The Wonderful World of Wanzie: Wanzie wishes you an Eartha Kitt Christmas

If you were Voguing in the early 90s you likely associate “Santa Baby,” the iconic song of Christmas greed, with Madonna’s 1987 version. Those a bit younger might be more familiar with the more recent version by Kylie Minogue or Gwen Stefani.

No matter how enjoyable any of the enumerable covers may be, none holds a Christmas candle to the original 1953 debut so slowly and provocatively sung by that raspy-voiced enigma that was the late, great Eartha Kitt.

The outspoken Kitt made a name for herself as an activist and champion of the civil rights movement while simultaneously making her mark on Broadway, in nightclubs and on TV. Kitt openly welcomed and respected her considerable gay fan base, even performing a concert at the Parliament House.

Back in the 60s, Kitt replaced Julie Newmar as Catwoman on TV’s campy “Batman” during its final season. Much like their parents before them, kids were captivated by Kitt’s signature cat-like purr and that inimitable warble-throated voice.

It was at this point, the height of her fame, that Kitt would receive the invitation that would change her life. In 1968, Kitt was invited to join other prominent woman at The White House for a ladies luncheon to discuss juvenile delinquency and its related crime. When word reached Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that Kitt intended to refuse the invitation as a means of protesting the Vietnam War, the great civil rights crusader contacted Kitt personally and asked her to please reconsider. Kitt reticently accepted the invitation.

On that fateful day, The White House sent a limousine to transport Kitt to the luncheon. Kitt felt guilty for riding in it as she viewed the limo as an unnecessary extravagance. She was further put off by the extravagance of the meal and elaborate floral centerpieces, all while so many of her people — especially in the Deep South — were living in squalor, many literally starving. Kitt was also becoming livid over the vapid lady-like conversations taking place about everything but the topic that was meant to be the central theme of the whole affair.

When President Johnson made an unexpected appearance and stood next to his hostess wife, Lady Bird Johnson, the attendees fawned over him further incensing Kitt. Kitt waived her hand and asked why the Army seemed to be systemically deploying mostly black soldiers to the forefront of the fighting in the Vietnam War? The president excused himself without comment but Kitt laid into the First Lady. Lady Bird burst into tears and abruptly left the room. Kitt was collectively shunned by the other women. After the luncheon, as limos pulled away with each of the guests, Kitt sat alone, the last person to be called. As she exited, she realized the uniformed men were gone and there, under the White House portico, was a D.C. taxi cab. She opened the door herself and stepped in.

Back at her hotel the singer found dozens of phone messages and telegrams informing her that, due to her flagrant disrespect shown to Lady Bird Johnson and her lack of support for our troops, her scheduled appearances had all been canceled. In one afternoon she had effectively been blacklisted. Unable to earn a living in the U.S. she moved to France to sing in nightclubs.

I loved Kitt long before I read about this incident but became an absolutely devoted fan once I learned of her comments. To me, she was a national hero. So you can imagine my delight when Epcot booked my beloved Kitt to narrate The Candlelight Processional. My friend Sam Singhaus went with me to see her. It was a bit surreal hearing Catwoman snarl, growl and warble her way through the story of the Nativity. Her appearance was not long after 9/11 unleashed its own brand of senseless acts of violence and discrimination against anyone who appeared to be Middle Eastern.

At the end of the processional, this beautiful soul looked out over the sea of people and said (and I’m quoting this from memory so it is not exact): “Tonight I recounted the story of the birth of Christ, but you don’t have to be a Christian to benefit from this story and its goal of peace on earth, good will toward men. Today, more than ever, it doesn’t matter what religion you practice. You don’t have to believe that Christ is your God in order to do good and be good to one another.”

Tears ran down my face as Sam and I leapt to our feet in applause. We were stunned to see that only a fraction of the 1,800 seated stood with us. We were surrounded by angry, stern-faced Christians who remained seated, defiantly withholding their applause.

As we exited there was a cacophony of voices loudly criticizing Kitt and sating their intention to register their disgust with Disney over her egregious remarks. It was unsettling to feel the palpable hostility in the air over what we thought was a meaningful and beautiful message. That night and incident will always remain one of my favorite, albeit most disturbing, Christmas memories thanks to Kitt.

Of all the various recordings of “Santa Baby” I love Kitt’s version best and her appearance at the Candlelight Processional is thus far my favorite I have watched. Sadly there’s another connection between Kitt and Christmas; after suffering the effects of colon cancer, the disease claimed her life on Dec. 25, 2008.

Kitt entertained three generations of fans to great delight and she spoke her mind at both the White House and at Epcot. My hope this Christmas is that we all take to heart the words she spoke more than a decade ago and that we all pull together in the spirit of “peace on Earth, good will toward men.”

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