Eartha Kitt: An Anti-War Patriot
by John Nichols
Forty years ago, America's cultural icons expressed the frustratation
of the American people with the failure of then-President Lyndon
Johnson to end this country's undeclared war in Vietnam by boldly
The most respected newsman in the nation, CBS anchorman Walter
Cronkite, explained to a national television audience after the Tet
Offensive that the war had gone horribly awry.
Singer Johnny Cash, whose music and style had made him a hero of
blue-collar Americans, described himself as "a dove with claws" and
began singing the anti-war song "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream."
The Smothers Brothers variety show was censored when it attempted to
air a segment featuring Harry Belafonte singing in front of images of
student protesters clashing with the police. CBS executives
reportedly feared that the implicit anti-war message would offend
President Johnson and his aides.
But the most direct and powerful anti-war statement of the period was
delived by singer Eartha Kitt, then at the height of her celebrity.
Kitt, the sultry singer of hits such as "Santa Baby" who died at age
81 on Christmas Day, was in 1968 an internationally-acclaimed music
star who had begun making major stage and screen appearances. So it
came as no great surprise when she was invited to a White House
luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson.
But the First Lady was surprised when she asked Kitt about the Vietnam War.
"You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed," the
singer told the First Lady and the 50 other women at the luncheon.
"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."
The First Lady reportedly burst into tears.
The president was furious.
Kitt was blacklisted. She was investigated by the FBI and CIA, and
ended up on the "Enemies List" of Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon.
Kitt spent the next decade performing mostly in Europe until, in 1978
-- after a triumphal return to Broadway to perform in the musical
"Timbuktu!" -- she was invited back to the White House by the great
healing executive of the post-war era, Jimmy Carter.
Years later, Kitt would recall her White House visit in an interview
with Esquire magazine, saying "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."
It was a painful lesson.
But we remember Kitt today as one of those remarkable Americans who
was patriotic enough to speak truth to power. And she spoke in such a
remarkable voice that it will linger far longer in our memory than
those of the foolish politicians and misguided media moguls who were
wrong about Vietnam -- and wrong about Eartha Kitt.
US singer Eartha Kitt dies at 81
American singer, dancer and actress Eartha Kitt has died at the age
81, her friend and publicist has said.
Kitt died of colon cancer on Thursday, Andrew Freedman said.
She was one of the few artists to be nominated in the Tony, Grammy
and Emmy award categories and was a stalwart of the Manhattan cabaret scene.
She famously played Catwoman in the Batman television series in the
1960s and was known for her distinctive, feline drawl.
She also had a number of hit songs, including Old Fashioned Girl,
C'est Si Bon and Santa Baby.
Kitt was blacklisted in the US in the late 1960s after speaking out
against the Vietnam War at a White House function.
She also caused controversy when she toured apartheid South Africa in
1974, arguing that she had helped wean the regime by raising
awareness of racism.
However, she returned triumphantly to New York's Broadway in a 1978
production, Timbuktu!, and continued to perform regularly in theatre
shows and concert halls.
From the 1980s onwards she appeared in numerous films, and her 1984
hit Where Is My Man found her another generation of night club fans.
Kitt rose to the top of the entertainment world from humble origins.
Her mother worked on a cotton plantation in South Carolina and was
just 14 when she gave birth.
Kitt was then given away at the age of eight and sent to live with an
aunt in New York.
Her break came at 16 when she got a job as a dancer with a
professional troupe touring Europe. She later sang in Paris
nightclubs and appeared in several films in the 1950s.
Kitt, who had one daughter from a brief marriage in the 1960s, lived
in the US state of Connecticut.
Eartha Kitt, 17.01.1927 - 25.12.2008
RE/Search: When you were invited to a White House luncheon, didn't
you cause a scandal?
Eartha Kitt: In 1968, during the Vietnam War, I was invited by Lady
Bird Johnson to give my opinion about the problems in the United
States, specifically, "Why is there so much juvenile delinquency in
the streets of America?" The First Lady seemed to be more interested
in decorating the windows of the ghettos with flowerboxes. I mean --
it's fine to put flowers in the ghettos, but let's take care of the
necessities first: give people jobs, and find a way to get us out of poverty.
