'Santa Baby' Singer Eartha Kitt Dies

'Santa Baby' Singer Eartha Kitt Dies
Eartha Kitt
Scott Gries/Getty

updated 12/25/2008 at 06:00 PM EST

originally published 12/25/2008 06:00PM

Groundbreaking actress and the sultry singer of the stylishly sexy Christmas standard "Santa Baby," Eartha Kitt, died on Christmas Day in New York City, her publicist confirmed to CNN.

Kitt, 81, had been treated for colon cancer. Her daughter Kitt Shapiro was by her side at the time of her death.

Known primarily for singing in her distinctively raspy voice and purring like a cat as Catwoman on the '60s TV series Batman, Kitt was a star of stage, the small and big screen and music. She was nominated for three Tony awards, two Grammy awards and two Emmys, according to her official Web site.

A performer to the very end, Kitt taped a PBS special in Chicago six weeks ago that is set to air in February, CNN reports.

Born Dirt Poor

Leaving the cotton fields of South Carolina at the age of 4 to go live with an aunt in New York City's Harlem, Kitt began her career after she auditioned on a dare for the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe – and landed a spot as a featured dancer and vocalist.

Touring Europe, she built a name for herself, then became famous in America when she appeared in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1952 – where she introduced "Santa Baby," as well as her other trademark songs, "C'est Si Bon" and "Monotonous."

Honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame in 1960, Kitt became infamous for speaking out against American involvement in the Vietnam War while she was at a White House luncheon in 1968. It took a good 10 years for her career to recover, and she headlined on Broadway in the musical Timbuktu!

An Icon

She also became a staple on the cabaret circuit, and toured as the Wicked Witch in a national touring production of The Wizard of Oz, based on the classic 1939 movie.

Among her other accomplishments, she wrote three autobiographies. Only last week, "Santa Baby" was certified gold.

According to her bio, Kitt lived in Connecticut near her daughter and four grandchildren. They survive her – as does her reputation as an icon.

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