America's Mistress: The Life and Times of Eartha Kitt by John L Williams

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America's Mistress: The Life and Times of Eartha Kitt by John L Williams

Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of Eartha Kitt, the singer, actress and dancer whose career spanned almost half a century from the 1950s onwards.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Quercus
ISBN: 9780857385758

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Two quotes on the back of the dust jacket testify to the power and public perception of Eartha Kitt during her lifetime. Orson Welles once called her ‘the most exciting woman in the world’, while to the CIA she was ‘a sadistic nymphomaniac’.

Born to parents of mixed race in 1927 in South Carolina, she never knew her father, had only vague recollections of her mother, and was brought up by an aunt who regularly beat her. While her autobiography was full of stories which are difficult to substantiate, she undoubtedly led a difficult childhood of poverty, hunger, and long hours of hard work, picking cotton. The only real pleasures she knew were hustling for meals from schoolfriends, piano lessons, and occasional visits to the cinema. After leaving school she auditioned for a black dance company and was awarded a scholarship, the first big break in what would be a remarkable career spanning over fifty years. A versatile singer and actress as well as dancer, by the mid-1950s she had established herself as a major star in America and Europe, with admirers and friends including James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Nevertheless it all came at a cost. The hardworking schedule did not prove conducive to a settled life, and a few affairs which led nowhere were followed by a shortlived marriage which produced a daughter but ended in divorce not long afterwards. As a half-black woman in the public eye during the Civil Rights movement and the cultural revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, she found it impossible to avoid controversy and was expected to speak out for the oppressed black population of America. One of fifty women invited to lunch at the White House by Lady Bird Johnson, wife of the then President, in 1968, she started an argument which was intended as a forceful anti-Vietnam war exchange but ended up as a rather confused tirade. It allegedly left the First Lady in tears, made her enemies among the authorities and attracted a large amount of hate mail when the news leaked out – but gained her much support from the political left and from assorted public figures who were delighted that she had proved so fearless. Ironically though it dealt her ailing career a blow, at home at least, from which she never really recovered.

Williams tells the story very effectively of a doughty fighter for her cause, and a star whose career hit the heights and plumbed the depths. At one time flavour of the month, as is so often the case she soon became yesterday’s news. Some of her singing and acting ventures were triumphs, others proved dead ends. Ironically, one of the few songs she wrote herself, ‘I Had a Hard Day Last Night’, was released in Britain by EMI Records. Shortly after that, the same company acquired another act who would be indelibly associated with a remarkably similar song title, and who led a new musical revolution which would render Eartha and other stars of her genre all but obsolete for a while. Down but not out, she went on to land a role as Catwoman in the cult TV series ‘Batman’, which may not have been her greatest acting role but at least gained her a new lease of life in showbusiness, albeit temporary.

It is a fitting portrayal of an extraordinary career. A very chequered career hers might have been, but Eartha clearly made an impact on the age, and on the people around her. Everybody loves a survivor, and I for one could have done with far more detail about her newly-found success as a singer in Britain in the mid-1980s and 1990s. She had five hit singles in that period, but there is only a brief reference in these pages to one of them, and no mention of the background or what exactly led to her almost becoming a major name with a new following made up of those who had not been born until many years after she had been written off as a relic of another age. However it is heartwarming to read that she was still performing at the age of eighty with little loss of her old power, even after she had been diagnosed with cancer – and up to within a few weeks of her death on Christmas Day 2008.

Until reading this book, I only had a very sketchy knowledge of Eartha Kitt. This book brings a powerful personality to life against the often tempestuous age in which she lived. Notwithstanding that somewhat sketchy coverage of her later triumphs, I found this a very worthwhile read. There are eight pages of plates, and unlike too many other biographies published today it is good to note that a comprehensive bibliography, index and reference notes are provided at the end.

If this book appeals then you might like to try:

Jazz by Gary Giddins and Scott Deveaux

Or, for a comparable if less long-lasting talent, Amy Winehouse: A Losing Game by Mick O'Shea

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