When Eartha Kitt Disrupted the Ladies Who LunchHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Vietnam War, 1960s, Lyndon Johnson, Protest, Batman, Lady Bird Johnson, Eartha Kitt
Eartha Kitt didn’t want to attend the White House luncheon that wound up derailing her career: the 1968 Women Doers Luncheon, the First Lady Claudia (Lady Bird) Johnson called it. The topic of interest would be delinquency in the streets. Kitt didn’t put much stock in the gathering. “Those luncheons—what are they gonna mean?” she remembered thinking. “Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, and that’s it.”
Kitt, in fact, had crashed a luncheon roughly a month earlier, playing Catwoman in an episode of “Batman,” the campy, Skittles-hued series that punctuated its punches with “Bam!”s, “Whack!”s, and family-friendly messages about how crime isn’t groovy. At the fictional luncheon—a celebration of Batgirl, Gotham City’s declared best-dressed woman—the ladies who lunch, coiffed and hatted, politely clap as they sit in front of tables that hardly have any lunch on them. Holy yawn fest, Batman. When Kitt as Catwoman interrupts the affair, her skintight, shimmery noir catsuit is a titillating, sharp gasp against all that dull prettiness. “How can Batgirl be the best anything when Catwoman is around?” she says, with a sensual smirk. In her embodiment of Catwoman, her musculature moves in prowls; her vibrato is translated into purrs; she’s PG-rated sex. It’s the kind of immortally slinky performance that gets mass-produced in polyester every Halloween. Kitt was one of the rare Black female performers to make it to prime time, and she was glorious in the television’s glow. But at Lady Bird’s luncheon Kitt earned herself another kind of fame.
At that event, in front of another room full of polite ladies with coiffed hairdos and hats, Kitt spoke out against the Vietnam War. The war was in its thirteenth year and under its third sitting U.S. President with Lyndon B. Johnson, and the mood of the nation’s youth about his Vietnam policy may best be encapsulated by the chant “Hey, hey, L.B.J. How many kids did you kill today?” Kitt, who didn’t think of herself as a political person, had spent time working with youth organizations, so she knew how the kids felt, and how they feared. “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the streets. They will take pot, and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school, ’cause they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam,” Lady Bird would later recall Kitt saying. “No wonder the kids rebel and take pot—and Mrs. Johnson, in case you don’t understand the lingo, that’s marijuana.”
The event that was the 1968 Women Doers Luncheon has been well documented—Kitt herself spoke, and wrote, of the ordeal on many occasions—but Scott Calonico, the director of the documentary short “Catwoman vs. the White House,” presents a more comprehensive view. Calonico told me that he wanted to find out if he could unearth any firsthand recordings of the famous moment. Thus, with footage from the L.B.J. Presidential Library, combined with recorded accounts from Kitt and Lady Bird’s audio diary, he succeeds in reconstructing the scene that would make the front page of the New York Times, published with the headline “eartha kitt denounces war policy to mrs. johnson.” This woman doer did too much. As a consequence, Kitt was virtually unhirable in the United States for a decade.