NEW YORK - Eartha Kitt, 81, a sultry singer, dancer and actress who rose from South Carolina cotton fields to become an international symbol of elegance and sensuality, died of colon cancer yesterday in Connecticut, family spokesman Andrew Freedman said.
A self-proclaimed "sex kitten" famous for her catlike purr, Ms. Kitt 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 as she neared 80.
When her book
, a guide to staying fit, was published in 2001, she was featured on the cover in a long, 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 rich and famous men peppered her younger years.
After becoming a hit singing "Monotonous" in the Broadway revue
New Faces of 1952
, Ms. Kitt appeared in the show
in 1954-55. (Some references say she earned a Tony nomination for
, but only winners were publicly announced then.) She also appeared in
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 golddigger's theme song "Santa Baby," which is revived on radio each Christmas. The next year, the record company released a follow-up album,
That Bad Eartha
In 1996, Ms. Kitt was nominated for a Grammy for traditional pop vocal performance for her album
Back in Business
. Previously, she was nominated for a children's recording for
Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa
In movies, Ms. Kitt played the lead female role opposite Nat King Cole in
St. Louis Blues
in 1958 and more recently was in
Harriet the Spy
in the 1990s.
She was the sexy Catwoman on the popular
TV series in 1967-68, replacing Julie Newmar, who originated the role. A guest appearance on
brought her an Emmy nomination in 1966.
Ms. Kitt was plainspoken about causes she believed in. Her antiwar comments at the White House came at a 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, which allegedly found her to be foul-mouthed and promiscuous.
"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," she told Essence magazine two decades later.
In 1978, Ms. Kitt returned to Broadway in
- which brought her a Tony nomination - and was invited back to the White House by President Jimmy Carter. In 2000, she earned another Tony nod for
The Wild Party.
As recently as October 2003, she was on Broadway after replacing Chita Rivera in a revival of
She was married for several years in the 1960s to developer Bill McDonald, with whom she had a daughter, Kitt. They later divorced. Ms. Kitt is survived by her daughter and two grandchildren.