Eartha Kitt and the economy of desire

Martha Ullman West reminded us below in the comment section that Harold Pinter wasn’t the only death of a prominent artist over the holidays. Eartha Kitt departed, too. I imagine her in a heaven populated by Wall Street plutocrats, seducing a healthy portion of their ill-gotten gains out of them, though how the plutocrats got there in the first place, I have no idea — maybe they were just placed there to please Eartha. That’s not an electrical storm in the sky, that’s just Eartha Kitt sizzling.

When Ms. Kitt (to adopt New York Times formality for once, because frankly, it just feels right) was in the fullness of her celebrity-hood, in the ’50s and early ’60s, I didn’t quite get it. I was just too young. So yes, I remember her Catwoman turn on the old TV Batman and occasional turns on the variety shows of the time, to which my parents were addicted — the Dean Martin show maybe? Andy Williams? Or was she too hot for Andy? Probably. Because I followed politics and the Vietnam War, I remember her protest in LBJ’s White House. Her honesty extended beyond her frankness about all things sexual, apparently.

The New York Times obituary by Stephen Holden this morning connected a lot of the dots, or at least suggested what a lot of the dots were — Mae West on one end of her life and Madonna on the other, and then mostly European (or Europe-based) chanteuses, Josephine Baker and Edith Piaf, in the middle. I liked his description of sitting a little too close to the stage one night and falling under Ms. Kitt’s gaze — intense, frightening, captivating.

How much of this was representation, an elaborate and effective role-playing game, and how much was real? I suspect it was mostly enacted, the specifics anyway, though not the edge, the anger, the idea that “you have made me into this and now you will pay” she conveyed between such lines as “Give me a frank account/How is your bank account?”. We all have that edge somewhere, don’t we? We just don’t have Ms. Kitt’s legs or laser-beam eyes (well, I certainly don’t; I wouldn’t want to speak for the appendages of our well-proportioned Art Scatter readers!).

Golddigger. In the West it goes back to commedia dell’arte, yes? The rich old man marries the young fetching woman. And then she ignores him for a string of younger men, or if we’re feeling sentimental, for one true love. In short, he doesn’t get what he paid for. The Golddigger herself, we are mixed about, right? We don’t like the, um, naked desire, on the one hand, or the obscene gesture tossed at the Romantic Ideal of Love. On the other hand, though, we like the self-reliance, the moxie, the determination, maybe even admire the sheer cold-bloodedness of the exchange. During the ’50s, Marilyn Monroe made the Golddigger cute; Jane Russell reminded us that it wasn’t so easy.

The male version is the gigolo, who has turned into the pimp, I suppose, in these times, in the same way that entrepreneurial golddiggers turn into madams. This is what is below the tightrope that Eartha Kitt walked or rather vamped on until she died on Christmas day. She never fell off.