When it came my turn to speak, I said to the president's wife,
"Vietnam is the main reason we are having trouble with the youth of
America. It is a war without explanation or reason." I said that
the young ghetto boys thought it better to have a legal stigma
against them -- then they would be considered "undesirable" and would
not be sent to the war. In their opinion, in this society the good
guys lost and the bad guys won.
I didn't say this ranting and raving, but we were in a large room, we
didn't have microphones, and we had to speak loudly enough to be
heard. That incident, reported in such a way as to deface me in the
eyes of the American people, obviously had to have been given by
someone from the White House -- probably the press secretary: "Earth
Kitt makes the First Lady cry. . ." There were no reporters
present! So this was a manufactured furor.
R/S: Didn't you suffer because of this?
EK: Of course -- within two hours I was out of work in America.
The interview with Eartha Kitt above is from RE/Search #14:
Incredibly Strange Music, Vol. I (1993), and it is reproduced here
for educational purposes.
Harold Pinter and Eartha Kitt, artists and opponents of imperialist war
27 December 2008
British playwright Harold Pinter died Wednesday at the age of 78, and
American singer and actress Eartha Kitt died Thursday, Christmas day, at 81.
Both were known for the seriousness with which they pursued their
respective artistic activities, and both will be remembered as well
for speaking out against imperialist warin Kitt's case, the war in
Vietnam, in Pinter's, the US-British invasion of Iraq in particular.
It would be rtificial to find many obvious commonalities. Pinter
worked primarily in the theater, carving out a space for himself as a
playwright conveying the menace and tension beneath the complacent
surface of everyday life. Kitt was a dancer, an actress, a singer,
one of the first African-American "sex symbols." Orson Welles cast
her as Helen of Troy in his adaptation of the Faust legend in 1950,
calling her "the most exciting woman in the world."
However, at critical moments, each stuck his or her neck out,
enraging the authorities and speaking for millions who had no voice.
Their artistic achievements will always be associated with their
commitment to the truth.
Kitt was born into poverty in South Carolina in 1927, the daughter of
a black-Indian mother and a white father she never knew. Passed about
between different and unsympathetic families, she eventually went to
live with an aunt in Harlem, who also abused her. After working in
factories and occasionally sleeping on rooftops and in doorways, Kitt
became a dancer and found fame in the postwar period, when the
stereotypes of blacks in American popular culture began to break down.
Famed for her renditions of songs such as C'est si bon, Love for
Sale, Monotonous and Santa Baby and appearances in cabaret, films and
television (including a slinky Catwoman in the Batman series), Eartha
Kitt burst into the headlines for her courageous criticism of
American policy in Vietnam during a visit to the White House in January 1968.
Kitt once explained: "I was sent an invitation by Lady Bird Johnson
[the president's wife] that said, 'What Citizens Can Do to Help
Insure Safe Streets.' A car was sent for me and I walked into the
White House by myself. The ushers at the door were in white gloves,
and that made me feel like I was in the South again, which wasn't a
good feeling.... I remember the ladies at the table with me were more
curious about the china we were eating off of than what we were there
to talk about....
"After dessert the question was asked: what can be done about the
beautification of America? And they went around the room, calling on
people to give their opinion. It was mostly about planting trees and
flowers and such. I raised my hand several times and Lady Bird kept
saying, 'You'll get your turn, Eartha.' When I finally did I repeated
the question that was supposed to be the topic, and everything got
quiet.... When I got outside, suddenly I didn't have a car anymore. I
had to take a taxi back to the hotel. That about said it."
According to a UPI reporter present, this is what Kitt told Mrs.
Johnson at the luncheon: "You send the best of this country off to be
shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They will take pot and
they will get high. They don't want to go to school because they're
going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam."
Kitt told the media later that day: "I see nothing wrong with the way
I handled myself. I can only hope it will do some good."
Of the president's wife, she said: "I'm afraid she became a little
flustered." Kitt, "her eyes flashing while she puffed on a cigarette
and jabbed a finger at her startled audience," according to a
reporter, said that American youths were "angry because their parents
are angry, because there is a war going on that they don't
understand, that they don't know why."
As a result of her outspoken opposition to the Vietnam war, Kitt
suffered a virtual blacklisting in the US. Lyndon Johnson was furious
and reportedly asked the FBI to dig up dirt on her. Kitt's offers in
the US dried up and she was forced to work in Europe for nearly a
decade, before returning home in triumph.
