Friday, December 26, 2008

Pop Culture Heroes: Eartha Kitt

But she took the steeliness with her, in a willful, outspoken manner that mostly served her career, except once. In 1968 she was invited to a White House luncheon and was asked by Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War. She replied: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” The remark reportedly caused Mrs. Johnson to burst into tears and led to a derailment in Ms. Kitt’s career. (New York Times, Dec. 25.)

Which contemporary pop culture icon will have the guts to bring such a message to Mrs. Obama, regarding Afghanistan?

Incidentally, Eartha had a minor hit in 1953 with the song "Uska Dara (A Turkish Tale)," sung in part in Turkish, and based on a Turkish folksong. (Download here.) It must be the only US hit sung in Turkish?

UPDATE, Jan. 9: I just found this excerpt from an interview with Eartha Kitt, published in Re/Search 14, Incredibly Strange Music Vol. I, which elaborates on the Lady Bird incident:

RE/Search: When you were invited to a White House luncheon, didn't you cause a scandal?

EARTHA KITT: In 1968, during the Vietnam War, I was invited by Lady Bird Johnson to give my opinion about the problems in the United States, specifically, "Why is there so much juvenile delinquency in the streets of America?" The First Lady seemed to be more interested in decorating the windows of the ghettos with flowerboxes. I mean—it's fine to put flowers in the ghettos, but let's take care of the necessities first: give people jobs, and find a way to get us out of poverty.

When it came my turn to speak, I said to the president's wife, "Vietnam is the main reason we are having trouble with the youth of America. It is a war without explanation or reason." I said that the young ghetto boys thought it better to have a legal stigma against them—then they would be considered "undesirable" and would not be sent to the war. In their opinion, in this society the good guys lost and the bad guys won.

I didn't say this ranting and raving, but we were in a large room, we didn't have microphones, and we had to speak loudly enough to be heard. That incident, reported in such a way as to deface me in the eyes of the American people, obviously had to have been given by someone from the White House—probably the press secretary: "Earth Kitt makes the First Lady cry..." There were no reporters present! So this was a manufactured furor.

R/S: Didn't you suffer because of this?

EK: Of course—within two hours I was out of work in America.



Anonymous said...


Ted Swedenburg said...

thanks, i fixed it.