by Natalie Garth
She was so elegant. Everyone knew of Eartha Kitt. We could identify her distinctive speaking and singing voice in just a few words or notes – sort of like the old TV shows “What’s My Line?” combined with “Name That Tune.” They said she purred rather than spoke, her movements, even her features -- especially those eyes – flowed like a feline. Exotic. She was of
Black Cherokee/German lineage, light-skinned, couldn’t pass, didn’t want to. Everyone knew, of course, Miss Kitt wasn’t white, and (although we didn’t consider this at the time; though doubtless she did), her heritage defined the roles she was permitted to play or where she could perform, certainly which door she was allowed to walk through. And everyone knew she was a talented, independent, outspoken woman performing in a very white world. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still years away. Yet, she was accepted in this white world as much as that time would allow, or so we thought, so the white world thought. She was in movies, on Broadway, made records, made money. Her voice, her beauty, her background, so unlike our own, made her seem unapproachable.
But not everyone knew that she stayed at my house. I was still in shock over the few days we’d had with Tallulah Bankhead (really scary) and Joan Crawford (really, really scary. Later, years later, I thought Mommy Dearest was true). And what I do know that no one else does, or few others anyway, is that one day Miss Kitt found staring at her a desperately shy young girl in the corner of the living room sitting underneath the grand piano, with a black-bordered granny squared afghan covering the top of her head, her entire body, looking, in retrospect, of course, a lot like Cousin Itt from The Addams Family.
All Miss Kitt could see of me were two blue eyes peering at her through the holes in the afghan. At that point, I’m not sure we’d even spoken to each other. She stood up from the chair she’d been sitting in studying her lines for the play rehearsal later that night, moved toward me, and kneeled down by the edge of the piano. My blue eyes opened wider and wider as she slowly pulled the afghan from my head. She stared into my eyes for a few moments, I’ll never forget that look, and purred, “LeeLee, let’s go for a walk.”
Now, LeeLee (one of my many childhood nicknames, actually the one that stuck) looked a bit like Dennis the Menace, her gender still hidden by childhood, a very tiny seven-year-old, blond hair, freckled nose, especially the tip, wearing her brother’s hand me down blue and white horizontal striped t-shirt, school bus yellow shorts, no shoes, in very sharp, dangerously sharp, contrast to Miss Kitt’s white flowing kaftan and gold lamé shoes. She took my small white hand with fingernails chewed to the quick, and covered it with her dark hand and long, slender fingers, her cherry red nails manicured just that morning, and together we walked to the beach.
As we approached the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club -- of course my family was a member -- Miss Kitt took a short-cut through someone’s yard (which concerned me because I knew it was wrong, and I never did anything wrong), removed her gold lamé shoes, ran across the short beach, and stepped into the water. Her kaftan was soaked to midcalf, and I was worried about that too.
“Miss Kitt. Miss Kitt, your beautiful dress is getting ruined. Let’s walk on the beach.” With an uncertain smile that didn’t comfort me, Eartha Kitt glanced over at me and said, “Stay in the water LeeLee. I just want to walk in the water.”
Although she was wading, the water was almost up to my head, and I was trying to hide the gulping sounds I was making spitting out salt water. As we hurried past the Beach Club, she picked me up in her arms, put my tiny head on her shoulder, and, as we hurried past, began to sing. “Every time I look down on this timeless town, whether blue or gray be her skies…” Yes, Eartha Kitt sang to me. “I Love Paris in the Springtime.” I didn’t know where Paris was, but I knew I wanted to be there with Miss Kitt in the springtime, or anytime for that matter.
When she finished singing, she put me back into the water, and we turned around to go back the way we came. I knew she had given me a gift, and I wanted to give her one too, but singing wasn’t an option for me because the only song I knew by heart was “Everyone’s Doing It Picking Their Noses and Chewing It,” and I didn’t want to spoil our special moment thinking about boogers. Then, I remembered what I loved and wanted to share with her.
“Miss Kitt. Miss Kitt. Let’s go to the Beach Club and I can get us peppermint ice cream. It’s really, really good. We can even get chocolate sauce on it. That’s my favorite. We don’t need any money. I just need to sign my last name and our family’s number.” I whispered, “It’s 601. Don’t tell.”
“No, dear. I don’t think so. Not today.”
