Eartha Kitt discusses her music career, part 2
BROADCAST: Jul. 10, 1962 | DURATION: 00:26:01
Studs Terkel continues to interview actress and singer Eartha Kitt. Part 2 of the interview begins with the song "Üsküdara", and ends with "Mountain High, Valley Low", both sung by Kitt. Kitt discusses the following; her career; her desire to entertain; her autobiography, "Thursday's Child"; her mothers death; the art of interacting with the audience; the femme fatale; her time with the Katherine Dunham Dancers; and her portrayl of Helen of Troy.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Eartha Kitt [Law?]
Studs Terkel "Uska Dara", then, "Uska Dara". We hear, then, this song. There's a gaity to it. And from Turkey, rather, before Turkey, from South Carolina. Turkey's a long way from that childhood memory of yours. [laughter] Is it is it - Did you always - did want to be a dancer? What is it? To to to express yourself. Here's this girl in this framework that is so bleak and so terrible and lonely. How did you bust out of it?
Eartha Kitt I really don't know. I don't know how to explain it. It was not that I wanted to be the greatest of anything, or that I wanted to be anything particular. I knew that I had or I felt - I didn't understand it of course, then, when I was younger - I felt a very strong desire to have love and affection. Because the idea that my mother gave me away was very hard for me to take as I grew older, and even though I understood it as I grew older the feeling never left me. And even now when I think about the idea of a mother giving away her two children because she wanted to marry a man, I can understand to some extent now because it was not very easy for one woman, and my mother was terribly young. She had me at the age of 14. And now that I'm an adult myself and have gone through various phases of experiences in life, I understand why a mother would give a child away because of the - maybe the weakness and the responsibility, the not being able to cope with being so young and having two children to support and take care of. And she felt that maybe she should look out for herself. Now and after all she wasn't just giving the children, you know, just putting them off in the forest for them to foot on their own. She did give them to a family. And I I have analyzed it so many times and in so many different various ways, that I now can accept it and I can live with, I can live with it. I cannot say that I have ever forgiven my mother for this, but my mother died very shortly thereafter. And, you know, we were brought up to be very religious and also very superstitious, and we always say particularly in the south, that you get out of life just what you put into it. Now, I somewhere along the line maybe feel that my mother was punished for giving my sister and I away, because she married this man who had, as I said, several children. His oldest daughter was something like two years older than my mother and my mother had another child by this man and when the child was six months old my mother took very seriously ill and she never got out of bed. She died. Now, there were very strange reasons why she died and until this day we do not know why. Some of us say that my mother was murdered. Some of them say that the husband and the children got in together in cahoots and fed her poison. But we never were able to trace back the reasons why my mother died. And, of course, I wrote all of this down in "Thursday's Child", my impressions of my mother's death --
Eartha Kitt Yes.
Eartha Kitt And this might have been her punishment. Therefore as I grew older I have, you know, in some ways forgiven her for this. Now, I cannot say that the person that I am today does not hold any, you know, bitterness about this because I can't say. But I do know that I've grown to understand. I've grown to accept this. And I have grown to analyze it in a way that I can live with it. Besides when you start going back to those kind of things, [laughter] you know, it sometimes it gets very difficult to talk about.
Studs Terkel I was thinking "Thursday's child has far to go". If he perhaps could - interpreting now, literally, the journey itself. Wednesday's - you're Wednesday's child, too. It was full of woe, but Thursday's child far to go. The hunger you have for life obviously you had as a child and you obviously have, this hunger for life. You wanted - as a small gir- did you did you like to dance? Sing? What was it?
Eartha Kitt Well, I felt that I wanted to earn people. I wanted to prove that I was a deserving person and that I did deserve love and affection from other people. That I didn't deserve all the kicks and the weapons that I was getting as a child. Therefore, I I guess I tried to find a way to say, "Love me!" Of course, I felt as long as I was singing, which we did in church when we were children. My sister and I felt there was an acceptance as a person. That was a kind of love and affection given me, and I earned it. I wasn't just standing there and saying I'm a person and you are a person, now, you know like the Bible says, "Let's love one another", because I don't really feel that you just meet someone and you love them. I do feel that no matter who you are or what you are you still have to earn whatever you come by in life and love. Of course, since it is the most important thing in the world to us it's the most comforting thing and it's the most gratifying thing. And after all is said and done, this is the one thing in our lives that we are constantly reaching for. But you have to earn it. So I suppose that since I did find that I was getting affection and attention from people through singing, and through just, well doing anything like dance movements, you know, as long as you can attract attention. You earned the affection because first of all, you have to catch an eye. You catch an eye by doing something exhibitionistically. Then after that it's up to you to hold the attention. Then after that comes the love and the affection. It goes even down to the little thing of shaking a hand. If you meet someone and you shake someone's hand, you can tell by the handshake whether you want to get to know this person more, whether the person is even worth bothering about. Or you can tell by the look of an eye whether you really want to get to know that person or not. That's tra- attracting attention. When you walk into a room and you meet someone for the first time - naturally everyone is always on his best behavior when they meet someone for the first time, because they wanted to earn the love and affection of the person that they're meeting. First of all you attract the attention of the person. This is a form of exhibitionism. And then the rest is left up to the kind of conversation you get into, the kind of electric neutrons that you throw out, you know, the atoms that you throw against each other--
Eartha Kitt Yes.
