Bob Dylan and Eartha Kitt: Dealing With Presidents
Your Position and Your Place . . . Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter was different. Not only was he happy to accept proceeds from rock concerts benefiting his campaign, but he was actually familiar with the rock artists and their material. On the campaign trail he spoke highly of music by Paul Simon, The Allman Brothers Band, and most especially, Bob Dylan. Carter called Dylan a friend and a “source of my understanding about what’s right and wrong in this society.” Such was not the standard campaign fodder. One might have expected Carter, upon election, to meet with Dylan and discuss the nation’s priorities. But there was no Carter-Dylan summit. Surprisingly enough, there wasn’t even a Dylan concert at the White House.
On December 12, 1978, Dylan gave a nearly three-hour concert at the Omni in Atlanta. Carter had famously attended one of the two Dylan concerts given there in January ’74. Then, Carter was Governor of Georgia. He was little known outside the South, but already working behind the scenes to win the Presidency. Carter proved most creative. Little things like attending the concert, and inviting Dylan and The Band to the Governor’s Mansion after the show caught the attention of discerning baby-boomers. A large segment of America’s young voters read all about Dylan, The Band, and Gregg Allman spending time with Georgia’s resourceful governor in the pages of Rolling Stone.
That chilly night in January ’74 was a good time for both Dylan and Carter. The Dylan tour was getting the two-thumbs-up-way-up treatment in the rock press and the Carter team had to be jazzed with what they were endeavoring to pull off. The Carter people could claim a commonality of sorts with Dylan. In his songs, Dylan had long chastened the established order. In seeking the presidency, Carter would campaign against “Washington.” The political and media elite took notice, and the outsider claimed victory. Just one day shy of three years since his first meeting with Dylan, Carter reported to work in the Oval Office.
Jimmy Carter enjoyed being president but some days proved difficult. In his White House Diary on December 4, 1978, he wrote, “This is the worst time of the year for me, with the Mideast, SALT, China, South Africa, Nicaragua coming to a head and preparing for the 1980 budget–all onerous and dispiriting–nothing pleasant.” Perhaps it would’ve been a good idea for Carter to fly down to Atlanta the next week to hear Dylan at the Omni. After the concert, they could have gotten together for a lively chat on their work and the bad press they were getting.
Rolling Stone had taken both to task in recent months. In June, the magazine published an article by right-wing columnist Patrick J. Buchanan entitled “Why Carter Must Go.” Pat Buchanan? In Rolling Stone? Just two years before. the magazine had run a long and captivating piece by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson that praised Carter’s integrity and refreshing attitude. Buchanan, of course, had a different take, writing, “Sixteen months and Jimmy Carter’s presidency is dead in the water, trapped in a Sargasso sea of contradiction and incompetence.”
Two months later, Rolling Stone published Greil Marcus’s review of Dylan’s new album, Street Legal. Marcus, of course, had written many words extolling Dylan over the years. He admired much of Dylan’s work, whereas we can be sure Buchanan was rarely, if at all, in Carter’s camp. So when Marcus found little to admire about Street Legal, calling most of the album “dead air or close to it,” the words proved disquieting, if not to Dylan himself, then certainly to many of his fans. Throughout that year Dylan’s work would continue to receive harsh judgments. An October issue of New Times magazine featured an article by Newsday music critic Wayne Robins which had nothing kind to say about a recent Dylan concert at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum. Robins likened the concert to a slick Vegas show, concluding that wisdom called for Dylan’s “graceful retirement, or at least a well-deserved rest.”
But on December 12, 1978, if retirement wasn’t on Dylan’s mind, Jimmy Carter was. After his Omni concert that evening, he spoke with a reporter (“too embarrassed to sign my name” to the story, the editor’s note said) for The Atlanta Gazette. Dylan and the reporter are recalling the ’74 Atlanta concert which Carter attended and the party at the Governor’s Mansion afterward. “You know,” Dylan says, “He didn’t invite me to the inauguration, and he’s never invited me to the White House.” The reporter was taken aback, “Never? In two years?” he asked. Dylan responded as if he wanted to speak with Carter himself about the slight, ” No, never. He had Charlie Daniels to sing. I never heard him quote any Charlie Daniels song.” No surprise there. Paraphrasing from Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” to say America was a country busy being born and not dying sounded much better on the campaign trail north of the Mason-Dixon line than “Be proud you’re a rebel, ’cause the South’s gonna do it again.”
