Friday, December 26, 2008

Eartha Kitt survived from dirt

Ten years ago, I read an interview that haunted me. Yesterday Eartha Kitt died.

excerpts from:
Kitt's yellow brick road marked by constant rejection
BY JAN WONG, 4 June 1998, The Globe and Mail,C1

... Her cafe-au-lait skin is gently wrinkled. Asked whether she considers herself black or white, she arches her back like an angry cat. "I have no colour," she says. "I have no race. I was given away because I was mulatto."

Rejection has scarred her life. Cosmetics tycoon Charles Revson loved her, but feared shareholders would dump his stock. Cinema-chain heir Arthur Loew Jr., couldn't defy his mother. He married Tyrone Power's widow instead.

In 1968, even her country rejected her. Kitt was blackballed after criticizing the Vietnam War at a White House luncheon given by Lady Bird Johnson. Work dried up at home for the next 12 years.

"Those hurts never go away. That's why I'm so grateful to the public. Because they became my family. And they make me feel wanted. Going on stage, I'm a nervous wreck, because I never want to be rejected again."

She relaxes when her salad arrives. At home in Bedford, N.Y., Kitt eats her own produce -- garlic, tomatoes, squash, collard greens. Her only hired help is for her large garden...

Kitt thinks her father might have been a plantation owner's son. When her mother, a Cherokee-black, wanted to marry another black, the man objected to Kitt's light skin. So her mother gave her away.

She was maybe six. "Old enough to remember everything in detail," Kitt says. She only recently discovered her actual age after a professor in her native South Carolina assigned students the project of unearthing her birth certificate.

She lived with a black family, but they weren't relatives. They abused her sexually and sent her to pick cotton for a penny a pound.

She remembers hunger, too. "I'd follow the birds and snakes, the deer, and ate whatever they ate." She survived on wild grapes and scallions, dandelions, hickory nuts and the soft inner leaf of cattails. She sucked the sour juice from a purple-flowering weed.

Two years later, she was sent to New York to live with someone else, who beat her. So did other kids at school. "Nobody wants you if you're a yella gal, because you don't fit in. And because you're illegitimate."

She ran away repeatedly. She snagged loose change from under subway grates, using sticks primed with gum. She slept in subways and on rooftops.

That's why today she supports Green Chimney, which teaches ghetto kids how to grow food. It's also why she went to South Africa before the end of apartheid, and stood on the street, signing autographs for one rand each, eventually raising enough money to build two schools...

She orders a bowl of blackberries. She picks one up, musing, "I lived on these when the family I was with didn't have enough," she says as the waiter adds the olive oil to The Globe's tab.

"Diamonds and fur are wonderful, but give me land. I know how to survive from dirt."

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