Eartha Kitt, the versatile American singer and actress who died Thursday at 81, mesmerized audiences worldwide for over six decades with her sultry voice and sensuality on stage and screen.
Kitt, whose outspokenness was a mainstay of her career but also led to a self-imposed exile to Europe in the 1960s and 70s after her stinging critique of the war in Vietnam, won two Emmy television awards and was nominated for two Tony awards and a pair of Grammys.
The performer, who lived in the northeastern US state of Connecticut, was being treated for colon cancer at a New York hospital, her friend and publicist Andrew Freedman told AFP.
She was certainly a legendary performer and while I think there may have been many imitations, she was an original, Freedman said. She was one of the few artists nominated for Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards.
A self-described sex kitten, Kitt famously played the role of Catwoman in the US hit TV series Batman in the 1960s. Her trademark feline purr and uncanny persona won her millions of fans, among them Hollywood s Orson Welles, who called her the most exciting woman in the world.
She had an aggressively sexy act and even as an octogenarian took the stage in dresses with thigh-high slits – the better to show off her glamorous legs.
Kitt acted in movies as well, starring with Nat King Cole in St. Louis Blues (1958) and with Sydney Poitier in The Mark of the Hawk (1957).
I do not have an act. I just do Eartha Kitt, she told the British newspaper The Times in April. I want to be whoever Eartha Kitt is until the gods take me wherever they take me.
Her song Santa Baby, still a Christmas favorite today, went gold earlier this year. Her other hits included C est Si Bon, Let s Do It and Just an Old Fashioned Girl and the 1984 disco song Where is My Man.
Kitt rose to fame from humble origins as a mixed-race child who grew up in South Carolina s cotton fields, and, along with fellow cafe-au-lait screen sirens Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, was among the first of the African-American sex symbols.
But she said she did not view her race as key to her success.
I don t carry myself as a black person, but as a woman that belongs to everybody, she said in an online forum several years back.
Kitt launched her career as a dancer in Paris with the famed Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. Before hitting age 20, she had already toured the world as a performer with the company.
Since that period in the early 40s and 50s, Europe has always held a special place in her heart, particularly Paris, Freedman said.
Paris was one of her great loves. One of her first big hits was La Vie en Rose , he said.
Kitt was blacklisted in the United States during the late 1960s after speaking out against the Vietnam war during a White House luncheon.
You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed, she told a group of women hosted by Lady Bird Johnson in 1968. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.
The FBI and CIA began investigating her, she learned later, and she spent the next several years working in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Manila.
Kitt worked abroad for years until her triumphant return to Broadway in 1974. She received her second Tony nomination in 1978 for her role in the musical Timbuktu. In 2003, she replaced Chita Rivera for a remake of the Broadway musical Nine.
In December 2006, she returned to the White House to light the National Christmas Tree alongside President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.
Singing in 10 different languages, Kitt performed in over 100 countries, and was known to have legions of fans, some of whom were younger than half her age.
She was the voice of the flamboyant Yzma in the animated Disney movie The Emperor s New Groove (2000), and continued to voice the character in a sequel and subsequent TV series.
The glamorous cabaret chanteuse, who earlier this year opened Britain s Cheltenham Jazz Festival, reportedly had had a romantic liaison with Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon cosmetics, who is said to have created a flaming red lipstick for her, called Fire and Ice.
She married in 1960 and had one daughter Kitt Shapiro, before divorcing in 1965.
Kitt kept up her Broadway theater work and continued her cabaret stints, performing at the reopening of New York s Cafe Carlyle in September 2007. -AFP