Even though Jimmy Carter didn’t host Dylan at the White House, he and wife Rosalyn Carter have attended Dylan concerts in Atlanta over the last 25 years or so. In summer ’88, they attended a Dylan concert at the Chastain Park Amphitheatre on the city’s north side. G.E. Smith was on lead guitar. Dylan and his band were loud and they rocked hard. Sitting close to the stage, Jimmy Carter may have thought it wasn’t how most couples in their sixties spent an evening out. And he probably found it more fun than some of those long nights in the Oval Office.
And How You Like To Be Kissed . . . Eartha Kitt was a star of stage, screen, television and the American Top 40. Orson Welles once called her the world’s most exciting woman. Considering Welles had been married to Rita Hayworth, that’s high praise. Upon seeing Kitt dance at a Parisian nightclub in 1950, Welles decided to cast her as Helen of Troy for his stage production of Doctor Faustus. During the show’s run, he became quite enamored with Kitt. Welles turned on the charm, sharing with her what she called a “marvelous gourmet type of living.” Naturally enough, Orson Welles was smitten. But along with the high life, Kitt was also introduced to Welles’s unpredictability. “I never knew what the hell he was going to do,” Kitt remembered.
The impetuous nature of Welles was experienced first hand — very first hand — by Kitt in the opening night presentation of Doctor Faustus. Barbara Leaming, in her biography, Orson Welles, reports on the drama within the drama.
To illustrate, (Kitt) describes the strange scene…. Miss Kitt played a young student who, seeing a statue of Faust in a museum, falls in love with him. The action that unfolds is the daydream she has about the statue’s coming alive. As the spotlight falls on Orson, he begins suddenly to move. “And he stretches his arms out,” Miss Kitt recalls. “The girl gets up on the other side of the stage. As she gets to Orson, he takes her in his arms and he says, ‘Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.’ He’s talking to the audience , and he says, ‘Helen make me immortal with a kiss, he pulls me up to him, he kisses me, but he bites me at the same time. I mean, he bites me to such an extent that it was very painful.” Miss Kitt suspected it was the conspicuous presence of an older gentleman friend of hers from the states that triggered Orson’s jealous outburst: “I asked him later and he said that he was jealous. He said he got excited.”
Pass The Sugar, Lady Bird . . . In January ’68, there were many, especially in the government, who wished Kitt had bitten her tongue, or at least held it. Always candid, she let fly with her opinions at a White House luncheon hosted by the First Lady of the United States, Lady Bird Johnson. Kitt was among the 50 influential women (called “Women Doers”) invited to discuss juvenile delinquency and the problems of American youth. For some reason, Mrs. Johnson asked Kitt about the Vietnam War. Instead of mumbling the standard pap regarding the brave young soldiers, and then asking the First Lady to pass the sugar bowl, Kitt made her feelings clear, “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed; no wonder the kids rebel and take pot,” Kitt declared.
Eartha Kitt wasn’t finished. She held her ground, more resolved as she continued, “The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson — we raise children and send them to war.”
Reportedly, Kitt’s strong words brought Mrs. Johnson to tears. So while President Johnson couldn’t end American involvement in Vietnam or help America reconcile with its young people, he could show support for his wife by changing the direction of Eartha Kitt’s career. Prior to conveying her feelings to the First Lady, Kitt had been a big star in the United States. She was that great rarity: a black entertainer accepted by the mainstream. Kitt was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, nominated for an Emmy in ’66 for a guest performance on “I Spy” and during the 67-68 TV season, appeared as Catwoman on “Batman.” However, her achievements became irrelevant to millions overnight after so freely stating her mind. She became persona non grata in America.
In a ’97 interview with Philadelphia’s Citypaper, Kitt recalled Johnson saying, “I don’t want to see that woman’s face anywhere. Out of sight, out of mind.” Johnson got his wish. Kitt spent the next decade performing at venues in Europe and Asia. But in 1978, she returned to New York to star in Timbuktu!, the Broadway musical. The same year, she made a return to Washington, to the White House, where she was welcomed by President Jimmy Carter.