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Life after death of an iconic mother

MOTHERLY LOVE: Eartha Kitt and daughter Kitt Shapiro

I HAVE always admired Eartha Kitt she was the original Catwoman and enjoyed a long career encompassing dancing, singing, acting and cabaret, she was a Pan-Africanist who quietly bestowed wise words in the ears of African statesmen, a global advocate for indigenous peoples and the staunchest supporter of American civil rights whose outspoken political honesty saw her prime years blacklisted in the USA.

Eartha Mae Kitt grew up in South Carolina as a motherless child. She followed her own path to New York and carved an international niche as brilliant as the facets of a diamond.

On a sub-zero night on our respective sides of the Atlantic, Eartha Kitt's daughter, Kitt Shapiro and I warmly conversed via Skype.

"When I was young and my mother used to introduce us she'd say 'I'm Eartha and this is Kitt, as if I completed her and I think on some level I did complete her: I gave her roots."

Shapiro’s confidence is a testament to Kitt's exceptional parenting. She worked for her mother for twenty-five years; producing her albums, tours and projects as President of Eartha Kitt Productions, Inc.

On Christmas Day 2008, the legendary Eartha Kitt whose 1953 recording Santa Baby is the epitome of Yuletide lost a two year battle with colon cancer. Where most can take refuge in their work after the death of a parent, Shapiro was unable to do so; her mother was her work. "Our lives were very enmeshed. It was a very difficult loss." Shapiro counts being with Eartha at the time of her passing as "a blessing in so many ways."

Shapiro confided that Kitt lost her speech the last two days of her life, yet did not go as easily and as quietly as predicted she "left this planet kicking and screaming and I mean screaming at the top of her lungs." Shapiro whose vivacity is one of Kitt's greatest legacies, recalled screaming back at her "You can go! You can go!" Shapiro said that her mother’s "survival instinct was not letting her give up even though there was no way for her to stay alive & that was an amazing thing."

"The first Mother's Day that she was no longer there it was a very strange feeling no longer being somebody's child." Shapiro had grown used to hearing her mum's voice waft from boutique speakers at Christmas. That morning she said aloud, "I'm never going to be able to hear you speak to me," in the afternoon whilst surfing TV channels, Shapiro encountered Kitt’s cameo role in the 2003 movie Anything But Love. She looked out of the screen giving personal advice to an ingénue character, "that's when I really knew that she was not gone, that she could feel me somewhere."


FAMILY TIES: Eartha Kitt and daughter Kitt Shapiro

Shapiro and I discussed spirituality and metaphysics in great detail and agreed that if energy cannot be extinguished, physical life must be a mere component of a great never-ending, perpetual cycle. It is said that the Ancient Egyptian deity of wisdom and knowledge, Tehuti, once asked "how can the corporeal understand the incorporeal?" And this is a question I put to Shapiro, "When we look at that physicality as them, when that breath is gone & the body is there it's hard."

Shapiro is now the custodian of an immense personal and professional legacy. "My mother always said to me “I'm building all of this for you and for your children, don't just let everything I have and everything I've done just sit there.”

Kitt's philosophical ‘Kittisms’ were imprinted on Shapiro's consciousness and left behind on thousands of pieces of paper. Kitt's maxim 'don't panic' is now tattooed on Shapiro's right wrist.
"I started to realise that I had all of this knowledge, all of her philosophy." People responded well to the ‘Kittisms.’ "She was simply of the earth, from the earth, Eartha being her given name so I came up with Simply Eartha." The recently launched lifestyle brand's first offerings are tumbled stone coasters and canvas wall art combining Eartha Kitt's image and hand-written Kittisms.

All of the products are proudly made in the USA; "I can't put my mother's face on a product that says made in china: she'd come back and haunt me!" Shapiro joked. Shapiro and I appraised the ease and disadvantages of sourcing materials and manufacturing the range in the US.


SUMMER OF LOVE: Eartha and Kitt during a promotional trip to Jamaica. Credit: Gleaner Company Archives

"Apparently there are no silkworms in the US, I don't understand why." She lamented the fact I shared: African-American Miss Ruth Lowery started a silk industry in mid-nineteenth century Alabama and won many international awards before her untimely death ended what would have been an empowering trade.

I asked Shapiro about the 1968 furore and career derailment resulting from Kitt speaking out against the Vietnam War to the face of the First Lady at a White House luncheon. "Now you have more and more people who are willing to take the risk because you tend to have a voice, the ability to be more open, but back in the Fifties and Sixties, especially as a black woman, no one was really going to listen to you. She said her piece and made her mark and did so very quietly and in a regal way. She didn't stand up on the soap box and scream and yell and insist that people change she made the changes on her own very quietly."

Kitt's unique enunciation rang in my ears when Shapiro uttered the term apartheid, when recalling her mother's maverick 1974 performance before integrated audiences in South Africa which raised essential funds for the building of black schools. Eartha Kitt can rest in peace and reign immortal in the assurance that Kitt Shapiro is the best earthbound ambassador she could ever have wished for. "I'm blessed having a famous parent. I get to hear her voice and see her in many ways."

To purchase items from the Simply Eartha range visit: www.simplyeartha.com

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