Picks and Pans Review: I'm Still Here

updated 02/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Eartha Kitt

The gutsy, sexy, saber-toothed Kitt, now 62, has indeed lived, as this flamboyant 275-page autobiography proves.

Some celebrity bios make readers slog through a subject's drab childhood until his or her "genius" is finally recognized. Getting to the dirt, dish and divorces takes stamina. Not here. Kitt's early years make Oliver Twist's look like Athina Onassis's.

The product of a black mother and white father, whose identity she never learned, little Eartha Mae was called "yella gal" and shunned by her South Carolina neighbors. Kitt says she, her mother and half-sister lived for a while in a forest, surviving on wild berries. Her mother eventually ran off and left Eartha with neighbors, who subjected her to merciless beatings. At 8, she was rescued by her Aunt Mamie, who brought her to Harlem to live. In New York City, Kitt got her first break, as a dancer with the all-black Katherine Dunham Company. But it wasn't long until egos collided in Paris, where Kitt left Dunham, who had told her dancers, "I am queen of this beehive."

Eartha remained undaunted: After meeting her in Paris in 1951, Orson Welles dubbed her the most exciting woman alive. Then came her Broadway breakthrough in New Faces of l952, such coy '50s hit records as "C'est Si Bon" and "Santa Baby" and a stint as Catwoman on the Batman TV series.

In 1968 Kitt ruffled Lady Bird Johnson's feathers at a White House luncheon by criticizing the Vietnam War. LBJ, Kitt says, told the FBI to see if there was dirt to dig up about her. There wasn't. Still, from 1968 to 1974, Kitt was, she insists, blacklisted from performing in America.

Paralleling Kitt's roller-coaster career is a Big Dipper love life. She was married only once, briefly, to real estate dealer Bill McDonald, the father of her only child, a married daughter named Kitt Shapiro, now a real estate broker.

The real loves of Eartha's life were Arthur Loew Jr. (of Loew cinema fame) and cosmetic king Charles Revson. But despite long, intense relationships, she was never accepted into their upper-crust worlds. After being jilted by Loew, she says she told herself: "I must use the manure that has been thrown on me to fertilize myself and grow from seed again."

Throughout the book, protesting a bit much, Kitt reminds us that she's more than a sex symbol. While visiting Greece she reads Aristotle and Plato in front of the Parthenon. She arranges private meetings with Nehru and Einstein. In Africa she explains British foreign policy to a Nigerian presidential candidate. In Australia she speaks on behalf of the Aborigines in the House of Parliament.

Then there's Eartha the Psychic, who, just before her old dance classmate James Dean's death, told him to get rid of his sportscar because she had a premonition.

Okay, it's self-aggrandizing. But it's never dull. The book has a fabulous energy, fueled by Kitt's zest for living; this is a woman who, while living in a town house on New York's Upper East Side, stocked a refrigerator in the bathroom with Dom Perignon, reachable from the bathtub.

The survival Kitt tone never lets up, either, from the acid-tinged dedication ("To all of you who chose to be my enemies, with loving affection; to my friends—you know who you are") to the last chapter, when she writes of nearly ruining her daughter's wedding because of fear over losing her. (Watching her son-in-law stamp on a glass during the ceremony, she says, "I was that glass.")

This is Kitt's third autobiographical book—she has gotten lots of mileage from an at best limited showbiz career. But to paraphrase Stephen Sondheim: Good times and bum times/ She's seen 'em all and, my dear/ She's still here. (Sidgwick & Jackson, $20)

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