Kitt was born Eartha Mae Keith on a cotton plantation in North, South Carolina, which is a small town in Orangeburg County near Columbia, South Carolina. Her mother was of Cherokee and African-American descent and her father of German and Dutch descent. She claimed she was conceived by rape.
Kitt was raised by her mother's sister, Anna Mae Riley, an African-American woman whom she believed was her mother. Kitt claimed that she suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of a family to whom Anna Mae Riley entrusted her - "given away for slavery," as she described it in many interviews. After Riley's death, she was sent to live in New York City with Mamie Kitt, who she learned was her biological mother; she had no knowledge of her father, except that his surname was Kitt and that he was supposedly a son of the owner of the farm she had been born on. Newspaper obituaries state that her white father was "a poor cotton farmer."
Kitt began her career as a member of the Katherine Dunham Company and made her film debut with them in Casbah (1948). A talented singer with a distinctive voice, her hits include "Let's Do It," "Champagne Taste," "C'est si bon," "Just an Old Fashioned Girl," "Monotonous," "Je cherche un homme," "Love for Sale," "I'd Rather Be Burned as a Witch," "Uska Dara," "Mink, Schmink," "Under the Bridges of Paris," and her most recognizable hit, "Santa Baby," which was released in 1953. Kitt's unique style was enhanced as she became fluent in the French language during her years performing in Europe. She had some skill in other languages too, which she demonstrates with finesse in many of the live recordings of her cabaret performances.
In 1950, Orson Welles gave her her first starring role, as Helen of Troy in his staging of Dr. Faustus. A few years later, she was cast in the revue New Faces of 1952 introducing "Monotonous" and "Bal, Petit Bal," two songs with which she continues to be identified. In 1954, 20th Century Fox filmed a version of the revue simply titled New Faces. Welles and Kitt allegedly had a torrid affair during her run in Shinbone Alley, which earned her the nickname by Welles as "the most exciting woman in the world." In 1958, Kitt made her feature film debut opposite Sidney Poitier in The Mark of the Hawk. Throughout the rest of the 1950s and early 1960s, Kitt would work on and off in film, television and on nightclub stages. In 1964, Kitt helped open the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, California. Also in the 1960s, the television series Batman featured her as Catwoman after Julie Newmar left the role.
In 1968, however, Kitt encountered a substantial professional setback after she made anti-war statements during a White House luncheon. It was reported that she made First Lady Lady Bird Johnson cry. The public reaction to Kitt's statements was much more extreme, both for and against her statements. Professionally exiled from the U.S., she devoted her energies to overseas performances.
During that time, cultural references to her grew, including outside the United States, such as the well-known Monty Python sketch "The Cycling Tour," where an amnesiac believes he is first Clodagh Rodgers, then Trotsky and finally Eartha Kitt (while performing to an enthusiastic crowd in Moscow). She returned to New York in a triumphant turn in the Broadway spectacle Timbuktu! (a version of the perennial Kismet set in Africa) in 1978. In the musical, one song gives a 'recipe' for mahoun, a preparation of cannabis, in which her sultry purring rendition of the refrain "constantly stirring with a long wooden spoon" was distinctive.
In 1984, she returned to the music charts with a disco song, "Where Is My Man", the first certified Gold record of her career. "Where Is My Man" reached the Top 40 on the UK Singles Chart, where it peaked at #36; The song also made the Top 10 on the US Billboard dance chart, where it reached #7. The single was followed by the album "I Love Men" on the Record Shack label. Kitt found new audiences in nightclubs across the UK and the US, including a whole new generation of gay male fans, and she responded by frequently giving benefit performances in support of HIV/AIDS organizations. Her 1989 follow-up hit "Cha-Cha Heels" (featuring Bronski Beat), which was originally intended to be recorded by Divine, received a positive response from UK dance clubs and reached #32 in the charts in that country.
In the late 1990s she appeared as the Wicked Witch of the West in the North American national touring company of The Wizard of Oz. Kitt had a supporting role as Lady Eloise in the hit film Boomerang starring Eddie Murphy. In 2000, Kitt again returned to Broadway in the short-lived run of Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party opposite Mandy Patinkin and Toni Collette. Beginning in late 2000, she starred as the Fairy Godmother in the US national tour of Cinderella alongside Deborah Gibson and then Jamie-Lynn Sigler. In 2003, she replaced Chita Rivera in Nine. She reprised her role as the Fairy Godmother at a special engagement of Cinderella, which took place at Lincoln Center during the holiday season of 2004.
One of her more unusual roles was as Kaa the python in a 1994 BBC Radio adaptation of The Jungle Book. Kitt lent her distinctive voice to the role of Yzma in Disney's The Emperor's New Groove and returned to the role in the straight-to-video sequel Kronk's New Groove and the spin-off TV series The Emperor's New School, for which she won an Emmy Award and two Annie Awards for Voice Acting in an Animated Television Production. She had a voiceover as the voice of Queen Vexus on the animated TV series My Life as a Teenage Robot.
In recent years, Kitt's annual appearances in New York made her a fixture on the Manhattan cabaret scene. She would take the stage at venues such as the Ballroom and the Café Carlyle to explore and define her highly stylized image, alternating between signature songs such as Old Fashioned Millionaire, which emphasized a witty, mercenary world-weariness, and less familiar repertoire, much of which she performed with an unexpected ferocity and bite that presented her as a survivor with a seemingly bottomless reservoir of resilience her version of "Here's to Life," frequently used as a closing number, was a sterling example of the latter. This facet of her later performances was reflected in at least one of her recordings, Thinking Jazz, which preserved a series of performances with a small jazz combo that took place in the early 1990s in Germany and which included both standards ("Smoke Gets in Your Eyes") and numbers ("Something May Go Wrong") that seemed more specifically tailored to her talents; one version of the CD includes as bonus performances a fierce, angry Yesterday and a live rendering of "C'est Si Bon" that good-naturedly satirized her sex-kitten persona.
From October to early December, 2006, Kitt co-starred in the Off-Broadway musical Mimi le Duck. She also appeared in the 2007 independent film And Then Came Love opposite Vanessa L. Williams.
In 1978, she did the voice-over in a TV commercial for the album Aja by the rock group Steely Dan.
After romances with the cosmetics magnate Charles Revson and banking heir John Barry Ryan III, she was married to John William McDonald, an associate of a real-estate investment company, from June 6, 1960, to 1965. They had one child, a daughter, Kitt (b. 1962, married Charles Lawrence Shapiro). Eartha had two grandchildren, Jason and Rachel Shapiro. Kitt lived in the Merryall section of New Milford, Connecticut for many years as well as Pound Ridge, New York, then in 2002 moved to Weston, Connecticut to be near her daughter's family.
Kitt wrote three autobiographies – Thursday's Child (1956), Alone with Me (1976), and I'm Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten (1989).
Kitt was the spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics' Smoke Signals collection in August 2007. She re-recorded "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" for the occasion, was showcased on the MAC website, and the song was played at all MAC locations carrying the collection for the month.
Eartha died after a long battle against colon cancer on December 25 (Christmas Day), 2008 at Weston, Connecticut. She was 81