Eartha Kitt was Hollywood’s ultimate sex kitten, but her greatest role was that of mom.
The legendary singer, actress and dancer, who purred her way into superstardom, passed away on Christmas Day in 2008 at age 81 from colon cancer. Her career spanned six decades and the late star is still celebrated by fans today as Catwoman in the ‘60s hit series "Batman."
Her only child, Kitt Shapiro, has recently written a memoir titled "Eartha & Kitt: A Daughter’s Love Story in Black & White," which details their loving bond over the years. It also sheds new light on Kitt’s life out of the spotlight, where she truly felt like herself as a doting mom.
Shapiro, 59, spoke to Fox News about growing up with the beloved entertainer, her favorite memories and how Kitt really felt about being "the most exciting woman in the world" as Orson Welles once said.
Fox News: What inspired you to write this book now?
Kitt Shapiro: I think as we get older, we become more comfortable in our skin. I’m going to be 60 this year. And I just felt like the timing was right. My mother had so many profound messages and lessons she taught me. She loved the art of conversation - really intense, intellectual conversation.
So I thought this was a really cool way to keep the conversation going. This is a story about a woman who had such an incredible impact on this Earth in so many ways. But in many other ways, people don’t know about them. And I think, even if you are a fan of hers, you will definitely learn new things in this book.
Fox News: When did you realize that your mom was different from other moms?
Shapiro: I obviously knew very early on that my mother was somebody famous. But I also grew up in Los Angeles where that wasn’t such a unique thing. I went to a French school and there were a lot of kids whose parents were either diplomats or in the entertainment industry. So nobody was really impressed that my mother was famous *laughs*.
But it wasn’t until I grew older that I came to fully understand the impact she had on people. We moved to New York when I was a teenager. We would walk down a street and people would call out her name. But it was all I’ve ever known.
Fox News: Is it true that your mom was very strict?
Shapiro: Yeah, she was very strict. People are often surprised that my mother was very strict and very conservative. I was expected to have proper manners, good behavior, respect my elders and speak clearly. You always called someone Mr. or Mrs. until they gave you permission to use their first name.
My mother was a very proper woman. But she was also self-taught. She didn’t learn any of this while growing up in the South or from anyone in her life. But she realized the importance of how you carry yourself, how you treat other people and how you spoke. That always stayed with her. It was important for her to carry herself with pride, speak clearly and have good manners.
Fox News: Your mother had a very tough childhood. How much of an impact do you think that had on her as a parent?
Shapiro: I think it had a very big impact on her. She was mistreated as a child. Her mother gave her away because she was marrying another man. She was referred to as a "yellow gal" because of her skin tone. And the man her mother was going to marry said, "I will not have that yellow gal in my house." She never knew the identity of her birth father.
My mother endured rejection during those formative years. And the family that she was given to abused her so severely - physically, sexually and emotionally. Those were scars that she carried internally throughout her life. But she didn’t shy away from them because she knew they made her who she was. They gave her strength. And they taught her the importance of how much you should love your children. She would say to me, "You can never love a child too much." And she really believed that. I think that’s what formed her desire to be such a doting, nurturing mother.
Fox News: Some people have recently commented on how you couldn’t possibly be Eartha Kitt’s daughter because of your appearance. How do you cope with comments like that?
Shapiro: It’s interesting, I don’t remember anybody questioning my genetic makeup or my being my mother’s biological child. I think some of those comments are becoming more obvious because of social media. People are much more brave behind a screen of a computer than they are to your face.
That being said, I remember growing up and how my mother and I would stare in the mirror as she was getting ready. We would point out our similarities. I have these little beauty marks and I would always point them out to her. I’m very proud of them.
Recently, people have made presumptions… but it’s also how my mother went through life, fighting the stereotype, the need to put people in boxes… My mother would say to me, "You’re a walking United Nations. You either fill every quota or break every rule." I absolutely believe that I have this incredible makeup of all these different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds from both parents… My mother would say, "You really are a melting pot" and I’m proud of that.
Fox News: In your book, you describe how Eartha Kitt wasn’t a glamorous figure at home. How so?
Shapiro: She was anything but glamorous at home *laughs*. She was at her most comfortable in her garden with her hands in the soil. Eartha was her given name and it’s not lost on me that she truly was of the Earth. She was so connected to the environment, our planet and nature. At home, she would have her hair wrapped up in a scarf and wear these dirty jeans and oversized sweatshirts with no makeup while attending to her garden. She was her most comfortable self.
Fox News: What’s one memory of your mom that still makes you smile today?
Shapiro: Any time I’ve ever made my mother laugh - those memories always made me smile. She had this incredible laugh. My mother thought I was really funny and she loved listening to me. Whether I was nine or 39, her face would always beam whenever she listened to me speak. When I think of those moments, it makes me smile. When I think of that vision of her face, looking at me, smiling, and then breaking into this incredible laugh - it warms my heart.