“Another time. I have to get back to rehearsal.”
I tried not to sulk.
When we walked in the door of our big pink house perched on the edge of the cliff overlooking the La Jolla Cove, I shouted, “Mommy, Mommy, we went to the beach. I tried to get Miss Kitt an ice cream, but she didn’t want one. Can we go tomorrow?”
My mother and Miss Kitt exchanged a quick glance unfamiliar to me. Now, as an adult, I know their look was a complicated blend of sadness and anger. Then, as little LeeLee, I noticed only that the sparkle had gone from their eyes.
“LeeLee,” my mother said softly, “Miss Kitt can’t go to the Beach Club.”
My eyes darted from Miss Kitt to my mother. I was confused. “Why not? Don’t you
like it there, Miss Kitt?”
She said nothing, but my mother kneeled down on the Persian rug she cherished, put her hands on my shoulders, and tried to look directly into my eyes, but it was hard for her. “I know this doesn’t make sense, LeeLee, but Black people aren’t allowed at the Beach Club. Miss Kitt can’t go there.”
I remained silent as I tried to process my mother’s statement. I first looked at Eartha Kitt, then at my mother, as if both had betrayed me, too young to realize where the betrayal truly lay. I then backed away from both of them, grabbed my afghan, threw it over my head, dove underneath the piano and sobbed. Wailed, really. Miss Kitt went downstairs to get ready for rehearsal; the fact she was not allowed at the Beach Club was not news to her. I was inconsolable.
Eartha Kitt was not allowed on the beach. Years later, it’s still hard for me to contemplate. Using the afghan as armor to protect me from a world I no longer understood or even liked, I rolled up in a ball like a doodle bug (another nickname I acquired that day). My mother and two brothers tried to console me, even the dogs tried to get me out from underneath the piano. But I wouldn’t budge. I wouldn’t come out for dinner, nor even for Mr. Ed or Our Miss Brooks, my favorite TV shows. Finally, they left me alone to grieve.
My mother must have called my aunt, Edith Helen, and told her how upset I was because, just as it was getting dark, the front door burst open, and my aunt stormed in, “Where’s LeeLee?” she asked the air. She, as she always did, looked like she was prepared for a safari, her attire unusual for a La Jolla housewife in the 1950s, with dark eyes that drilled into whatever she saw, her black hair that contrasted with her shy sister’s, my mother’s, blond hair and gentle smile. She even wore pants. My mother wore a skirt camping. Such a contrast, a bit, only a bit, like the difference between the elegance of Miss Kitt and the distinctly not elegant little LeeLee--for Edith Helen had an elegance of spirit that little LeeLee had yet to develop.
My mother came out from the kitchen drying her hands on her half apron, “Guess.”
Edith Helen looked over at the piano and muttered, “Jesus Christ, is she still doing that? LeeLee come on. We’re going for a ride right now.”
My head peeked out from underneath the afghan. No one had ever come over to take me anywhere at night, almost my bedtime.
“Come on. We don’t have all night, and we have something important to do.”
I knew it must be something really important because everything Edith Helen did was important. Even her playtime was infused with significance: birdwatching (furthered her environmentalism); reading nonfiction (education so she could be a forceful advocate); tennis (kept her fit for her family); conversation (about politics, to persuade); dinner engagements (left
wing fundraisers). Even as she declined into dementia so many years later, she tried to hold on to her commitment to the world, her commitment to all of us. When she could barely speak, she still sang “Imagine” by John Lennon. It was how she held on. How I held on.
I crawled out from underneath the piano, and my aunt grabbed my hand and pulled me out the door. I climbed into the passenger seat of her Ford station wagon, no seat belt of course, cars didn’t come with them yet, and I saw, on the edge of the seat, something that looked like scissors I would never be allowed to use.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“A tool. It cuts wire.”
“Oh,” I said, not sure what any of this meant. It had been a confusing day after all.
After about three minutes in the car, I realized we were headed toward the Beach Club, only four minutes away from my house.
“No. I don’t want to go there. They’re mean.”
