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Sultry `Santa Baby' singer Eartha Kitt dies at 81

POLLY ANDERSON | 12/29/2008, 12:09 p.m.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Eartha Kitt, the self-proclaimed "sex kitten" whose sultry voice and catlike purr attracted fans even as she neared 80, died on Christmas Day. The singer, dancer and actress was 81. Family spokesman Andrew Freedman said Kitt, who was recently treated at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, died Thursday in Connecticut of colon cancer. She won two Emmys, and was also nominated for several Tonys and two Grammys.Kitt was featured on the cover of her 2001 book, "Rejuvenate," a guide to staying physically fit, in a long, curve-hugging black dress with a figure that some 20-year-old women would envy. She also wrote three autobiographies.

She made headlines in the 1960s for denouncing the Vietnam War during a visit to the White House.

"I remember when I was visiting my aunt in Chicago in 1955, and she took me to see Eartha Kitt, who was one of the first black performers allowed to perform at the Chicago Theater," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said Friday. "Eartha Kitt was a pioneer, whose talents were so immense and strong that the walls of segregation began to come down when people watched her perform. Many places she performed, she was the first African-American allowed to perform."

Kitt's first album, "RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt," was released in 1954. It featured songs such as "I Want to Be Evil," "C'est Si Bon" and "Santa Baby," which is revived on radio each Christmas.

Kitt was Catwoman on the popular "Batman" TV series in 1967-68, replacing Julie Newmar, who originated the role. A guest appearance on an episode of "I Spy" brought her an Emmy nomination in 1966.

In 1996, Kitt was nominated for a Grammy in the category of traditional pop vocal performance for her album "Back in Business." She also had been nominated in the children's recording category for the 1969 record, "Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa."

Kitt also acted in movies, playing the lead female role opposite Nat King Cole in "St. Louis Blues" in 1958. She more recently appeared in "Boomerang" and "Harriet the Spy" in the 1990s.

Kitt was plainspoken about causes she believed in. Her anti-war comments at the White House came as she attended a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson.

"We are a better people and a better world because of her audacity, and her protest at the White House brought a message of dignity and peace to high places," Jackson said. "It created temporary discomfort to some, but peace-loving people around the world rejoiced."

In 2000, Kitt earned another Tony nomination for "The Wild Party." She played the fairy godmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" in 2002.

As recently as October 2003, she was on Broadway after replacing Chita Rivera in a revival of "Nine."

She also gained new fans as the voice of Yzma in the 2000 Disney animated feature "The Emperor's New Groove," and won two Emmys for her voice work in "The Emperor's New School."

Kitt was born in North, S.C., and her road to fame was the stuff of storybooks. In her autobiography, she wrote that her mother was black and Cherokee while her father was white, and she was left to live with relatives after her mother's new husband objected to taking in a mixed-race girl.

An aunt eventually brought her to live in New York, where she attended the High School of Performing Arts, later dropping out to take various odd jobs.

By chance, she dropped by an audition for the dance group run by Dunham, a pioneering African-American dancer. In 1946, Kitt was one of the Sans-Souci Singers in Dunham's Broadway production "Bal Negre."