Eartha Kitt Yes.
Eartha Kitt Mister Kelly's-- Until the twenty-third. You were saying? [Kelly's?] is a very intimate room, and I'm sitting on a piano and naturally there are people who are terribly close to me. It's almost like holding a conversation with someone much more so than working in an ordinary nightclub. Because as long as there is a space between the person and the audience, there is time to really think and have little waves going. You can take more time about what you're going to say and what you're going to do. But when someone is that close to you and you are looking at them dead in the eye, both of you have to be terribly strong people in order to accept each other. Because first of all, not only are you an exhibitionist, but now you've also made the audience, a part of the audience, an exhibition- an exhibitionist, too. You know, lots of people do not like to be put into that position. They get either extremely shy, or they they turn the other cheek, and they get into the act, [clap] you know, and they get like this, [clap] you know, and says, "Alright, Eartha, come on! Let's see you do this," you know, [laughter] and the other thing. And you have to know how to play along with these people--
Eartha Kitt Yes.
Eartha Kitt That's right. They become much more a part of the act than the audience, say, for instance, in a theater. Because you really are holding a terribly intimate conversation with someone. Particularly with a lot of the songs that I'm doing in this act when I look at a man. Now, my competition in this particular case are the women.
Eartha Kitt Well, you see I have to analyze, psychoanalyze, and throw out antennas and waves of all kinds, when they - particularly with women, because I can tell if a woman is married to the man to whom I'm singing, if she's secure in her relationship with the man to whom she's married--
Eartha Kitt Of course I can. If she is thinking of me as a menace to her position as a woman, or if she's a good sport. Now if the woman is a good sport there is nothing in the world that I can do to her man that it would hurt her or make her feel jealous or make her envious or make her feel insecure. If she is not secure in herself as a woman, let alone as her, in her relationship with her man - whether it's her husband or her boyfriend - she will give me a hard time.
Eartha Kitt She will light a cigarette. She will take out a cigarette from a cigarette box and she will [slapping] hit the husband on the hand [laughter] and she said, "Light my cigarette for me." Or she will pick up her glass [laughter] and she will start drinking [clap]. Or she will turn around and she will do all kinds of crazy things. Or she will just look at me, and then she'd turn away as though to - with the kind of expression that says, "Oh, I don't think you're so hot."
Studs Terkel So--
Eartha Kitt Yes, you have to. Then if the woman, say for instance, I had a song call- which is still in my repertoire called "Apres Moi". It was written "Apres moi you can tell him, that he's all of this and heaven, too. But you can tell him after me, after me, after me." And the song was written that it ended that I was the one that got the man, you don't stand a chance, you know. I realized that I was not playing the game extremely fair. So I had to change the end of the song, so that the woman got the man. So, even though the song was not written this way, I myself added the line after a long pause at the end of the song, because the song is directed to a woman. I said the line: "Oh well, I really didn't want him anyway." Which meant that the woman got the man. Now, all during the song I am being very affirmative in my position as the female femme fatale, you know, this kind of thing. And there isn't anything she could do in the world to get this man, and I'm staring down to kingdom come. And I could see the women get so furious [laughter] within themselves, you know. Sometimes they really get so mad at me they crawl practically under the table. And of course the more furious they become, at the end of the song, the more meek and cuddly and sweet and childlike I become. Because I have to make them realize that I'm only joking. And I'm very sorry that you did not go along with it. So when they hear the line I really didn't want him after all, then they suddenly come to life and they realize that I wasn't such a bad kid after all. [laughter]
Eartha Kitt That's right. And after that I think very many women are sensitive enough to realize that they were foolish to begin with. That it's all tongue in cheek. I really do not think that I am a femme fatale. I can be if I want to be. If you allow me to be, of course, I can be. But let's not - I don't want to show you that I can be. You are - you can be just as strong as I am.
