December 26, 2008 12:01 AM EST

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She was born Eartha Mae Keith, in the direst circumstances: in segregated South Carolina, to an Afro-Cherokee woman who’d been raped by a white plantation owner. From this rough rural seed grew one of the wittiest, most sophisticated entertainers of the midcentury and beyond.

Something in Eartha Mae saw the genius in changing Keith to Kitt–a surname of inspired felinity. It heralded the sex kitten who purred the lyrics to her lightly naughty hit singles of the ’50s, whose seductive presence in films and on Broadway barely concealed her claws and who would achieve camp renown as the prowling, growling Catwoman of the ’60s Batman TV series.

In fact, Kitt’s persevering through a life that was always challenging demanded the strength and resilience of a jungle cat. After a rocky youth, she joined the Katherine Dunham dance troupe, which toured the world. Returning to New York City, Kitt conquered café society and became a pop sensation with “Monotonous,” “C’est si bon” and “Santa Baby.”

On Batman, as on records, she was the slinky dominatrix no man could hurt. But her words wounded her in 1968, when at a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson she spoke out against the Vietnam War. For a few years, Kitt was effectively blacklisted, not emerging until a triumphant Carnegie Hall recital in 1974. Up to her death on Dec. 25, she was a star attraction at New York’s Café Carlyle: still the sexy chanteuse, ever a kitten on the keys.

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