It speaks volumes about the American media that Kitt's comment at the
White House is generally treated as something foolhardy and
self-destructive. Risking your careerperhaps even seeing your income
go down!for a principle is hardly conceivable to the timid souls who
write for the US media. Back in 2001, George Wayne of Vanity Fair, in
an interview with the singer, referred to the January 1968 luncheon
at the White House as an event "you probably wish you had never gone to."
To her credit, Kitt replied, "I'm glad I did go to it."
Wayne continued, "You expressed your opposition to the war, which
upset the FBI and CIA and got you blacklisted for years. Where did
you gather the strength and courage to move on, knowing that you
didn't do anything wrong?"
The singer-actress replied, "That I didn't do anything wrongthat
gave me the strength. Parents still thank me for helping to stop the war."
Rob Hoerburger, in the New York Times obituary December 26 couldn't
help himself either. He writes: "But she [Kitt] took the steeliness
with her, in a willful, outspoken manner that mostly served her
career, except once," referring to the White House episode. This is
Harold Pinter, who spent the last 15 or so years of his life in
particular as a conscious opponent of imperialist war and especially
US policy, was born in 1930 in modest circumstances also, the son of
a Jewish immigrant tailor in Hackney, northeast London. Pinter early
on experienced anti-Semitism and street fights with fascists. After
the war, he refused to do compulsory national service and was fined.
Pinter came to prominence in the theater in the late 1950s and early
1960s, for a series of concise, elliptical, sometimes frightening
plays, including The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter, The Caretaker
and The Homecoming. He also collaborated with Joseph Losey on The
Servant (1963) and Accident (1967). Something about the submerged
contradictions and stresses of postwar life, all the more malignant
because they were denied and submerged, comes out in the plays and screenplays.
Pinter spoke out publicly against the 1991 Gulf War and denounced the
US-NATO war against Serbia in 1999. But his outrage and eloquence in
response to the criminal US-British invasion of Iraq in March 2003
perhaps brought him the greatest notoriety and international admiration.
In March 2005, accepting the Wilfred Owen Award for his anti-war
poetry, Pinter described the attack on Iraq as "A bandit act, an act
of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the
concept of International Law. An arbitrary military action inspired
by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and
therefore of the public....
"We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium,
innumerable acts of random murder, misery and degradation to the
Iraqi people and call it 'bringing freedom and democracy to the
Middle East.' But, as we all know, we have not been welcomed with the
predicted flowers. What we have unleashed is a ferocious and
unremitting resistance, mayhem and chaos."
Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October of the same year
(See "Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize speech: a brave artist speaks the
truth about US imperialism"), Pinter took the time in his acceptance
speech to explain something of his own approach to drama, insisting,
for example, that "Sermonising has to be avoided at all cost.
Objectivity is essential. The characters must be allowed to breathe
their own air," before turning to the political problems of the day.
Pinter delivered a short but devastating history of US foreign policy
since World War II, explaining at one point: "Direct invasion of a
sovereign state has never in fact been America's favoured method. In
the main, it has preferred what it has described as 'low intensity
conflict.' Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die
but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It
means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a
malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has
been subduedor beaten to deaththe same thingand your own friends,
the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power,
you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed."
After once again scathingly denouncing the Bush and Blair governments
for their savagery and mass murder in Iraq, Pinter took up the
responsibility of the writer and intellectual:
"A writer's life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We
don't have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is
stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the
winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a
limb. You find no shelter, no protectionunless you liein which case
of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be
argued, become a politician....
"When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is
accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are
actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But
sometimes a writer has to smash the mirrorfor it is on the other
side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.
"I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching,
unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define
the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation
which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.
"If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we
have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to usthe dignity of man."
A complex, but distinct connection exists between the artist's
position on the fundamental moral and political challenges of the day
and the quality of his or her work. The artists, as Trotsky once
noted, are not empty machines for creating form. They are living
people with psychologies that are the result of social circumstances.
Important impulses, including outrage at the crimes of the ruling
elite, propel important work. Nothing artistically serious in our day
will be accomplished without a commitment to intellectual and social truth.