Eartha Kitt, who purred and pounced her way across Broadway stages, recordings and movie and television screens in a show-business career that lasted more than six decades, died on Thursday. She was 81 and lived in Connecticut.
Ms. Kitt, who began performing as a dancer in New York in the late 40s, went on to achieve success and acclaim on Broadway, recordings, film and television, long before other entertainment multitaskers like Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler. With her curvaceous frame and unabashed vocal come-ons, she was also, along with Lena Horne, among the first widely known African-American sex symbols. Orson Welles famously proclaimed her the most exciting woman alive in the early 50s, apparently just after that excitement prompted him to bite her onstage during a performance of Time Runs, an adaptation of Faust in which Ms. Kitt played Helen of Troy.
Ms. Kitts career-long persona, that of the seen-it-all sybarite, was set when she performed in Paris cabarets in her early 20s, singing songs that became her signatures like Cest Ci Bon and Love for Sale. Returning to New York, she was cast on Broadway in New Faces of 1952 and added another jewel to her vocal crown, Monotonous (Traffic has been known to stop for me/Prices even rise and drop for me/Harry S. Truman plays bop for me/Monotonous, monotonous). Brooks Atkinson wrote in The Times in May 1952, Eartha Kitt not only looks incendiary but can make a song burst into flame.
Shortly after that run, Ms. Kitt had her first best-selling albums and recorded her biggest hit, Santa Baby, whose precise, come-hither diction and vaguely foreign inflections (Ms. Kitt, a native of South Carolina, spoke four languages and sang in seven) proved that a vocal sizzle could be just as powerful as a bonfire.
Though her record sales fell off after the rise of rhythm and blues and rock n roll in the mid- and late 50s, her singing style would later be the template for other singers with small-but-sensual voices like Diana Ross (who has said she patterned her Supremes sound and look largely after Ms. Kitt), Janet Jackson and Madonna, who recorded a cover version of Santa Baby in 1987. Ms. Kitt would later call herself the original material girl, a reference not only to her stage creation but also to her string of romances with rich or famous men, including Welles, the cosmetics magnate Charles Revson and the banking heir John Barry Ryan 3rd. She was married to her one husband, Bill McDonald, a real-estate developer, from 1960 to 1965; their daughter, Kitt Shapiro, survives her, as do two grandchildren.
From practically the beginning of her career, as critics gushed over Ms. Kitt they also began to describe her in every feline term imaginable: her voice purred or was like catnip; she was a sex kitten who slinked or was on the prowl across the stage, sometimes flashing her claws. Her career has often been said to have had nine lives. Appropriately enough, she was tapped to play Catwoman in the 1960s TV series Batman, taking over the role from Julie Newmar and bringing to it a more feral, compact energy.
Yet for all the camp appeal and sexually-charged hauteur of Ms. Kitts cabaret act, she also played serious roles, appearing in the films The Mark of the Hawk with Sidney Poitier (1957) and Anna Lucasta (1959) with Sammy Davis Jr. She made numerous TV appearances, including a guest spot on I Spy in 1965, which brought her her first Emmy nomination.