When iconic performer Eartha Kitt died in 2008 at the age of 81, a tribute came from an island at the bottom of the world. 

From Tasmania, the Australian Greens thanked Kitt for her contribution to a national campaign to save the Franklin River in the south-west of the state from damming for hyrdroelectricity.

An American musician and movie star, known for her role as Catwoman in Batman and later as Yzma in kids animation The Emperor’s New Groove, Kitt lent her voice to the campaign after a flight over the proposed site.

Pilot and environmentalist parliamentarian Norman Sanders remembers the day he drove Kitt to a working sheep farm in Bothwell for a flight over south-west Tasmania.

Kitt fell in love with Tasmania

In the early 1950s, a young man working as an usher in the Biltmore theatre in downtown Los Angeles saw a captivating, popular singer take to the stage.

About 25 years later their paths crossed again in Tasmania, where he ignited her desire to speak publicly against the Gordon-below-Franklin dam project.

Dr Sanders was that young man and Kitt the performer.

Both American-born, Dr Sanders had moved to Tasmania, where he became a leader in the national campaign against damming the Franklin River.

His stance led to him to become Australia’s first parliamentarian elected on an environmental platform as a representative of the Australian Democrats.

He clearly remembers the performance he saw when he was 19 years old.

“She just had so much presence,” Dr Sanders recalls.

“Even as a kid, I was only young, I could see what an impact she had on her audience.”

Decades later, they crossed paths again when a mutual friend introduced the two in Hobart.

Kitt was in Tasmania to perform but sought opportunities to sight-see and meet locals during her two-week stay. Over lunch at Tasmania’s parliament house, she expressed curiosity about kunanyi/Mt Wellington, the mountain Hobart sits beneath.

“She said, ‘Are there any hiking trails up Mt Wellington? Would you show me?”,” Dr Sanders says.

They met next day at 7am.

“At the appointed hour, out comes Eartha Kitt, who Orson Welles called the most exciting woman in the world,” Dr Sanders says.

“There she is in a tracksuit and wearing Reeboks, she climbs into my old Datsun ute, and we go up Mt Wellington.”

“We went out on a track, which happened to be overlooking Hobart. It was a beautiful day, she just fell in love with the place.

“And so I said, “If you really want to see the place, I’ll take you flying.'”

Flying over Tasmania, Dr Sanders said Kitt became alarmed when she saw the environmental impact of the human-made reservoir Lake Gordon and learned of plans for the Gordon-below-Franklin dam.

The performer offered to create a commercial supporting the national campaign against damming. The offer was not taken up, but Kitt spoke with passion against the project to media.

“She was just overtaken by the beauty,” Dr Sanders says.

“She really loved Tasmania.”

A passion close to home

Kitt actively involved herself in a range of issues when touring Australia but a particular passion of hers was Aboriginal rights.

Eartha Kitt visits the North Rocks School for Deaf and Blind Children in New South Wales.(ABC Archives)

Born in poverty on a cotton plantation, Kitt saw the life she came out of as a child reflected in Australia and lent her voice to raising awareness of inequality.

Following a three-day tour of Perth and Fremantle in 1974, where she observed housing conditions for Aboriginal people, Kitt said she saw “absolute” poverty.

“You’re given enough feeling that we’re taking care of you and everything is going to be alright,” Kitt says.

“But like the [Stevie Wonder] song says, ‘You get just enough for the city.’ But there’s never enough to rise above.” 

On tour in 1992, Kitt took to the stage when spotted in the crowd at a rally marking the 25th anniversary of Aboriginal legal rights.

In a later interview, she said the experience of Aboriginal people in Australia was a universal issue for First Nations people, referencing her own experience as a Cherokee woman.

Eartha Kitt addresses a rally in South Australia.(ABC Archives)

In a postcard to Dr Sanders, Kitt spoke of meeting senator for Tasmania Peter Rae, who she said asked her to return to Australia to focus on Tasmanian problems. 

Kitt and Mr Rae met while filming a television program and, at his invitation, she later joined him at the Speakers Suite in Old Parliament House in Canberra for dinner.

 In a postcard to Dr Sanders, Kitt mentions a meeting with then Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Peter Rae.(Supplied: Norm Sanders)

Mr Rae recalls a “vivacious” character, who spoke at length about Aboriginal rights.

“My impression of her concern was that it was one of wishing to use her racial experiences in the United States to help overcome some problems in Australia,” Mr Rae says. 

During her visit to Parliament House in Canberra, Kitt crawled into the Aboriginal Tent Embassy to speak with the occupants about why they were protesting. She continued meeting with people until 3am, then caught an early flight to the Philippines for a performance. 

“She was an extraordinarily strong character, but also vital in her own way,” Mr Rae says.

“She left a strong impression on me.”

The cost of speaking out

Kitt did not shy away from the impact of using her platform to speak out or engage with social and environmental issues, but it came at a cost.

The performer lost several contracts when she spoke out against the Vietnam War when visiting the White House in 1968. 

“She gave me some rather dreadful examples, including that she had a Las Vegas contract that was suddenly cancelled,” Mr Rae said.

“And then she found that all of her contracts were cancelled.

“She was wiped.”

Kitt navigated the change by touring more extensively abroad and continued to speak out on issues close to her heart.

“She wouldn’t care, I’m sure, about her career,” Dr Sanders says.

“She was speaking her truth and people were listening, that’s all she cared about.”

Of her contribution to the national campaign against damming the Franklin, Dr Sanders says her small contribution helped build toward the finale.

“Every little bit helped,” Dr Sanders says.

“If any one action saved the Franklin, it’s [Kevin Kiernan] finding [Kutikina] cave, which became the basis for the World Heritage listing and the ultimate salvation of the Franklin.

“Any other single action, they’re just a part of the mix but they’re an important part of the mix.”

Kitt did not return to Tasmania, but Dr Sanders says she maintained a deep love of the island state and the people she met.

“It was such a change from the showbiz world she normally travelled in,” he says.

“Hobart was quite a change for her because she became part of the community for a short period of time.”

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