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At an amusement park in South Africa.

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Keeping Eartha's Story Alive

"Eartha & Kitt: A Daughter's Love Story in Black and White"

Eartha Kitt is, arguably, one of the most important women in modern history. The new memoir, Eartha & Kitt, written by her daughter, Kitt Shapiro, is a moving reflection of their life as a family of two. Mother and daughter shared experiences as improbable as Eartha’s own rise from starvation to star, and Kitt’s unique perspective creates a portrait of an international entertainment icon that’s humorous, poignant, and memorable.

Excerpt from Chapter 18, Growing Pains

I remember that she put out an outfit for me once, and I just refused to put it on. She was not happy because she had gone to great lengths to go to some fancy store and purchase these clothes for me. We were going somewhere and it was important that I look nice. I was only about eight or nine. She became so upset that I finally said, “Fine!” Then I stormed off and put the outfit on, and when I came back in, she saw that I was, in fact, right. It was hideous.

She broke into hysterical laughter. For years after that, she would recount the story of how, even at a very young age, I had known that outfit was dreadful and had refused to be seen in it. But from that day forward, she decided that I knew what looked good on me and I could be trusted to know what to wear . . . and what not to wear.

After that, I would put unexpected pieces together and mix interesting colors, or put on a pin or throw a scarf around my neck, and my mother would always say to people, “Kitt has such an incredible sense of fashion! She really has her own style.” I would beam with pride because, since I carried my mother’s name, it was one of the ways I could demonstrate my individuality. And my mother encouraged that. My self-expression. My individuality. Even when I was an adult, she would often say to me, “You find the coolest-looking things to wear that work so well for you.” Then again, if I offered to buy one of those “cool” things for her, she would say, “No, that’s OK.” She, too, knew what fashion pieces suited her.

When I had kids of my own, I quickly learned that empowering your children with the freedom to make their own choices is not always easy to do. Sometimes my daughter would put together the craziest outfits. I remember my husband once saying about one of them, “You can’t let her go out like that!” And I remember thinking, “It’s not my style. But my style wasn’t my mother’s style, either.” I now realize how difficult it must have been for my mother to hold her tongue about some of my wardrobe decisions. But, as I have noted, she understood the value of being able to keep her mouth shut.

Excerpt from CHAPTER 25, An Unwelcome Blast from the Past

Yet no matter how far she had come, Eartha Mae always remained at the core of Eartha Kitt. Eartha Kitt had been built on that foundation. My mother never let go of that pain, in part because she didn’t want to. She wanted to remember who she was and where she was from.

She would use it to her advantage, keeping it under her control. Not only did it help her relate to song lyrics and characters that she might play when she was working, but it was why she always felt compelled to LISTEN when people would share their life stories with her. The pain from her past was always there right beneath the surface.

“Why would you want to hold on to something that’s so painful? That’s toxic?” I would ask her.

And she would say, “I don’t think that pain is toxic. It’s WHO I am!It’s a part of me.” Her having coined the phrase, “I have taken all of the manure that has been thrown at me all my life and used it as fertilizer” couldn’t have been more spot on!

Back in 1954, she had starred in Mrs. Patterson on Broadway, portraying a young Black woman in the South who dreams of being wealthy. Summoning the pain that she still felt inside had made that character a little too real for my mother. When the play opened to stellar reviews, those memories made her feel uncomfortable and unworthy of her success.

“Eartha Kitt was being accepted in the civilized world of luxury and comfort, but could Eartha Mae be accepted also?” she later wrote. “Eartha Mae is a child of the dirt, she knows how to survive there, she knows poverty and rejection. She thinks once given away she will always be given away.”

That continuing fear of rejection was often hard for my mother to quiet inside herself. Eartha Mae had a way of rising to the surface unexpectedly, as she had, to the extreme, that night after the show at Carnegie Hall. When that would happen, my mother felt worthless and rejected all over again. Despite all of her success, she continued to struggle with the feeling that she didn’t really belong.

Excerpt from Chapter 36, Curtain Call

By now, my mother had lost her speech entirely. She had stopped speaking about two days earlier. But she had still remained alert. Her eyes were wide open. I could tell if she was hungry, or if she wanted water. And she could still comprehend me and make her needs known.

She could also still make herself heard. And that’s what she was doing right now, loud and clear. She literally left this earth screaming at the top of her lungs.

Tears were streaming down her face. And she was screaming with this sort of—this primal, animal-like sound. It was intense! That’s when I realized that she was actually going. Going now. But not willingly. And not quietly, for sure.

In typical mother-daughter fashion, I soon began screaming right back at her. “You can go!” I cried, my lips close to her ear, holding her to me with all my might.

“You can go!” I kept yelling again and again as I wept. “I’ll be all right! I’ll be all right!” Because it suddenly became clear to me that she had been waiting. Waiting until I wasn’t alone. Now that Allan was there with me, she could die. I wasn’t going to be alone.

It was an incredibly emotional moment, with these fierce, guttural sounds coming out of my mother as she screamed at the top of her lungs. Then, all of a sudden, she fell silent. And I knew that she was gone.


Silence. Complete silence. From all three of us.

“Is she . . . dead?” I sobbed to Allan.

“I don’t know,” he said, equally stunned. We both looked at each other, bewildered. We didn’t know what to do next. That’s when I said, “Well, whoever is at those pearly gates waiting for her, they are going to get quite a handful. Because she is not coming peacefully, that’s for sure!”

Maybe I was in shock. Maybe it was disbelief. Or maybe I was able to joke, even at that moment, because as I said, my mother had taught me to find the humor in everything.

Excerpted from Eartha & Kitt: A Daughter’s Love in Black and White by Kitt Shapiro and Patricia Weiss Levy. Published by Pegasus Books. © Kitt Shapiro and Patricia Weiss Levy. All rights reserved.

Eartha & Kitt: A Daughter's Love Story in Black and White

Available online and in stores.

  • Kitt as a newborn.
  • Catching a flight.
  • Eartha and Kitt.
  • Never too big for a hug.
  • At an amusement park in South Africa.
  • Piggy backing.
  • Eartha at a Hollywood movie premiere.
  • Grandma Nora, Aunt Evelyn holding Kitt, Eartha,, and Jean Pomier, a family friend.
  • Eartha and husband, Kitt's father John McDonald.
  • Kitt's memoir.