Friday, December 26, 2008


I guess from the obituaries that most people remember Eartha Kitt as "Catwoman" on the Batman TV series. Not me.

I never watched much TV, outside of news and old movies and special live events like the Oscars or presidential debates.

I remember Kitt as the outrageously sensuous singer—some would say "jazz singer"—who defined a kind of sexy cool before "black" was "beautiful" (in Jesse Jackson's oft chanted refrain of the 1960s, picked up by songwriters and advertisers etc.).

She was impossibly seductive during the impossibly repressed 1950s, when Elvis' pelvis was banned from TV for awhile, and Dinah Shore was the epitome of "white" TV feminine charm (as far as singers went, maybe Donna Reed in the sitcom category) and Nat King Cole couldn't attract sponsors to his short-lived "black and white" TV show that many Southern stations refused to carry.

Pearl Bailey would appear on the Ed Sullivan show and belt out a song like the African-American response to Ethel Merman, or Lena Horne would be a Sullivan guest and sing from a posture of elegant refinement that made most other singers seem like peons in comparison, her beauty undeniable, but her aloofness making it seem almost frigid.

There were many other "black" singers whose appearances on TV in those repressed years were exciting for other reasons, from Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, but Eartha Kitt. There just simply was no one like her. The way she deliberately overdid the sexy bit, almost "camping" it up, as it seems now, but at the time, at least to this young white boy, it was anything but humorous. It was seriously sensual and political, making it clear that any arbitrary divisions the powers-that-be might have created and been holding onto with all their diminishing influence meant nothing in the face of Kitt's seductiveness that came through the TV cameras right into the living rooms of "blacks" and "whites" alike with the same sensual boldness, the same obvious claim of the right to cross barriers of race and sex and sensuality in ways barely whispered about back then, let alone flaunted.

Eartha Kitt was and will alway be one of a kind. May she rest in purring peace.

As for Pinter. I'm one of the few of my friends and fellow writers and actors and playgoers who don't think he's the greatest playwright of the age. I like some of his work and find it compelling. But a lot of it I find boring. And his famous "Pinteresque" technical originality, I thought was so obviously derivative of Samuel Beckett that it didn't even need pointing out.

I think what I'll miss most about his passing, is his fierce political criticism, especially of the Iraqi fiasco. He expressed it sometimes in ways that left no room for any nuance, or anyone else's perspective, even if complimentary. But at least he had the guts to state outright what he believed was the shameful glossing over of the true costs of the Iraq invasion and subsequent and continuing war.

May he rest in peace as well. Though I suspect neither of these two giants in their fields were ever contented to be at rest for very long. Both of them outrageous in their own ways, and willing to say whatever was on their minds, critics and tact and compromise be damned.

So maybe what I should be saying is let their restless honesty and fierce commitment to using their art as expressions of that honesty live on long after them, and let us pick up whatever slack their passing has left behind.

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