Eartha Kitt Eartha Kitt

Eartha Kitt, an actress well known for her turn as TV's Catwoman and a singer whose choral calling cards included the sultry and seasonal "Santa Baby," died on Thursday of colon cancer, says a family spokesperson. She was 81.

Kitt's career spanned six decades, during which time she won two Emmys (for her voice work in The Emperor's New School, a small-screen adaptation of the animated feature The Emperor's New Groove) and collected several Tony and Grammy nominations.

Kitt began her career in 1946 as one of the Sans-Souci Singers in Katherine Dunham's Broadway production Bal Negre. That performance drew the appreciation of Orson Welles, who cast Kitt in his Paris staging of Faust — and later dubbed the exotic beauty the "most exciting woman in the world."

Kitt's debut album was released in 1954 and featured such songs as "I Want to Be Evil" and "Santa Baby." Her first lead film role came in 1958, starring opposite Nat King Cole in St. Louis Blues.

On television, Kitt of course made a purrrrfect fit as Catwoman on the late-1960s Batman series, replacing Lee Meriwether (who originated the role in a TV-movie). A 1965 guest appearance on I Spy netted Kitt an Emmy nomination.

As an author, she penned three autobiographies as well as Rejuvenate, a 2001 guide to staying physically fit.

In her personal life, Kitt was famously outspoken. After condemning the Vietnam war at a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson, she was investigated by the FBI and CIA, and found herself performing almost exclusively overseas.

Kitt's most recent performances included providing the voice of Yzma in the 2000 Disney release The Emperor's New Groove and a 2003 Broadway revival of Nine (where she replaced Chita Rivera).