By Christopher Wilson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Eartha Kitt, a sensual singer, dancer and actress who rose from modest rural roots to captivate international audiences with her sultry voice and style, died Thursday at the age of 81.
Andrew Freedman, a long-time friend and publicist, said Kitt died of colon cancer for which she was recently treated at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York.
The cancer was detected about two years ago and treated but recurred after a period of remission.
"She came back strongly. She had been performing until two months ago," Freedman told Reuters by telephone from Los Angles. "We had dates booked through 2009."
Slinky and cat-like, Kitt described herself as a "sex kitten" and used her seductive purr to charm audiences across the world.
"She loved cabaret performances," Freedman said. "If there was ever an opportunity to do a small intimate venue with about 150 people, that was always her preference."
Kitt picked up a string of awards during her long career, winning two Emmys and being nominated for a third, as well as a Grammy. She also had two Tony nominations.
Kitt's hit songs included "C'est Si Bon," "Let's Do It" and "Just an Old Fashioned Girl." She also was widely associated with Christmas because of her hit "Santa Baby." The song went gold this year and she received the gold record before she died, Freedman said.
Blackballed in America for speaking out against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Kitt began performing in Europe and rose to fame before returning to her native land to great acclaim.
"She was never one to look back on her life," Freedman said. "She was a true individual who believed that if you had a true belief in yourself, your talent was authentic."
"My greatest challenge was to be able to survive in the business and to be able to survive according to what I was doing. Not what other people were doing," Kitt told Reuters in a 2005 television interview at the Newport, Rhode Island jazz festival.
"I just stuck to my own guns and I think that was one of the way's I have survived. I didn't follow the herd. I stuck to my own path," she said. "The audience is not supposed to know that I'm scared, the shyest person in the world."
Born Eartha Mae Kitt on a cotton plantation in South Carolina in 1927, she spoke in many interviews of her tough childhood in the impoverished South before she was sent to live with an aunt in New York City.
Kitt got her start as a member of the Katherine Dunham Company and made her film debut in "Casbah" in 1948. On television she was perhaps best known for her role as the sexy Catwoman in the 1960s U.S. TV series "Batman."
(Editing by Bill Trott)