Eartha Kitt: A Blank Canvas

Eartha Kitt captured by Gordon Parks

Conversations with Eartha Kitt (Hotel Carlyle, New York, 1998 and 1999)  and Tennessee Williams (New Orleans, 1982)

Conducted by James Grissom

In March of 1998, I began working as a front-desk clerk at the Hotel Carlyle, where I remained for two rich and tumultuous years. Within the first few weeks of my employment, two wonderful night managers--Paul Goldenberg and Hector Ruiz--pulled me away from the desk and walked me across the hotel's polished lobby and positioned me in the rear of the Café Carlyle so that I could watch the performance of Eartha Kitt, who, along with Bobby Short, was one of the hotel's most beloved entertainers.

Paul Goldenberg had been a manager of clubs and hotels for many years, and he knew comedians, singers, managers. Paul was terribly generous in introducing me to people who were part of the nascent Follies of God, and when he heard that Tennessee Williams had made comments about Eartha Kitt, he wasted no time in letting this be known, and he delivered the typed pages to her suite himself. Hector Ruiz charmingly told Kitt that she had a fan at the front desk, and within a few days she--along with her two poodles--appeared in front of me requesting some time for us to talk about this "marvelous nonsense."

I had a good rapport with Kitt, and I am sure it had a lot to do with the fact that I came bearing quotes from Tennessee Williams, but she was also relieved that I did not come to her for gossip or to exhume old stories or rumors or grudges. I came to her with Tenn's very specific questions and concerns. "You make me think," Kitt told me, "and I appreciate that. I really didn't want to dislike your style or your work, because, you know, you're family. You're right downstairs."

One of her first questions to me was about her show. Had I liked it? Yes, I replied. Why? she insisted.

While the order of Kitt's show always remained virtually the same, there were variations, and they could be shocking, because she responded--quickly and astutely--to whatever her audiences or her musicians delivered to her. Kitt could pick up on the energy, the desires, the thoughts of her audience, and alter the tempo of a song or the placement of an anecdote, and the evening would be transformed. One one of the evenings I watched her show, a gentleman at what she called ringside, picked up an enormous hamburger and began eating it, as well as stabbing his french fries into a tureen of ketchup, aggressively stabbing the potatoes deep into the liquid. Kitt watched this for a moment, her eyes flared, then she smiled. The room was aware of her focus, and they decided to share it with her. Kitt then launched into an anecdote--which normally arrived later in the evening--about the rapture she knew when, in Paris, she went to a particular café that served an authentic, juicy, American hamburger. "It's marvelous isn't it?" she asked the man. "Enjoy it!" At which point she ripped into a song with the gusto of a woman who had consumed all the beef in the world.

Kitt remembered the moment well.

"I didn't know what to do at first," Kitt told me. "The hamburger--and the man--were huge, and they were right there. But I've always believed that you take what you are given and make it work, and it did. Everything works if you look at it the right way. Not all challenges are obstacles or roadblocks. They're very often the very thing you prayed for."

She quickly asked me to read aloud Tenn's comments on her, to which she promised to reply. Here they are:

Eartha Kitt captured by Carl Van Vechten

I would imagine that she is tired of such analogies, but she is so deeply in control of her talent, but she then unleashes it as if it were a wild, caged animal, so happy to be running free on the soft grass that is any stage on which she steps, over which she has so much power and to which she commits so much emotional loyalty.

My writing is a salvation for me, and I feel that performing is the same for her. I think she would die if she could not tell the stories that her life has produced within and around her, and which improve the world in which she now lives. I have never seen her give anything but her all to anything she does. She is a fulsome performer, and a truthful one, and while the vessel from which she pours this art and this biography is one that is beautiful and exotic and trained to transmit everything to the final seat in the house, the message from that vessel is private and sincere and almost personalized.

What I am describing to you, of course, is an artist. 

Eartha Kitt is an artist.

Eartha Kitt listened to these notes again, inhaled deeply, and responded.

These are wonderful, moving words, and I am honored and humbled by them, but I do not think about myself--on the stage or off--with as much intensity as Tennessee did. I don't think that I could: I think it would stifle me or make me too self-conscious. I just do the work, you know? As I prepare the work and prepare myself, I know that I have a relationship with every single person who has shown up to see me and to see a performance, and I am devoted to that relationship. I give of myself, but I don't know how I do things once I'm up there, once I'm uncaged, as he put it. I don't know what I am going to say to you from moment to moment. I sang the National Anthem a few weeks ago, and that is a hard song to sing, and I didn't know how I would do it, but I got there and I heard the sounds of the crowd and I heard those notes, and by God, I was a strong American and I sang that song with a lot of force! I became very patriotic through that song, but until I got there and saw the people and heard the sounds, I didn't know how I would approach it.

Truth--or my truth--happens in real time. I don't plan it; I don't anticipate it. The man eats the hamburger, and I figure out in that moment how to deal with it or ignore it. A chord goes somewhere it never should, and I handle it. I'm in a relationship, and you go with the flow. You ride a wave. You respond.

Acting is a relationship of words and people and the human heart, and you don't know where it's going to go, but you keep yourself strong and alert to go wherever you have to. I admit to you that I don't know where I'm going to go, but I can assure you, I promise you, that I have the energy and the supplies--the emotional and mental supplies--to go the distance.

Singing is acting to music, and it has to be as truthful and as daring and as loving as acting. For me there is no difference in the approach, only in the execution. I'm giving as much as I can and as much as I have no matter what I'm doing or where I'm doing it.

Tennessee and I shared, I think, an early life in which we were unloved by some and loathed by others, and our work raises us up from this reality, but the reality is the foundation on which all of our work--all of our lives--is built. I cannot escape the truth of my past, but I can learn from it and rise above it in a way that everyone watching me can forget for a minute and rise above their own scars and regrets and painful lessons. But I would never say we should erase the pain and the lessons: They are what make us who and what we are. I own my rejections and my abuses with pride: This is my story. I put my life to good use, and I'm going to keep trying to do that.

Every single day that comes to us--and every single person or group of persons--that come before us should be looked at as a sort of canvas stretched out and blank and waiting for the paint and the moves we're going to place on it. It's all blank; it's all empty. That can be scary--for a second. Then you gather your strength and your courage and your paint and you spread it out and around. I don't know what the colors will be or where I'll throw them or smear them, but I've got them, and I'm going to carry them forward to all the blank canvases that await me.

I know that Tennessee called his blank page the pale judgment, and we all face those, every day. I wish he were here. I wish I could tell him that I have my paint, I have my strength, and he has his words and his lovely, lovely eyes, and we're going to fill those blank spaces every day.

Every single day.

©  2014  James Grissom



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