When Eartha Kitt Spoke Truth to Power at a 1968 White House Luncheon

Actress Eartha Kitt amassed dozens of stage and screen cred­its, but is per­haps most fond­ly remem­bered for her icon­ic turn as Cat­woman in the Bat­man TV series, a role she took over from white actress Julie New­mar.

The pro­duc­ers con­grat­u­lat­ed them­selves on this “provoca­tive, off-beat” cast­ing, exec­u­tives at net­work affil­i­ates in South­ern states expressed out­rage, and Kit­t’s 9‑year-old daugh­ter, Kitt Shapiro,  under­stood that her moth­er’s new gig was a “real­ly big deal.”

As Shapiro recalled to Clos­er Week­ly:

This was 1967, and there were no women of col­or at that time wear­ing skintight body­suits, play­ing oppo­site a white male with sex­u­al ten­sion between them! She knew the impor­tance of the role and she was proud of it. She real­ly is a part of his­to­ry. She was one of the first real­ly beau­ti­ful black women — her, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dan­dridge — who were allowed to be sexy with­out being stereo­typed. It does take a vil­lage, but I do think she helped blaze a trail.

Eartha Kitt was a trail­blaz­er in oth­er ways too.

Cat­woman vs. the White House, direc­tor Scott Caloni­co’s short doc­u­men­tary for the New York­er (above), uses vin­tage pho­tos, clip­pings and footage to relate how Kitt dis­rupt­ed a White House lun­cheon the month after her Bat­man debut, tak­ing Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son to task over the hard­ships faced by work­ing par­ents.

John­son was clear­ly under the impres­sion that he was swing­ing by the White House Fam­i­ly Din­ing Room as a favor to his wife, Lady Bird, who was host­ing 50 guests for the Women Doers’ Lun­cheon. The theme of the lun­cheon was “What Cit­i­zens Can Do to Help Insure Safe Streets.”

Chair­man of the Nation­al Coun­cil on the Arts Roger Stevens had sug­gest­ed that Kitt or actress Ruby Dee would be fine addi­tions to the guest list in recog­ni­tion for their activism with urban youth.

As Janet Mez­za­ck details in her Pres­i­den­tial Stud­ies Quar­ter­ly arti­cle, “With­out Man­ners You Are Noth­ing”: Lady Bird John­son, Eartha Kitt, and The Women Doers’ Lun­cheon of Jan­u­ary 18, 1968, Kitt had an impres­sive track record of vol­un­teerism.

She taught dance to Black chil­dren who could not afford lessons, tes­ti­fied before the House Gen­er­al Sub­com­mit­tee on Edu­ca­tion on behalf of the DC youth-led Rebels with a Cause, and estab­lished a non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion in Watts where under­priv­i­leged youth stud­ied tra­di­tion­al African and mod­ern dance and “learned about per­son­al­i­ty devel­op­ment, poise, groom­ing, dic­tion, and phys­i­cal fit­ness.”

She was being vet­ted for a seat on Pres­i­dent John­son’s Cit­i­zens Advi­so­ry Board on Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ty, chaired by Vice Pres­i­dent Hubert Humphrey.

Sure­ly, a dream guest!

Mez­za­ck writes:

Hav­ing select­ed Kitt as a guest for the upcom­ing lun­cheon, FBI clear­ance checks were con­duct­ed on her and oth­er prospec­tive guests at the White House. The FBI cleared her through nor­mal chan­nels. Because of pre­vi­ous embar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tions involv­ing enter­tain­ers invit­ed to White House func­tions, inquiries also were made of Roger Stevens office to deter­mine if Kitt would “do any­thing to embar­rass” the White House, “and the answer was no.”

Call it embar­rass­ment for a good cause.

John­son was unpre­pared for spon­ta­neous inter­ac­tion as hard hit­ting as Kitt’s, when she stood up to say:

Mr. Pres­i­dent, you asked about delin­quen­cy across the Unit­ed States, which we are all inter­est­ed in and that’s why we’re here today. But what do we do about delin­quent par­ents? The par­ents who have to go to work, for instance, who can’t spend the time with their chil­dren that they should. This is, I think, our main prob­lem. What do we do with the chil­dren then, when the par­ents are off work­ing?

Fum­bling for an answer, John­son inti­mat­ed that the male pol­i­cy­mak­ers behind recent Social Secu­ri­ty Amend­ments that could off­set costs of day­care were “real­ly not the best judges of how to han­dle chil­dren.”

Per­haps Miss Kitt would like to take her con­cerns with the oth­er women in atten­dance?

Under­stand­ably, Kitt seethed, and con­tin­ued the con­ver­sa­tion by con­fronting the First Lady over the war in Viet­nam.

Direc­tor Caloni­co tog­gles between Kitt’s rec­ol­lec­tions of the exchange and excerpts from Mrs. Johnson’s White House audio diary, cob­bling togeth­er a recon­struc­tion that is sure­ly faith­ful to the spir­it of the thing, if not exact­ly word for word:

Kit­t’s words as recalled by Mrs. John­son:

You send the best in this coun­try off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They will take pot and get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their moth­ers to be shot in Viet­nam.

Kit­t’s words as recalled by the speak­er her­self:

Mrs. John­son, you are a moth­er too, although you have had daugh­ters and not sons. I am a moth­er and I know the feel­ing of hav­ing a baby come out of my gut. I have a baby and then you send him off to war. No won­der the kids rebel and take pot, and Mrs. John­son, in case you don’t under­stand the lin­go, that’s mar­i­jua­na.

That last com­ment seems fun­ny now, and Calan­i­co can’t resist infus­ing fur­ther dark humor with a shot of a masked Kitt tool­ing around in Catwoman’s campy Kit­ty­car as the actress describes how the White House can­celled her ride home from the lun­cheon.

The next day’s news­pa­pers were full of emo­tion­al­ly charged reports as to how Kitt’s remarks had left the host­ess “stunned to tears” — a descrip­tion both par­tic­i­pants resist­ed.

With­in weeks, North Viet­nam launched the Tet Offen­sive, and John­son announced he would not seek reelec­tion.

Mean­while Kitt’s out­spo­ken­ness at the lun­cheon cast an instan­ta­neous chill on her career, state­side.

She spent the next decade per­form­ing in Europe, unaware that the CIA had opened a file on her, com­pil­ing infor­ma­tion from con­fi­den­tial sources in Paris and New York City as to her “loose morals.”

Her response to the most out­ra­geous alle­ga­tions in that file should make life­long fans of fem­i­nists who were bare­ly out of dia­pers when Halle Berry slipped into Catwoman’s skintight paja­mas.

Caloni­co is right to punc­tu­ate this with Kitt’s tri­umphant growl.

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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