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The day Eartha Kitt attacked the Vietnam War at the White House

Singer-actress Eartha Kitt relaxes during a 1958 interview in London, where she was appearing on the "Sunday Night at the Palladium" television show.

LLOYD BORGUSS/STARS AND STRIPES

By DENEEN L. BROWN | The Washington Post | Published: January 19, 2018

WASHINGTON — She didn't want to go to the White House.

Eartha Kitt, a self-proclaimed "sex kitten" who played Catwoman and crooned "Santa Baby," was an enigmatic star with a sultry voice and a remarkable talent for playing to the camera. Orson Welles once called her "the most exciting woman in the world."

Her career was flourishing until Kitt was invited by Lady Bird Johnson to a Jan. 18, 1968, luncheon at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Kitt declined, she wrote in her 1989 autobiography, "Eartha Kitt: Confessions of a Sex Kitten." "I thought it would be a lot of nonsense — flowers, champagne, a chance to show off," Kitt recalled in her book. "I felt a con coming on."

But she reconsidered after being implored by the first lady's social secretary to attend.

The subject of the luncheon was bold: "Why is there so much juvenile delinquency in the streets of America?"

Kitt had worked with youth groups across the country, including a D.C. group, Rebels With A Cause, during a break in her tour of "The Owl and the Pussycat."

So she packed an overnight suitcase and flew to Washington. The White House had made reservations at the Shoreham Hotel, where she spent the night. The next morning, a limousine was waiting to take her to the White House.

At the time, protests against the Vietnam War were raging across the country. Almost 500,000 Americans were fighting in Southeast Asia — a number that was still climbing. And 1968 would prove the deadliest year of the war, with 16,900 Americans killed in Vietnam.

But none of that was being discussed in the private family dining room on the second floor of the country's most famous home. Seated at the table, the women around Kitt buzzed about the possibility of LBJ popping into the luncheon and admired the place settings for a menu of crab meat bisque and chicken breasts.

Kitt grew annoyed, wondering whether the women would really talk about what was happening in the streets.

"The atmosphere began to hit me," she wrote, "but still I hoped it might become a constructive opportunity to air the problems we had supposedly come to talk about."

After dessert was served, the president walked in. According to a Jan. 19, 1968, Washington Post article headlined: "Eartha Kitt Confronts the Johnsons," LBJ called for more support of police and said, "there's a great deal we can do to see that our youth are not seduced, and the place to start is in the home."

When LBJ finished speaking, Kitt "rose and stood in front of him," according to The Post. "Mr. President," she asked, "What do you do about delinquent parents? Those who have to work and are too busy to look after their children?"

LBJ was startled by the question.

"We have just passed a Social Security bill that gives millions of dollars to day-care centers," LBJ told Kitt.

The actress insisted: "But what are we going to do?"

"That's something for women to discuss here," the president said, then walked out of the dining room.

"Mrs. Johnson's account had me blocking the path between the podium and the door," wrote Kitt, who died in 2008 at the age of 81. "I don't recall that, but I was certainly angry enough."

Kitt sat silently during the women's presentations.

To her, they seemed to want to talk about everything except the problems of juvenile delinquency. The women seemed more enamored with Lady Bird's plan to "beautify America."

All this talk about flowers when it seemed the world outside was blowing up. Kitt waited for her turn to speak.

Finally, Lady Bird nodded to her.

"I think we have missed the main point of this luncheon," Kitt said. "We have forgotten the main reason we have juvenile delinquency."

Then Kitt let Lady Bird have it about the Vietnam War:

"You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They will take pot . . . and they will get high. They don't want to go to school because they're going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam."

Lady Bird's face grew pale during the attack, according to The Post. Her voice trembled as she replied to Kitt:

"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 such as against crime in the streets, for better education and better health for our people."

"Just because there is a war going on," she added, "I see no reason to be uncivilized."

Kitt wrote, "I took it she was referring to me."

Afterward, there was no limousine waiting for Kitt outside. The reaction to her words was swift.

Kitt's entertainment bookings were canceled. She couldn't find work in the United States.

"After that White House thing, the government just pulled the gate on me," Kitt told The Washington Post in 1978.

"Dates simply started getting canceled," she said. "I knew that some government investigators had come around checking. I didn't know what it was for, then. One club owner told me he was sorry, but, 'You're a problem.'"

For several years, Kitt worked mostly in Europe.

Then, at the end of 1974, New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh called Kitt and told her he was about to publish CIA records that showed the agency had given the Secret Service information about her.

"The Central Intelligence Agency, asked by the Secret Service in 1968 about Eartha Kitt, produced an extensive report containing secondhand gossip about the entertainer but no evidence of any foreign intelligence connections," Hersh wrote in a Jan. 2, 1975, New York Times article. The report was sent to the Secret Service, Hersh wrote, "a week after Miss Kitt criticized the Vietnam War at a White House luncheon during the Johnson Administration."

In a 1998 interview with The Post, Kitt called the report "purely" political and proof that LBJ personally blackballed her.

"When Johnson calls up and says, 'I don't want to see that woman's face anywhere,' " she said, "you are out of business."

But, like Catwoman, she fought her way back to prominence.

Five years later after the CIA dossier was revealed, Kitt made a triumphant return to Broadway in the hit musical "Timbuktu," for which she earned a Tony nomination.

Her entrance on the stage was epic, critics wrote.

"She is standing, literally, on the palms of a giant in loincloth, his forearms horizontal at elbow level," Lon Tuck wrote in a Jan. 19, 1978, Post article. "The bearer stops at center stage, which is crowded with exotic figures in similar economy of dress, and lowers Kitt to the floor. She pauses with an expression appropriate to Princess Sahleem-la-Lume, the power behind the throne of Timbuktu in the year 1361.

"When all eyes are finally on her, she declares in that unmistakable huskiness: 'I am here.' "
 

Front page of The Washington Post's Jan. 19, 1968 edition.
THE WASHINGTON POST

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