Studs Terkel So this is a give and take, really, on your part. You are, you are the performer, the doer, and you are the looker, you are the observer at the same time, of both. And this is - as you sing a song, this is a question perhaps. I think it's Bernhardt made the point in acting a role, way at the top of her head there is that consciousness at the same time that she still is acting, no matter how much she throws herself into that role--
Eartha Kitt Yes.
Eartha Kitt Yes.
Eartha Kitt They vary every night. They vary with every audience and they vary with every individual, because a lot of times people are wonderful sports and they realize that it's all tongue in cheek, and as I said at other times they just take you so seriously. They become frightening. And I I really am very much afraid up there on that stage all standing all by myself and no one to protect me. [laughter]
Studs Terkel Do you really have no - [you don't?/took?] - do you really have - There's a tremendous confidence you exude. Do you have times - this is a trade secret - do you have times in insecurity, as you're up there? Or are you completely confident?
Eartha Kitt Oh, you're never confident. You're never confident because you can never be sure of another individual, how can you possibly be? You never know when that person is going to be a good sport and when he's not going to be, or when she particularly is not going to be. Because, you know, I've learned something in my life: that a man will take a joke much more easily than a woman can. A man, when he sees someone do a magic trick, for instance, a man is the first one to say, "Oh, that was one you put over on me. Isn't that wonderful?" A woman, she would say, "Oh, I can do that. Let me try it."
Eartha Kitt Yes. I went - I joined the Katherine Dunham dancers about the age of 14 or 15, and I traveled with her around the United States. This is when I ran away from home, after living with my aunt from the time I was about eight or nine. My aunt was a very stern woman. We didn't get along at all. I wasn't allowed to talk to boys. I wasn't allowed to be seen with boys and she was always afraid that, you know, I was out on the street if I was ever out on the street by myself I would get into trouble. And as a result, she always instilled it in my head that I was going to turn out to be no good. As a result I was always afraid of boys. And I remember living the kind of life with my aunt that when my aunt walked in the front door, and I was sitting in the living room, I would get up and go into another room. If she came into that room, I would get up and go into still another room, and we would play cat and mouse all day with each other too. It got to a point where I was about 14 or 15 I ran away. This was about the third time I ran away, and the third time I ran away I joined the Katherine Dunham company, and that's when I went away to Mexico. And it was the first time during my life with my aunt that my aunt decided that after all I was a human being, because she, too, was, you know, brought up in the same kind of way I was brought up in the South with a stern treatment and and very strict and very religious. So when I ran away and joined the Dunham company, I started to write to my aunt. And that's how we became very good friends. So when I returned to New York, we only had about 10 days, and we had to get passports and visas and all that sort of thing to go to Europe when I was under-age to go out of the country. As a matter of fact, when I joined the Dunham company I was about 14 and I put my age up to 16 and I had lied about my age. So when I got to the position where I wanted to go to Europe and I needed a passport, naturally I had to go to my aunt and ask her to tell - to go along with the lie because now I had to have a passport and I had to have a birth certificate to which I did not have. So I had to get my aunt to sign for me and she did. And as I said, for the first time when my aunt put me on the boat to go to Europe and she said goodbye to me, it was the first time I saw her show any kind of love and affection for me. Because I tell you the kind of life I had with my aunt. My aunt - First of all, so I went to church every Sunday which was very good for me, I know now. I belonged to the church Salem Methodist Church in New York. I was in a church choir. And, because I was in plays, I became very popular in the church. So I was always put in the lead of the plays. But after the plays were over that we gave - maybe, you know, the time of the year when they put on pageants and things at church - everyone that saw the play would come to me and say, "oh, what a talented little child you have. How adorable. Isn't she sweet? Isn't she this, isn't she that." And they were giving me all the love and affection. And I remember looking up at my aunt and wondering if she had the same feeling. Never. Never did she show any kind of feeling at all. She didn't even show a smile on her face. And I remember once I did a "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". And the audience was just - they were marvelous. And they went - they came to me and they gave me hugs and kisses, and I had all the ice cream and cake and so forth and so when after the play. And I was wondering, oh isn't it marvelous when I get home tonight, my aunt will give me the love and affection and, you know, just a little pat on my head like a little puppy, I didn't care! As long as she showed some kind of feelings for me because she never did, you see. We walked home from church, and Salem Methodist Church is 127th Street and 7th Avenue and we lived 137th Street and 7th Avenue. As we were walking along I felt so wonderful and so happy inside that I had pleased my aunt, I was the center of attraction. and I remember I tried to take a hold of my aunt's hand so that she would hold my hand and walk along the street with me, you know, like I was her little girl, as though she was proud of me. I took a hold of her hand and she opened her hand and threw my hand down. She wouldn't even touch me. And as we were walking along I didn't know if I should talk to her or not to talk to her. I want to say - because I called her Mother - I wanted to, I wanted to say, "Mother did you like what I did to night?" But there was never any sign. And so much so that my aunt would walk across the street and the only reason I knew she was walking across the street was I happened to see her walking across the street. [laughter] She wouldn't even say, "I'm going to go across the street, will you come with me?"
