S.C. native, 'Santa Baby' singer Eartha Kitt dies

Eartha Kitt
Eartha Kitt

COLUMBIA -- Eartha Kitt, a sultry singer, dancer and actress who rose from South Carolina cotton fields to become a symbol of sensuality, has died, a spokesman said. She was 81.

Andrew Freedman said Kitt, who recently was treated at a New York hospital, died Thursday in Connecticut of colon cancer.

Kitt long had a love-hate relationship with her birth state.

"I was born in a little town called North in South Carolina," she said in her 1956 autobiography, "Thursday's Child," in which she discusses the pain of being a child in poverty, unwanted and abused because of her mixed race.

"My first scene in life was a long, dark, dusty road. I could not see the end of it, for it just went down, down, down -- to end in what ... seemed like hell."

After moving to New York City, she avoided her home state for years.

Over time, she reconciled. She was touched in 1997 when she returned to Columbia to do a show with a Benedict College dance troupe. The students, assigned to research Kitt, discovered her birth certificate. That was how she learned that instead of being born on Jan. 26, 1926, she actually had been born on Jan. 17, 1927.

"I had no idea how I would feel coming home," she told a reporter at the time. "I left in tears, but it seems I've come home to love."

It had been quite a journey.

In her youth, South Carolina was a place of segregation. She was rejected by her family. An early memory was of the white man her mother -- a woman of black and American Indian heritage -- was to marry.

The man said of Kitt, "I do not want that yellow girl in my house." Her father was white.

In New York City, she began to be accepted by the world. Her talents in movement, dance and voice were so extraordinary that around the age of 15, she was discovered by a famous dancer, Katherine Dunham, who asked Kitt to join her troupe.

That launched her rocket ascent to fame. She performed before royalty in Europe. She was acquainted with Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill. She appeared on U.S. television to audiences of millions. She played on Broadway.

In 1981, during one of her rare visits to South Carolina, she told a reporter, "What happened back then has made (me) what I am today."

Songs: "I Want to Be Evil;" "C'est Si Bon;"and "Santa Baby." Movies: "St. Louis Blues" and "Boomerang." TV: Catwoman in "Batman." Broadway: "Timbuktu!" and "The Wild Party."

Some of Eartha Kitt's hits