Orson Welles, who cast her as Helen of Troy, dubbed her "the most exciting woman in the world." Though she was born among cotton pickers in South Carolina, she never allowed her mixed race to deter or define her (her mother was black and Cherokee, her father was white). She was abandoned by her mother and raised by an aunt, who took her to New York and enrolled her in the High School of the Performing Arts (she never graduated). By chance she landed in the Katherine Dunham dance troupe, with which she made her Broadway debut in Bal Negre. She returned to Broadway in New Faces of 1952, a revue which also featured future stars Carol Lawrence, Paul Lynde, and Alice Ghostly. Other Broadway appearances included Shinbone Alley and The Owl and the Pussycat; she received Tony nominations for Timbuktu and The Wild Party. Her most recent appearance on Broadway was as Chita Rivera's replacement in Nine.
Kitt received her first Emmy nomination for a guest appearance on I Spy in the mid-60s, and famously replaced Julie Newmar in the campy Batman series. Her sultry purr as the Catwoman remains a cult classic.
Kitt's outspoken criticism of the Vietnam War, which she notoriously voiced at a White House luncheon attended by Lady Bird Johnson, nearly destroyed her career. She was investigated by the FBI and CIA, and was forced to work overseas for years after the incident.
More recently, Kitt earned back-to-back Emmy awards as Best Performer in an Animated Series for her work on The Emperor's New School. She has received multiple Grammy nominations, and her 1954 recording of Santa Baby insured that the song is now a holiday standard. A recent concert in Chicago was taped by PBS for upcoming broadcast in 2009.
Kitt succumbed to colon cancer on Christmas Day.