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October 21, 2014

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Remembering Eartha Kitt

Eartha Kitt died on Christmas Day. She was 81.

The news took me back to San Quentin Prison on a New Year’s Day in the early 1980s.

Eartha Kitt was playing a concert at the California prison and I was a young reporter.

I occasionally visited the prison for stories, and I knew the drill. Get there early and submit to a search. Don’t wear jeans. Pay attention as the guards explain: “We have a no-hostage policy, which means we won’t negotiate for your life.” I knew they were dead serious. I’d seen the photographs of the judge taken hostage by inmates at the local courthouse moments before prison guards killed them all as they tried to escape in a van.

Kitt was performing at an annual San Quentin show arranged by Bread and Roses, a group founded by folksinger Mimi Farina to provide music to shut-ins of all sorts, including prisoners. I’d been to a few of the shows. The musicians, usually sleepless from their New Year’s Eve gigs, performed for this most demanding audience. When they connected, the musicians would be visibly moved.

On this afternoon, the hall buzzed before the performers took the stage.

I sat among inmates whose good behavior had earned the privilege of seats down front. I talked with one denim-clad man about Kitt as Catwoman from the “Batman,” but we both agreed it didn’t compare with her role opposite Nat King Cole in the film “St. Louis Blues.”

The room crackled as Kitt slithered onto stage. I thought, “My God, she’s the sexiest woman in the world — and she’s as old as my mother.”

She growled and purred, taunting men who’d been locked up for years — some without possibility of parole. Easy prey for Kitt, I thought. “This isn’t fair.” The hoots and catcalls roiled through the crowd and the air became thick.

The whole room leaned forward as Kitt wandered off the stage with the microphone. She sang to one prisoner and then another, tugging on an ear, and ruffled hair. The room seemed soaked in gasoline.

Then Eartha Kitt ground down onto an inmate’s lap and threatened to light a match.

The next sound was cold and harsh, a guard in the catwalk high above racking a shell into his shotgun.

It echoed in my ears as I stopped breathing. The inmate next to me whispered. “If all hell breaks loose, grab a piece of the wall over there.”

The next thing I remember was Kitt being led back to the stage. The crowd was on its feet. His buddies were congratulating the inmate she’d singled out and he wore the widest grin I’d ever seen.

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