Eartha Kitt Witnessed Her Own Mother's Death & Had to Pick Cotton to Feed Herself as an Orphan
Despite stealing hearts as a songstress, Eartha Kitt faced rejection her whole life because she was biracial. Officials even prevented her from learning the identity of her biological white father.
In October 2013, Eartha Kitt’s only child, Kitt Shapiro, revealed to the Guardian that her mother died without knowing who her biological white father was.
According to Shapiro, her mom was denied the truth by officials in the American Deep South. The world-famous singer came from a poor background and only discovered her date of birth when she was in her seventies.
Singer Eartha Kitt attends the launch of Sean "Diddy" Combs' new scent "Unforgivable Woman" at The House of Unforgivable on September 19, 2007 in New York City | Photo: Getty Images
Her daughter revealed that when she began her legal battle to gain access to the birth certificate, she fell victim to a cover-up by officials.
After setting eyes on her birth certificate for the first time in 1998, Kitt wept when she noticed her father’s name had been blacked out. Shapiro said in an interview with Observer:
"My mother was 71 at the time, and it was approaching the 21 century, and yet they were still protecting the name of the father even though he was dead."
An undated image of Eartha Kitt and her daughter Kitt Shapiro during NY Celebration of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella at One51 in New York City, New York | Photo: Getty Images
She said they protected the white man but would not have done the same for a black man. “The courts still held it legal to withhold the documentation. We were amazed. My mother assumed it was their dirty little secret,” she added.
Much of Kitt’s background remained a mystery for the longest time. As a result, she was even convinced that her date of birth was on January 26, 1926. The star was born in St. Matthew’s, South Carolina.
Her mother, Annie Mae Keitt, abandoned her at an early age when she found a new man and had no time for the little light-skinned Kitt.
Eartha Kitt attends the event in her honor at Cafe Carlyle on September 19, 2007 in New York City | Photo: Getty Images
Shapiro explained what being a lighter shade in color meant at the time, revealing that the black community did not even accept her mother:
"In 1927, to be a light-skinned black person in the South was just as horrible as being a black person in the white South."
She noted that the actress never found out what her father’s name was but always assumed that he was a white man, adding her mom was referred to as a “yellow gal,” which she said was not a compliment.
A portrait of American actress, dancer, activist and comedian Eartha Kitt on December 19, 1972 in the United Kingdom | Photo: Getty Images
Shapiro explained the name-calling meant someone who thought they were better than everyone else while noting that even so, her mom was only a child at the time.
She added the “Santa Baby” singer was brutally abused in her hometown, was beaten, and mistreated emotionally and physically.
She was then taken by a relative called Aunt Rosa, but she still suffered abuse under her care. From a young age, Kitt was ordered to pick cotton to feed herself as an orphan.
Pictured: An image of "Batman" star Eartha Kitt in 1961 in England | Photo: Getty Images
But her horrors were far from over because she then witnessed her mother’s death when she was around seven years old. Shapiro explained:
“She was convinced her mother was poisoned. My mother remembered being brought to her mother who was dying, and a baby got passed over her mother's body.”
She added, her mom believed that the death was not natural, claiming that it was voodoo and spiritual. Soon after her mom’s passing, Kitt was then sent to live with another relative in New York, where her life changed for the better.
A photograph of "Santa Baby" singer Eartha Kitt looking away while smiling | Photo: Getty Images
While in the Big Apple at age sixteen, the dancer won a scholarship with America’s first black modern dance company, run by Katherine Dunham. During the company’s tour to Paris and London, Kitt decided to pursue a solo career and relocated to Britain with her daughter.
One day, she was invited to give a speech at Benedict College in Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, in 1997. That was when she was redirected back to her roots.
Shapiro accompanied her, and during the ceremony, she was asked about her parents and background since it was her hometown. Kitt revealed she had attempted to find her birth certificate in the 1950s but was unsuccessful.
Musician Eartha Kitt poses on Madison Ave. October 24, 2007 in New York City | Photo: Getty Images
THE DAUNTING SEARCH
She said if anyone could help with the search, she would be grateful, and so the students found some information that eventually led the mother and daughter back to the South.
Shapiro shared she and her mom had to get a lawyer and petition the court to get the records opened, and the entire process took about six to seven months. They again flew down to see the documents but were only granted 15 minutes to go through them.
The actress explained how her mother felt anxious and was quiet just before they saw everything, and when they eventually did, Kitt teared up after not seeing her father’s name, and then it was all over.