“Okay, LeeLee, here’s the deal. You keep watch. Try to look normal. If anyone asks what I’m doing, you tell them I’m looking for bugs.” Now, I’m worried again (a big worry day for LeeLee), but no one ever said “no” to Edith Helen; she simply wouldn’t accept that as a response. She stuffed the tool into her one of the at least one hundred pockets in her gray
birdwatching vest, we got out of the car and hurried over to the fence, crouching low to avoid being seen. I stood by the flagpole in front of the club, while Edith Helen rooted around the bushes in front of the fence. I heard, “snip, snip, snip, snip,” and then, “Let’s go.” We rushed back to the car and jumped in.
“Here,” she said to me, “give this to Miss Kitt. Tell her you engaged in an act of civil disobedience.” I could hear a hint of a smile in her voice; she was pleased with herself.
I looked at what she had taken: a wooden sign with etched, cursive white letters that read “Whites and Gentiles Only.” I hadn’t noticed it before; it was simply part of the Beach Club, and I doubt I would have understood what it meant anyway, the cursive letters on the sign gave it a deceptive softness given the horrifying words written on it. As I read the sign, I still failed to understand its meaning, but instinctively I knew it was bad and meant Ms. Kitt couldn’t come to the Beach Club.
“Don’t you want it?,” I asked.
“No, I have plenty of them. I do this all the time, but it helped having you with me. It went faster. You were very brave, LeeLee.”
When we got home, I gave Edith Helen a quick kiss before she drove off, jumped out of the car with the sign and ran so fast into the house that my head couldn’t keep up with my feet.
“Mommy, look at what we did. We stole something and I wasn’t worried a bit. I’m giving it to Miss Kitt.”
My mother looked at the sign and smiled.
Eartha Kitt was still at rehearsal. I was so excited I stood in the corner of the living room--not underneath the piano--and bounced. The afghan over my head bounced too. I bounced and bounced and bounced and bounced until she came home with my father. He was, as always, dressed in his blue jacket, slacks, tie, loafers, she, in a soft yellow sleeveless dress with matching yellow shoes still radiating elegance that even little LeeLee felt. When she came into the house, I tossed off my afghan and ran over to her, still clutching the sign.
“Miss Kitt. I have something. I stole it for you.”
“Stole it?” she asked, as my father looked a bit mortified and my mother looked proud, yes, proud.
“It’s from the Beach Club,” I said. “It was an act of civil, uh civil, uh civil…” I paused. “Ambience.”
“Oh, I rather like the sound of that!” Ms. Kitt looked at the sign, threw her head back, and roared. She was feline, after all. “This is wonderful. I love it. Well, not what it says, but what you did.”
Miss Kitt went downstairs to her suite clutching the sign to her chest and shaking her head, and my mother told me to get ready for bed. I put on my PJs, brushed my teeth, and snuggled into my single bed with my afghan, cat, and three dogs. My mother came in to say goodnight and our prayers:
“Dear Jesus. Help me to be good. God bless Mommy, Daddy, Tony, BG, and Lee and everyone we love. Amen.” (It’s a prayer I still say to this day not out of any belief, but out of honor to my mother.) Then I paused, thought for a moment, and added, “P.S. I stole something. Don’t be mad.”
My mother giggled, gave me a good-night kiss, and started out the door.
“Mommy, there’s something I don’t understand.”
She looked over at me, “What’s that?”
“I kind of liked that only gentle people came to the Beach Club.”
She stood still for a moment staring into the hallway outside my room, came back over to me, ran her fingers softly over my cheeks, and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll explain it tomorrow.”
It’s been more than sixty years since that day. Over the years, Edith Helen and I have engaged in many acts of civil disobedience or ambience, as LeeLee called it. We soldered the locks shut at the local office of the Republican Party (I hope the statute of limitations has expired), picketed just about everywhere, helped undocumented workers find
meaningful employment, stole the Beach Club sign a few more times, and one time even switched it with a sign that read “No Whites or Christians.”
I never saw Eartha Kitt again, but think of her often, recalling that there was a time not so very long ago --- during my lifetime, in fact, -- when she wasn’t allowed on the beach. Yet, despite anger that my white guilt imagined must have boiled within her, that feline quintessence of elegance took the hand of a little white ragamuffin and gave her a memory that stayed with and guided her forever. Thank you, Miss Kitt. I’m sorry you died without the world knowing about that day.
Natalie Garth was an attorney for decades before retiring to work at Target for minimum wage. She lives in Silverado, California with her wife, Linda, and her dogs, Gracie (her cross to bear in life) and Kona.