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1968 - Eartha Kitts makes Lady Bird Johnson cry

Eartha Kitt purred into America’s hearts as Catwoman on the cult Batman TV series. Her character was seductive and clever with weapons, such as the bomb that destroyed women’s hairdos. By 1967, Kitt was a bonafide star. Then the CIA destroyed her career.

Kitt had already worked in show business for over 20 years, appearing in cabaret and Broadway musicals, and recording loungey singles like the famous “Santa Baby.” Her wicked voice teased audiences across the U.S. and Europe, where she toured and learned three languages.

It was her celebrity and charity work with at-risk youth that earned Kitt an invitation to a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson. The invitation asked attendees to bring ideas about how to solve youth crime. In 1968, and in Kitt’s experience, you couldn’t talk about young people without talking about the Vietnam War.

A car brought Kitt to the White House, where she met a group of about 50 women from different but mainly affluent backgrounds. President Johnson made a brief cameo, then left. His wife opened up the podium for remarks.

According to Kitt and reports of the event, early speeches were complimentary of the administration’s fluffiest public works projects, such as beautifying Route 66 and planting trees in Harlem. “All of them were fawning up to the boss, so to speak,” said Kitt in a later interview.

When it was her turn, Kitt retrained the audience’s attention to the issue of youth delinquency and disenfranchisement:

“The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippiesfor no reason at all. We don’t have what we have on Sunset Blvd. for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons — and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson — we raise children and send them to war.”

Young folks are choosing to be “bad” because they don’t understand this war, said Kitt. They would rather dodge the draft than join up. In their minds, “it pays to be a bad guy.”

According to a New York Times report, Mrs. Johnson’s “voice trembled and tears welled in her eyes.” Then, “Miss Kitt, her eyes flashing in defiance while she puffed on a cigarette and jabbed a finger at her startled audience, said…that youngsters feel alienated because ‘they can’t get to you and they can’t get to the president, and so they rebel in the streets.’”

Guests were stunned to silence. No one applauded. Reporters ducked out quickly to jump on the story: an African American actress had verbally attacked the Johnsons at the White House.

When the event ended, Kitt found no car to drive her home. When she finally got back to her hotel, she heard her name on the radio. The public scorned her; even fellow stars like Shirley Temple Black denounced her comments. A few weeks later, a couple of her regular performance venues somehow lost her contracts. Soon she was almost out of work entirely.

Kitt talks to newsmen in Los Angeles on arrival from Washington, where her remarks to the first lady touched off a furor on Jan. 19, 1968. Alternately serious and smiling, she said her remarks were unplanned but that she’d do it again in the same situation.

“Overnight, Kitt became a bad mother, a fornicator, a user of profane language, an improper person with offensive opinions,” writes Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones in Peace Now, “Kitt was trampled down.”

In 1974, she got a phone call from New York Times political reporter Seymour Hersh. He wanted permission to publish a story about the CIA’s dossier on Eartha Kitt. Following the luncheon the Johnsons had ordered an intelligence inquiry into her background. “‘President Johnson has decided that you should not be seen anywhere,’ she recalled him saying, ‘and that’s why you’re having a hard time getting any work.’”

The CIA’s report had gathered “second-hand gossip about the entertainer,” according to Hersh’s article, but nothing that amounted to foreign intelligence connections. The agency had interviewed former colleagues in the U.S. and Paris, and concluded that Kitt had “a very nasty disposition” and acted like “a spoiled child, very crude and having a vile tongue.” Finally, the CIA characterized Kitt as a “sadistic nymphomaniac.”

The Secret Service delivered this report to Johnson and the rest (of her career) was history. She was blacklisted.

“I was punished for telling the truth,” said Kitt in a 1995 interview. She had discovered what happened when an entertainer, a black woman, voiced her opinion — even when she was explicitly asked to do so. She said later, “You don’t expect anything like that to be happening in your country — mywonderful country? That can’t be happening!”

For several years Kitt mainly worked in Europe, where her popularity never waned. Then in 1978 director Geoffrey Holder beckoned Kitt back to star in his Broadway production of Timbuktu. In her entrance scene, a group of oily, muscled men carried her in like a queen. She wore a slinky, sheer shift of glittering rhinestones. “Once they saw my face, they started giving me a standing ovation,” she said. The role earned her a Tony nomination.

It was hard-won. Her small comeback followed cultural exile. Few celebrities at the time were expected to voice political opinions, much less a single, sexualized, black woman. Kitt’s voice was utterly unwanted by a ruling class defined by patriotic conformity.

Ironically, new generations would fall in love with that very voice. Her nightclub circuit appealed to gay men, and Kitt would go on to play concerts that benefitted HIV/AIDS organizations. Then in 2000 Kitt played Yzma, the narcissistic and angular villain in Disney’s animated film The Emperor’s New Groove.

She died in 2008, aged 81, a woman scorned then reborn. And she never lost her principles along the way.


#Activism #WhiteSupremacy #blackleaders #BlackPower #1960s

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