This Is Planet Eartha:
NY Press Nightclubbing Column #3 with Miss Kitt

by Tony Phillips

“It’s the excitement you miss,” Eartha Kitt says of the Harlem she moved to from a South Carolina cotton plantation at age eight. “New York scared the hell out of me,” she recalls, “what did I know from skyscrapers and high rises?” She finds the new Harlem no less worrisome. “What about those people who are being displaced?” Miss Kitt asks. “Where will they go? Frank Lloyd Wright said cities are moving in the direction of housing only the very rich and the very poor. Unfortunately, New York moving in that direction as well.”

We chat on the eve of her 79th birthday, but talk about the 2006 Nightlife Awards at Town Hall on February 6th. On that occasion, Miss Kitt won’t go home alone, but rather with the Nightlife Legend award firmly in tow. “It’s nice to be recognized for something you’ve been doing all your life,” Miss Kitt begins, unleashing her trademark purr. But when asked for the ne plus ultra of a lifetime after dark, she doesn’t hesitate to name The Plaza’s glamorous supper club. “The Persian Room was Beluga caviar and champagne,” Miss Kitt remembers, “and women who looked like they just fell out of Vogue, on the arms of men who looked like they just fell out of, well, wherever men fall out of.”

The Nightlife Awards bill themselves as “pure entertainment” and promise “no acceptances speeches,” but in the case of Miss Kitt — who famously endured an industry blacklist after telling Lady Bird Johnson to step off over Vietnam at a 1968 White House luncheon — one can’t help but wonder about the speech. “I don’t know,” Miss Kitt replies, “I couldn’t really thank my mother and father, because I am an orphan. I suppose I would thank my daughter and, of course, my audience. They have never stopped supporting me over the years. That’s the one thing that doesn’t scare me about New York. I walk down the street and they see me and I see them. We have a little chat and we are on our way.”

This keep it moving ethic might be the secret to Miss Kitt’s success. She rattles off a succession of upcoming engagements including the Café Carlyle in April, then deadpans, “I really don’t like to travel much anymore. I’ve been around the world, but it’s always New York I come home to.” She’ll be doing just that in the weeks leading up to her Town Hall engagement. A new John Kander Broadway musical of Thorton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth is in the works. “We’re going to get together around a table and read it,” she says, “then we’ll see what happens.” And nightlife? Miss Kitt bristles at even the term. “In my day,” she says, “we called it cabaret. And people dressed. You left your tracksuits at home.” And that’s where she’ll be happy to squirrel away her award, but not to collect dust on her mantle. “Oh, no,” Miss Kitt purrs again, “I am going to put it at the head of my bed under my wishing pillow.”