I very much enjoyed John L Williams’ thorough examination of the early years of Shirley Bassey in his 2010 publication “Miss Shirley Bassey” when I read it back in 2015. Williams, who has written about and lives in Cardiff seemed well placed to offer his perspective on the Welsh diva’s rise to fame. With “America’s Mistress” he’s kept to the theme of the black female entertainer in the white dominated world of the 1950’s yet here the Brit commenting on the life and background of the American performer gives it a different viewpoint to the one he had in the previous book. Shirley Bassey was a great supporter of Eartha when she visited the UK and both performers had much in common- a rise from poverty to fame; song stylists with a heightened sense of drama unafraid of using their sexuality in a straight-laced era and their uniqueness as there was nobody else out there like them which gave them an air of the exotic. This helped them achieve a level of fame denied others of their skin colour.
It’s the American background which gives Eartha more issues with her skin colour. Williams portrays her as the woman wealthy white men fell in love with but felt unable to marry- this explains the “America’s Mistress” of the title. These romances led to a backlash from black audiences who saw her aspirations to move in white high society as betrayal whereas, in fact, Eartha did become active within the Civil Rights movement. Eartha often spoke of this dilemma saying that she was too light skinned to be accepted by African Americans and too dark skinned to avoid prejudice and segregation. She wasn’t especially light-skinned. The issue was probably more to do with the kind of performer she was, a feline 50’s glamour puss who became anachronistic and was sure to find herself at odds with society.
It does seem that Eartha could be difficult, not everyone warmed to her. I would have liked to have read more about that. Was this the case or just another maligned woman who showed she did not need men to handle her career and was criticised for it? Paradoxically, despite this career independence she was always on the search for love from a powerful wealthy man (which in this era would largely mean a white man). The asides she made in her songs about wanting material things from her man were not far from the truth. There was a short-lived marriage which produced daughter Kitt, who from then on became the central focus to Mama Kitt’s life.
Williams is better on Eartha’s early career. Most of my generation would remember the perfect casting of her as Catwoman in the third series of “Batman” TV show (amazingly only five episodes but which got me feeling so nostalgic that I went and ordered the complete series DVDs off Amazon) yet by this time Williams is hurtling on a bit and this wasn’t given much attention. He takes as his nominal finishing point Eartha leaving the US for Europe in 1970 and that’s a great pity because the Kitt story is far from over and the rest is left pretty much to a hasty epilogue, but actually, it’s the days when the star starts to wane that I find most fascinating.
Eartha was always a real trouper. She was a regular visitor to Britain in the 80’s and I believe my sister saw her perform once in Finland. I saw her completely stop the show when she sang “I’m Still Here” in Steven Sondheim’s “Follies” in the West End. I saw her perform in concert a couple of times and she was terrific. There’s scant mention of her chart career revival which drew her a whole new audience that wasn’t even born when she was at the height of her fame. The high-energy hit “Where Is My Man?” gave her a first UK Top 40 hit for 28 years, there’s no mention at all of the startling collaboration with Bronski Beat on the Divine referencing in-joke of “Cha Cha Heels” a number 32 hit in 1989, nor of her return to a big Hollywood film with Eddie Murphy’s “Boomerang” and that is a shame because these omissions left me feeling dissatisfied. Williams seems to more or less write off the last 20 years of her career which I find surprising for a British writer as she was still a big draw over here who would always make headlines. So not as comprehensive as I would have liked but he does go some way in trying to capture the essence of this unique performer, a woman he describes aptly in his closing words as “the most feline of revolutionaries”.
America’s Mistress was published by Quercus in 2013.