Pop Culture

C’est Si Bon: Eartha Kitt’s Transformative Life

Despite his condescension, the two grew close, with a silent Kitt eagerly soaking up Welles’ vast knowledge of Shakespeare and Goethe. In Confessions of a Sex Kitten, she recalls “the thrill of Orson walking me to the Plaza Athénée along the Champs-Élysées after dinner…often in the haunting spell of a rising sun when Paris was really in her glory of beauty.”

But it wasn’t all romance and culture. As Kitt notes pointedly, she adored Orson “in spite of himself.” Welles grew jealous of Kitt’s rave reviews and would often purposely block her with his enormous frame on stage. During one performance, he suddenly bit her lip during a scripted kiss, drawing blood “like a vampire.” He then ran off stage, forcing Kitt to perform a song with blood running down her chin. After the curtain call, a fuming Kitt ran backstage:

I had a feeling Orson would dart away as quickly as he could, and he did. I ran to his dressing room and caught him just before he could get inside and close the door. The cast were hysterical as they watched this five-feet-two-inches tall creature pound Orson on his giant-size humungous chest, her feet rising off the floor as she demanded, “Why did you bite me?” Orson took both my hands in his and picked me up till my feet were off the floor again, saying, “I got excited.” We all laughed.

But despite their crackling chemistry, Kitt claims their relationship was strictly platonic. “There was a love affair going on between Orson and me…but it was not sexual,” she wrote wryly. “Maybe this is why Orson said I was the most exciting woman in the world, as he was never given a chance to find out how unexciting I might have been in bed.”

Jamie

Perhaps no man meant more to Kitt than her great friend James Dean. “Our souls were mates,” she wrote. Both were intellectuals and loners making a living in extroverted, razzle-dazzle show business. Kitt found in Dean a “giver who wanted to receive, to be stimulated, to be ignited, to spark in order to spark.” She credited Dean with helping her understand “that all was okay in me, that I need not be afraid of myself or my ability to think and use my thinking to challenge others.”

The duo spent hours together dancing, listening to records, and talking their problems out. “We would ride up and down Sunset Boulevard on his motorbike,” she wrote, “often stopping to rest on a park bench around Sunset and Vine…or in downtown where the night people roam. People-watching; winos and junkies, workers, street cleaners, night workers, prostitutes. We watched for character study, most of the time in silence.” 

While filming his last film, 1956’s Giant, Dean often complained to Kitt about his costars Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. “How can you create a character when you are working with plastic?” he asked. In the weeks before his tragic death, Kitt was plagued by disturbing premonitions. During a long hug with Dean, Kitt exclaimed, “What have they done to you? I can’t feel you, your spirit is gone.” Dean laughed. “Ah, Kitt, you’re on one of your voodoo trips again.” Later, when taking a drive on Mulholland Drive in his new Porsche Spyder, she was again filled with dread. “Jamie, I don’t like this car, it’s going to kill you,” she said.

Again, Dean laughed. Not long after, it did.

Degrees of Friendliness

Kitt was rarely in awe of her fellow celebrities. When she first met Sammy Davis Jr. backstage in San Francisco, she mistook him for an errand boy. “Very nice to meet you,” she said. “Would you please get me some coffee?”

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