To audiences Eartha Kitt was the ultimate sex kitten, the sultry singer of "Santa Baby" and the "purr-fect" Catwoman whose Grammy, Tony and Emmy nominated performances over sixty years broke color lines - and hearts.
To Kitt Shapiro she was "Mommy." An only child, Shapiro's birth was announced on a magazine cover. "My mother and I have been challenging people's expectations ever since."
Eartha Kitt was black and petite. Shapiro is "blonde and fair, tall like my father, Bill McDonald, who was white," of German and Irish descent. "In public, people would try to figure out who and what we were to each other."
"In private, I faced the typical challenges of being a daughter, along with the complications of race and celebrity that came with having Eartha Kitt for my mother."
Eartha Kitt was born on a cotton plantation in South Carolina in 1927. "She never knew who her father was." When she was five, the woman she believed to be her mother ran off with a man, only to die soon after. Left behind, with strangers, Eartha was abused "because in those days her ‘milk chocolate' skin color was too dark for the white folks and too light for the blacks."
An aunt brought Eartha to New York City and later claimed to be her real mother, but it was never proved. "Hard as it is for me to imagine, my mother spent her entire life wrestling with the fact that she'd never know who either of her parents were for sure."
On a dare, Eartha auditioned for the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, and got a scholarship. On tour in Europe, moonlighting as a singer in a Paris nightclub, she became a sensation.
"By the time I was born, my mother was famous. Yet even with all she had experienced, despite everything that had happened to her, I was the first person she really felt connected to. She didn't even have to think about my name. It was going to be ‘Kitt' whether I was a boy or a girl."
"She'd introduce us by saying "I'm Eartha, she's Kitt." She felt I completed her. And when I was very young, I would tell her I'd chosen her out of all the other mommies to be mine."
"I traveled the world with my mother, going wherever her work took us, while my father stayed home. My parents got divorced when I was five. It was unspoken, but I think he knew it was hard for me to see him without my feeling like I was betraying my mother."
Eartha and Kitt "were like night and day!" Shapiro "was knock-kneed until I was nine, in orthopedic shoes" while Eartha "danced her way across the world in high heels." Her sheltered "princess" life of privilege with tutors and tennis lessons was a far cry from Eartha's impoverished "urchin" childhood. And "I was laissez- faire about my studies at a private French school while she had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge her whole life."
But "my mother was determined not to raise a spoiled brat," insisting on "good manners, good citizenship" - and good intentions. One day "I'd be at a five star hotel in Hong Kong" and the next "at my mother's foundation in Watts where she worked with ‘at-risk' kids."
"As I got older our roles reversed. I felt I had to protect her, especially after the fallout over her outspokenness against the war in Vietnam."
Throughout, as the single fixed point in the kaleidoscope of Eartha's long life and career, Shapiro "was everything and everyone to her."
"The greatest gift my mother gave me was knowing she always loved me. All the more remarkable since love was something she never had as a child."
"The two sides of my upbringing, the stardust and the down to earth, reflected the two sides of my mother: the diva, and the real-life ‘Beverly Hillbilly' who kept a chicken coop and vegetable garden behind our fancy house."
That's right, in the 1960s when it was unheard of, the gold digging femme fatale dripping with diamonds on stage was raising her own organic food "People are surprised to learn that off stage she led a humble, holistic life as ‘green' as her given name."
Shapiro is launching the "Simply Eartha" home décor line as a tribute to her mother inspired by her unique style, featuring images of Eartha and her writings, and made in the USA of natural materials.
Now that Shapiro is married, with children of her own, she designed "Simply Eartha" to embody the elemental philosophies of "empowerment and serenity" she was raised with.
"My mother was an incredibly real, complex, flawed, wonderful human being who was true to herself and followed her heart. She encouraged me to be independent, and to express myself."
"I was with my mother when she died on Christmas Day, 2008. Sad as I was, I felt blessed. There was nothing left unsaid or undone. There were no regrets. She may have come into this world belonging to nothing and no one, but that is not how she left it. She belonged to me. We belonged to each other."