An undated picture of Hollywood star, Eartha Kitt striking a pose on top of leopard skin | Photo: Getty Images
THE SAD REALITY
A British journalist named John Williams wrote a biography about her titled “America’s Mistress: Eartha Kitt, Her Life and Times” and claimed Kitt’s dad was Daniel Sturkie, a local white doctor.
Shapiro said the name did ring a bell because she and her mom were told he was part of the local white families. However, she noted she could not recall whether they ever suggested that he might have been the father as many names came up.
Shapiro believes her mom’s failure to find out about her origins negatively impacted her relationship with her hometown and her own identity, adding Kitt never felt comfortable in her skin because she never knew who she was until then.
Eartha Kitt arrives at the after party for "The Public Sings: A 50th Anniversary Celebration" at the Time Warner Center January 30, 2006 in New York City | Photo: Getty Images
The activist did not even know how old she was and had always filled in January 26 on her passport, whereas she was born on January 17, 1927.
Earlier this year, 60-year-old Shapiro shared what her mother taught her about race and detailed the superstar’s role as a mom in her new book titled “Eartha & Kitt.”
Eartha Kitt gets a hug from her daughter, Kitt Shapiro, after Eartha's opening night performance at the Cafe Carlyle on January 6 | Photo: Getty Images
LESSONS FROM MOM
Shapiro said her mother used to tuck her in every night and that she was honest and grounded. She added she was very proud of her as her daughter:
“She was always a mother first. She was proudest of me, and I don’t say that in an egotistical way.”
Shapiro also discussed the lessons she learned from her parent from a young age, especially regarding race. “She felt that boxes keep you apart,” she noted.
An undated image of songstress Eartha Kitt and her 6-year-old daughter Kitt McDonald leaving Central Receiving Hospital after they and producer Lamont Johnson were involved in a car wreck | Photo: Getty Images
Shapiro explained that her mom did not understand why it was necessary to be categorized as jazz or gospel because she was a black person. She noted her mom did not discriminate against other people.
Shapiro herself emphasized that people should not be discriminated against purely because of the color of their skin. She also recalled an unfortunate incident during a trip to a South African theme park.
While Shapiro was allowed access, when she came with her mom, Kitt was asked to leave because it was a whites-only park. Shapiro said she could not understand at the time why her mother left without causing a scene.
Eartha Kitt and daughter Kitt Shapiro pictured all smiles on June 29, 1992 | Photo: Getty Images
She added Kitt chose not to react because she knew that she would have a platform as a public figure to make a difference one day. She eventually became a leading light in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
However, when she condemned the Vietnam war on a visit to the White House, her career in the United States ended drastically. Still, she managed to relaunch it in Europe after moving to London with her daughter.
Sadly, Kitt died on Christmas Day, December 25, 2008, from colon cancer, her longtime publicist Andrew E. Freedman revealed at the time. She was 81 years old and lived in Connecticut.
Eartha Kitt and her husband William McDonald are all smiles as they debut their 4 day old baby girl named Kitt, whom they welcomed on November 27, 1961 at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital | Photo; Getty Images
The comedienne shared her daughter Shapiro with her ex-husband Bill McDonald, a white businessman. The former couple tied the knot in 1960 and divorced in 1964.
Kitt was dubbed the “most exciting woman in the world” by Orson Welles. Her career in showbiz, which started in the late ’40s, spanned six decades.
She became famous in Paris as a nightclub singer and returned to the US to appear in films and on Broadway. Kitt was best known for her memorable role as Catwoman in the 1960’s TV show “Batman” and her holiday song “Santa Baby.”
Eartha Kitt pictured side by side with her only daughter Kitt Shapiro | Photo: Getty Images
BEING MY MOTHER’S VOICE
With her now gone, her daughter shared why she decided to be her voice in an interview with Madamenoire in May 2021. Shapiro released a memoir about her and her mom ahead of Mother’s Day.
When asked why she decided to write a biography based on her mom, Shapiro said it took a while for her to realize that she is the only voice left of her mom in many ways.
She explained that she is a direct connection to what she achieved in her career. Moreso, Shapiro stated the more she faces the public, the more she gets disappointed by things people say about her and her mom.
Eartha Kitt at home with daughter Kitt Shapiro and grandaughter Rachel Shapiro for People in April 1999 in Weston, Connecticut | Photo: Getty Images
She revealed they do not believe that she is her biological daughter because she does not look like her simply because her skin color is lighter.
Shapiro added that her mother did not like it when people pigeonhole one another and categorize each other making such comments.
She said that she was reluctant to be outspoken like her mother for the longest time but that now things have changed, and she believes people need to be given a reality check.
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