Eartha Kitt Taught Cannabis Lingo to a First Lady

By David Jenison on December 25, 2018

Fifty years ago, the singer-actress Eartha Kitt was at the height of her career. She had radio hits with “C'est si bon” and the sultry “Santa Baby,” replaced Julie Newmar as Catwoman in Batman, and she even had one of the first stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Born into poverty on a cotton plantation in South Carolina and raised by a single mother of African and Cherokee descent, Kitt overcame tremendous odds, and her fame earned her a White House invite by Lady Bird Johnson. Sadly, that 1968 visit saw Kitt pay the price for speaking truth to power. 

The all-female luncheon focused on what citizens can do to make the streets safer, but Kitt opted to give the First Lady her thoughts on the Vietnam War as well. According to reports, the actress said, "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot. And Mrs. Johnson, in case you don't understand the lingo, that's marijuana."

Tying it back to the “insure safe streets” theme, Kitt added, “The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. We don't have what we have on Sunset Boulevard for no reason. They are rebelling against something.” 

The backlash against Kitt started in that room and accelerated like a wildfire from there. She was a “sadistic nymphomaniac” with a “nasty disposition,” and the CIA started a dossier on the singer-actress. As she was blacklisted by the industry, Kitt had no choice but to continue her career in Europe. 

A decade later, Kitt returned to the U.S. to play Shaleem-La-Lume in the Broadway musical Timbuktu! Her performance, which included reciting a recipe for majoun (an edible typically made with cannabis or hash), earned her a Tony Award nomination and renewed fame. Later that year, she received a new invite from President Jimmy Carter that saw Kitt make her triumphant return to the White House. She said she believed the invite was meant to send a message.

Kitt, who passed away on Christmas a decade ago today, later became a major advocate for same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ causes, calling it “a civil rights” issue. Her post-1978 successes included three Emmy wins, another Tony recognition, a spokesperson gig with MAC Cosmetics and roles opposite Eddie Murphy in the 1992 hit Boomerang, and in several animated Disney films. In an episode that aired after she passed, Kitt even played one of Krusty the Clown's ex-wives on The Simpsons.

Photo credits: Wikipedia and Loren Javier/Flickr.

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