Today, Eartha Kitt is most known for her songs "C'est si bon" and "Santa Baby" and her turn as Catwoman on the Batman TV series. But her first recording, and her first hit, was "Uska Dara," which she learned and performed while working in Istanbul. Kitt had already toured Europe as a member of the Katherine Dunham Company, and developed a nightclub act in Paris. She then spent some time in Turkey.
This was the Istanbul Eartha encountered in 1951: a shaky but vibrant, regenerative place; a place that had gone about the business of reinventing itself as arts capital of a post–Ottoman Empire, new Turkish republic. World War II was over by then, the Cold War freshly hatched, and Turkey was fast becoming an American ally. President Truman had recently cemented this alliance through the Truman Doctrine, announcing generous Cold War support to both Turkey and Greece. And so politically there was an alliance, and culturally there were the beginnings of one, too. The Katherine Dunham dance troupe’s tour, for instance, was funded by the U.S. government, part of an American effort to introduce jazz and blues to Turkey.
Eartha heard “Üsküdar’a Gider İken” for the first time at an Istanbul bar. The wife of a Turkish naval officer taught her the words, helped her with pronunciation, and Eartha began performing the song solo at Kervansaray, a new club in the city’s business district that catered mostly to men. By all accounts, when young Eartha entertained, it was a performance of self-possessed female sexuality, and I wonder what it must have been like for her to be on that Turkish stage. What did it mean for a teenage black woman to be starting her career in a place so linked to U.S. Cold War imperialism, a place deeply segregated along lines of gender, a place so racially flat? What was it like for her to entertain Muslim men who, until fairly recently, had been under Ottoman rule, their women under lock and veil? Did the men rise, clapping until their palms stung? Did they avert their eyes, in accordance with Islamic law?