Fox News: Your mom was many things and no doubt, one of her titles is that of sex symbol. How did she feel about that?
Shapiro: She didn’t see herself as a sex symbol, per se. She understood that, because of the way she moved, the tone of her voice, the cadence of her speech, there was this sort of fluidity and rhythm that had a sensual quality. I think on some level, it was deliberate, not because she wanted to be a sex symbol, but because she loved movement. She was a dancer from very early on.
My mother told me an aunt of hers in New York sent for her because she had been told how badly the family who had taken her in was treating her in the South. This aunt lived in Spanish Harlem. My mother would talk about how you could hear the sounds of music and drums and just the rhythm of the city itself. That gave her this inner feeling of movement. So becoming a dancer was something that came very naturally to her. And she understood the power of speech. If you spoke clearly and eloquently, people will treat you differently. They treat you with more respect. And she even learned different languages.
I think all of that shaped my mother. Obviously, she was very beautiful and had an incredible body. But when you put the whole package together, it gives you that sex symbol quality. But she also happened to be very shy… So she found the whole thing amusing in many ways.
Fox News: Where did her famous purr come from?
Shapiro: From vocal exercises. She learned different languages because she traveled with her ballet troupe… And she was also curious about the world. So she started doing vocal exercises. I remember fans would often ask her to purr. She would make it look like she wasn’t going to give into it. She would say no if someone asked - and people asked everywhere she went. She would walk away from the person. But then she would turn around and purr for them. But she didn’t do that at home *laughs*.
Fox News: Did your mother have any regrets about fame or her life in Hollywood?
Shapiro: My mother had no regrets. She actually said before she died, "I don’t have any regrets. I wouldn’t change a thing." My mother never compromised who she was. She was always true to herself and didn’t apologize for who she was. She didn’t apologize for her opinions. She didn’t apologize for her originality.
I think there are certain decisions, perhaps, that she would have liked to have done differently. But she also understood that everything happens for a reason. And if she had changed anything, she wouldn’t have ended up where she was. So it gave her this understanding that regrets are just a waste of energy.
Fox News: In your book, you wrote about the guilt you felt leaving your mother behind as you embarked on your own life, as many daughters do. How did you face that?
Shapiro: I think many people will be able to relate to the guilt when you love somebody so intensely and how difficult it is at times when you want to be your own person.
My parents divorced when I was young. I was an only child and my mother was a single mother. And she had no family really. So it was just her and I. And as a teenager, I wanted to be with my friends. I wanted to hang out and do my own thing. It’s hard. There were many times where I did struggle with that. But that’s sort of the way life is, right?
… It wasn’t easy when I got married even though I didn’t move away and I worked for my mother. We were always very close. You’ll see a picture of my mother at my wedding and we both look like we’re walking the plank *laughs*. it was not an easy day for her or for me. She was happy for me, but she also had a lot of pain from her childhood. She carried a lot of this fear of rejection. And she never got over her childhood… But we were very much mother and daughter. And we adored each other.
Fox News: How did you cope with your mother’s passing?
Shapiro: No question, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever dealt with. I was with my mother when she passed and I do talk about this in the book. I talked about it because it’s real and it’s a part of life. My mother and I worked together. We lived not that far from each other. So our lives very very intertwined… A part of me was gone when she left. And what do you do? Am I no longer somebody’s daughter? It’s really hard to comprehend because we loved each other immensely. And we were very much a part of each other’s lives.
… I remember understanding why religion is so important and why people yearn to have faith in a heaven, because this body, which possessed an incredible energy, was now gone. It was mind-blowing. It was so hard. I would look up at the sky for days, weeks, months after she died. I would say, "Where are you? You can’t have just evaporated into the air." It’s a very difficult process to go through, not just death, but grieving. Her life had come to an end, but the rest of the world was still functioning. The sun didn’t stop rising and setting because my mother died, but it felt like my Earth did die.
It also felt like, "What’s next?" it was just surreal - it’s still is. It’s hard to believe she has been gone for so long. She died in 2008 on Christmas Day and it’s still hard to believe she’s gone.
Fox News: What do you hope readers will get from your book?
Shapiro: Ultimately, it’s a love story of mother and daughter. My mother was a trailblazer and a role model who made an incredible impact on this planet, but she also gave birth to a child and developed such a special bond with her daughter. And I still carry that today. We adored each other.
I hope this book encourages people to have conversations with loved ones because she did love that art of conversation.… We all have a legacy, whether you’re famous or not. And I want people to hold on to those precious moments with their loved ones because it’s what keeps us connected. It’s part of our history. But I also hope this book gives people joy because my mother certainly gave that to me. She still does.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.