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Eartha Kitt, sultry 'Santa Baby' singer, dies

NEW YORK — Eartha Kitt, a sultry singer, dancer and actress who rose from South Carolina cotton fields to become an international symbol of elegance and sensuality, has died, a family spokesman said. She was 81.

Andrew Freedman said Ms. Kitt, who was recently treated at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, died Thursday in Connecticut of colon cancer.

Ms. Kitt, a self-proclaimed "sex kitten" famous for her catlike purr, was one of America's most versatile performers, winning two Emmys and nabbing a third nomination. She also was nominated for several Tonys and two Grammys.

Her career spanned six decades, from her start as a dancer with the famed Katherine Dunham troupe to cabarets and acting and singing on stage, in movies and on television. She persevered through an unhappy childhood as a mixed-race daughter of the South and made headlines in the 1960s for denouncing the Vietnam War during a visit to the White House.

Through the years, Ms. Kitt remained a picture of vitality and attracted fans less than half her age even as she neared 80.

When her book Rejuvenate, a guide to staying physically fit, was published in 2001, Ms. Kitt was featured on the cover in a curve-hugging black dress with a figure that some 20-year-old women would envy. Ms. Kitt also wrote three autobiographies.

Once dubbed the "most exciting woman in the world" by Orson Welles, she spent much of her life single, though brief romances with the rich and famous peppered her younger years.

After becoming a hit singing Monotonous in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1952, Ms. Kitt appeared in Mrs. Patterson in 1954-55. (Some references say she earned a Tony nomination for Mrs. Patterson, but only winners were publicly announced at that time.) She also made appearances in Shinbone Alley and The Owl and the Pussycat.

Her first album, RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt, came out in 1954, featuring such songs as I Want to Be Evil, C'est Si Bon and the saucy gold digger's theme song Santa Baby, which is revived on radio each Christmas.

The next year, the record company released the follow-up album, That Bad Eartha, which featured Let's Do It, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and My Heart Belongs to Daddy.

Ms. Kitt also acted in movies, playing the lead female role opposite Nat King Cole in St. Louis Blues in 1958 and more recently appearing in Boomerang and Harriet the Spy in the 1990s.

On television, she was the sexy Catwoman on the popular Batman series in 1967-68, replacing Julie Newmar who originated the role. A guest appearance on an episode of I Spy brought Ms. Kitt an Emmy nomination in 1966.

Ms. Kitt was plainspoken about causes she believed in. Her anti-war comments at the White House came as she attended a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson.

"You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed," she told the group of about 50 women. "They rebel in the street. They don't want to go to school because they're going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam."

For four years afterward, Ms. Kitt performed almost exclusively overseas. She was investigated by the FBI and CIA.

"The thing that hurts, that became anger, was when I realized that if you tell the truth — in a country that says you're entitled to tell the truth — you get your face slapped and you get put out of work," Ms. Kitt told Essence magazine two decades later.

In 1978, Ms. Kitt returned to Broadway in the musical Timbuktu! — which brought her a Tony nomination — and was invited back to the White House by President Jimmy Carter.

In an online discussion at in March 2005, shortly after Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman won Oscars, she expressed satisfaction that black performers "have more of a chance now than we did then to play larger parts."

But she also said: "I don't carry myself as a black person but as a woman that belongs to everybody. After all, it's the general public that made (me) — not any one particular group. So I don't think of myself as belonging to any particular group and never have."

Ms. Kitt was born in North, S.C., and her road to fame was the stuff of storybooks. In her autobiography, she wrote that her mother was black and Cherokee while her father was white, and she was left to live with relatives after her mother's new husband objected to taking in a mixed-race girl.

An aunt eventually brought her to live in New York, where she attended the High School of Performing Arts, later dropping out to take various odd jobs.

By chance, she dropped by an audition for the dance group run by Dunham, a pioneering African-American dancer.

Ms. Kitt's travels with the Dunham troupe landed her a gig in a Paris nightclub in the early '50s. Welles spotted her and cast her in his Paris stage production of Faust.

That led to a role in New Faces of 1952, which featured such other stars-to-be as Carol Lawrence, Paul Lynde and writer Mel Brooks.