*According to her daughter, Eartha Kitt went to her grave at 81 without knowing the identity of her white father; due to officials in the American Deep South keeping it a secret from her.
Kitt, once called the “most exciting woman in the world,” led an extraordinary life as a world-famous singer and dancer, but her life really came under spotlight five years after her death with the biography “America’s Mistress: Eartha Kitt, Her Life and Times” by British journalist John Williams.
So much of her life was a complete mystery as she only found her true date of birth when she was 71. Her daughter, Kitt Shapiro, in an interview with The Guardian, says her mother was denied access to her birth certificate up until then and had to even go through legal procedures to try to gain access.
Kitt’s mother, Annie Mae Keitt, abandoned her daughter at an early age when she found a new man with little time for the light-skinned Eartha.
Shapiro, who now lives in Connecticut, said: “In 1927, to be a light- skinned black person in the South was just as horrible as being a black person in the white South. My mother was not accepted by the black community.”
She added: “She never found out her father’s name, but always assumed he was white. My mother was referred to as a ‘yellow gal’, which was not a compliment. It meant someone who thought they were better than everyone else even though my mother was just a child at the time. She was horribly abused in the South. She was beaten, mistreated, emotionally and physically.”
“It was like much of my mother’s life, it was just a case of a door opening. She was invited to speak at this college and I went down with her. During the speech someone asked her about her background and parents since she was from the area. My mother said that she had tried to find her birth certificate during the 1950s but was unsuccessful,” Shapiro shared.
“She said if anyone can find it, then she would be most grateful. So the kids found some information that eventually led us going back down to the South.”
She added: “We had to get a lawyer and petition the court to get the records opened and this took about six to seven months. We flew down to see the records but were allowed just 15 minutes … She was very nervous and outside the judge’s chambers she went quiet. She was visibly nervous about what she was going to see. I knew the signs because before she went on stage she was always terrified. It was a female judge who stepped aside while we read the records on her desk. The father’s name was blacked out. My mother shed a few tears and then the 15 minutes was up.”
According to Williams, Kitt’s father was a local white doctor name Daniel Sturkie, but Shapiro said: “I do remember the name because we were told they were one of the local white families, but I cannot recall whether it was suggested he was the father. There were a lot of names.”
Kitt’s daughter worked for her for over 20 years and believes that her inability to figure out her origin has a lot to do with her issues with the South and her own identity. “My mother never really felt comfortable in her own skin because she never really knew who she was until then. She did not even know how old she was. She had always put 26 January 1926 on her passport, but actually she was born on 17 January 1927.”
“To some extent, I think my arrival completed her because it gave her a family that she never had.”
For more on Eartha Kitt’s story go to The Guardian.