and 1960s showbiz in Miss Shirley Bassey (2010) and became fascinated by the way in which – for a short while – Eartha Kitt appeared to operate beyond those prejudices.
"How odd," he writes, "that one of the most popular post-war sex symbols should have been a black woman who sang in a dozen languages, favouring French chansons and Mexican ballads over rhythm 'n' blues or jazz."
How remarkable that this girl, born dirt poor and illegitimate into segregated South Carolina, was able to seduce Mr Middle America. Her glamorous act affected ennui for the jewels, champagne and art dropped at her feet by the world's richest white men, at a time when most black Americans were struggling for basic human rights and it was still illegal for a black person to have sex with a white person in 28 out of 50 American states.
Williams goes back to the swampland of Kitt's home town, where childhood friends confirm her account that she "came up tight". The daughter of a recently bereaved white doctor and his maid, little Eartha Mae was cast off by her mother and raised by an abusive aunt.
There are lurid stories of her being stripped and whipped. She was certainly used as a domestic drudge until a train ticket arrived to whisk the eight-year-old up to another aunt in New York.
Though her relationship with this relative was also difficult – culminating in an adolescence of sweatshop work and parties in Spanish Harlem – it was in the Big Apple that Eartha discovered the cosmopolitan culture she loved. She wiggled her way to a scholarship with the Katherine Dunham Dance School in a borrowed leotard and she fell into the arms of the handsomest man in black showbiz, singer Josh White. Through him, she found her way to the cabaret stage where she would develop the charismatic persona she carried on the big and small screens.
Trips to Europe with the Dunham Dance company helped: she had a natural flair for languages and picked up her rolled "r" learning French chansons.
Europe still saw black people as unthreateningly exotic at that time, but back in America tensions were mounting. While performing in Las Vegas, Kitt's friend Sammy Davis Jr jumped into a hotel pool off-limits to black people. The management had the pool drained and scrubbed clean the next day.
In Kitt's case, racism meant that while she could tease white men from her stage and date a series of white millionaires off it, none of them would give her the ring she craved.
Though potentially powerful enough to have stood up for equality, they all kept quiet their liaisons with the woman described in gossip rag Confidential as a "sepia singer".
Orson Welles famously called her "the most exciting woman in the world", but she thought this was mostly because she kept her mouth shut while with him. When she finally got married – to a white real estate investor – the union was short-lived, although it did yield the daughter (Kitt McDonald) to whom Kitt would remain devoted.
Alas, Kitt McDonald didn't speak to Williams, whose book would have benefited from a daughter's humanising insight. But it's still painful to read of Kitt's slow slide from favour with both white America (whom she alienated by launching a gutsy attack on the Johnson administration at a White House dinner) and black America, which had always regarded her as stuck up and felt she was not fully engaged with the civil rights movement (although she gave generously and spoke out regularly).
Always striking poses, she may not carry the artistic or cultural weight of a singer-songwriter like Nina Simone. But Williams argues well for her as "a link in an alternative history of black America, one that is not simply concerned with authenticity and ghetto suffering, but with sophistication and ambition, a tradition that goes back to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s".
When Kitt died on Christmas day, radio stations around the world played her glorious festive standard 'Santa Baby'.
And a new generation realised just how wicked she truly was.