Eartha Kitt Yes. So this is the kind of life I had in the past. So when she gave me a sign the day that I was going to the other side of the world. She had gone through all the trouble of getting the passports and helping us get the visas in the proper papers, even lying about my age. She stood on the boat and she looked at me suddenly and she said, "I have a feeling I'm never going to see you again." Well, of course, when people part, you know, particularly if they're relatives, they do have a feeling that they're never going to see each other again. But she started to cry. I couldn't understand my aunt crying. I went and told everybody in the company, "my aunt is crying! My mother crying! She likes me, she likes me!" [laughter] Well, I never saw her again alive. This was in - I went to Europe in 1947 or '48, and she died in 1951.
Eartha Kitt Probably not. And you know something else. We were on relief in New York. And I remember here again, to win my aunt's affection, I used to go - well this was one of the times we lived 137th Street and 8th Avenue somewhere - and the relief station was, oh I don't know, miles and miles and miles away. I didn't - oh, excuse me I'm getting emotional - miles away. So my aunt said go to the such and such a station on Third Avenue and something street and bring back the apples that we are getting that we have to get today. So rather than - I'm not, I'm a tiny little kid. I don't know how big I was anyway - I was what, 10 years old or something. And I went to get the apples. Well the apples were five pounds in the bag. So to make a big impression with my aunt, I took five pound bag in one hand and five pound bag in another hand. [laughter] And I was walking down the street with 10 pounds of apples, which was fine because a man said to me at the counter when he handed me the apples, he said, "Are you sure that you're able to carry them, little girl?" And I said, "Oh sure I can carry them, you know these are gravy." Well, when you walk one block with 10 pounds of apples in your arms you know they don't feel so heavy, but when you go five and 10 and 15 blocks, they get heavier and heavier. [laughter] So, as the trail went along, there were apples and apples in back of me. And I remember people were trying to help me with these apples, and I wouldn't let anybody help me because I wanted to show my aunt what a good girl I was. Instead of getting five pounds of apples, "Look what I did mother. I brought home - me just a little girl, you know, look how strong I am. I brought 10 pounds of apples instead, and I figured, well, my aunt would be so proud of me that we would have apple pie and apple dumplings and apple sauce and apple strudel and just plain apples. Well I ate just plain apples for days and days. I never--
Studs Terkel [unintelligible]
Eartha Kitt Yes.
Studs Terkel We're going to hear - perhaps now as we hear part, the story continues - it's not a story, it's the portrait you're painting. Perhaps if we heard a gentle song, now. We think of you and these abrasive songs, "Mountain High, Valley Low", [unintelligible] song, here, then. This probably in a way is connected with the way you feel. And I want to ask about what happened in Europe, your capacity with languages, how this came about. "Valley High" - no, "Mountain High, Valley Low". I think it's this it's this admixture of the songs, the gentle and the biting, that in a way, perhaps, you're able to express your feelings about about life. Would you say this is so, or am I romanticizing a little?
Eartha Kitt No, I think you're perfectly right, because there are feelings inside of one that only certain songs can bring out, you know, and there is never just one side of a personality, but are various sides. I remember once, I guess, I was trying to find out who I was myself and I was in the production of Orson Welles. Because the part of Helen of Troy takes on--
Eartha Kitt Yes.
Eartha Kitt Yes. And when I was given the part, I asked him, "How old is Helen of Troy? And what kind of woman is she? What kind of experiences has she had?" According to his interpretation of her. And he said, "Why do you think I chose you, Eartha?" He says, "Because you are all the women." And I said, "Well how old a woman is she?" And he said, "She is two thousand years old."