Eartha Kitt versus the LBJs : The Swamp
The Swamp
Chicago Tribune
Posted December 26, 2008 12:50 PM
The Swamp

by Frank James

Say what you will about Eartha Kitt, the American original of a performer who died at 81 on Christmas Day, she certainly knew how to disrupt a White House event.

One of the best Kitt stories ever has to be how she gave First Lady Lady Bird Johnson the blues in 1968. A petite woman, Kitt had an out-sized ego and just as sizable chip on her shoulder, the latter the result of an unhappy childhood she often talked of (a biracial child born out of wedlock in 1927 small-town South Carolina. You get the picture.)

Eartha kitt small.jpg

The White House story was captured by David Murphy in a biography of Mrs. Johnson called "Texas Bluebonnet: Lady Bird Johnson."

As the president was contemplating his future, Lady Bird went on with her official duties and hosted a Women Doers lunch on Jan. 18, 1968 that was to focus on crime. Singer and actress Eartha Kitt was invited upon the recommendation of Sharon Francis and Liz Carpenter since Kitt had testified to Congress in favor of the President's anti-crime legislation. When President Johnson entered the room, Kitt confronted him, "Mr. President, what do you do about delinquent parents, those who have to work and are too busy to look after their children?" He told her that Social Security legislation was just passed that provided millions of dollars for daycare centers. Kitt was not pleased but Johnson told her those were issues for the women to discuss at the lunch.

During the question period, Kitt stood up and confronted Lady Bird, "Boys I know across the nation feel it doesn't pay to be a good guy." She moved into (sic) closer to the First Lady and said that boys don't want to behave for fear of being sent to Vietnam saying, "You are a mother too though you have had daughters and not sons. I am a mother and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my guts. 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.

Lady Bird was proud to match her stare for stare and Sharon Francis said she sat ready to stand up in between Mrs. Johnson and Kitt since Francis was closer than the Secret Service. After Kitt finished her tirade, Betty Hughes, wife of the New Jersey governor, rose to her feet and recalled how she had lost a husband in World War II and had sons in Vietnam and said, "I think that anybody who takes pot because there is a war on is a kook. These young people are still juniors. They have to be regulated. I hope we adults are still in control." After the wife of the Washignton mayor, Benetta Washington, who, like Kitt, was African-American, spoke up and said we must channel our anger in constructive manners, Lady Bird spoke:

"Because there is a war on, and I pray that there will be a just and honest peace -- that still doesn't give us a free ticket not to try to work for better things -- against crime in the streets and for better education and health for our people. I cannot identify as much as I should. I have not lived the background that you have nor can I speak as passionately or as well, but we must keep our eyes and our hearts and our energies fixed on constructive areas and try to do something that will make this a happier, better educated land." The room broke into applause. Kitt's confrontations with Mrs. Johnson lead (sic) to a slow decline of her career and she told Newsweek shortly after the luncheon, "if Mrs. Johnson was embarrassed, that's her problem."

As a Lady Bird sympathizer, biographer Murphy clearly had little use for Kitt.

A more dispassionate writer might have observed that Kitt showed a rare courage for an American, especially a black one in 1968, to be as confrontational as she was with a first lady.

The White House has a way of intimidating people, even those who are famous and powerful in their own spheres.

But she obviously wasn't overwhelmed by the trappings that surround the presidency. She spoke truth as she saw it to power. And she did that knowing it wasn't going to help her career, that she ran the risk of being blacklisted, as it were.

Still, it didn't matter. For that alone, she deserves to be remembered.

(Photo: Nov. 28, 1970 AP file photo.)

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Comments

RIP Eartha. And for me, "Santa baby" will always remain the ultimate classic Christmas carol!


Good story. Eartha was unique, and a talent.


We have lost another great legend. Eartha R. I. P. You were one of the greatest entainers. My heart felt sympathy goes out to your daughter and grandchildren.


A classy,courageous and principled lady has passed away.
Those who knew of her appreciate her talent and veracity.My first awareness of her music was from my parents collection from the late sixties. I saw Eartha Kitt perform in Chicago a few years ago. As always sultry,vibrant and unrivaled talent! The entertainment World has lost an Icon


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