Lady Bird to LBJ: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”

Purists will remind me it was actually a luncheon, but we’ll let the title stand, given the great double entendre to the movie with that title, And of course we’ll probably never know for sure who approved the choice to invite Ms. Kitt to the White House (though she explained in the video below that it was actually Hubert Humphrey who recommended her to Mrs. Johnson, and it was Lady Bird who was the organizer of the event). She was a popular contemporary singer / actress and self-proclaimed “sex kitten” who played Catwoman in the ’60’s TV series Batman and sang a sultry version of “Santa Baby” (but never in the White House).

Eartha Kitt corners LBJ with pointed questions; he responds with platitudes and non-sequiturs

When she first received the invitation she decided not to go, fearing that it would not be a serious symposium on the problems plaguing urban youths. But the White House social secretary began begging her to attend and she decided that it might be an opportunity for her to make a contribution to that effort and so, despite her misgivings, she caught a flight to Washington. The White House had made reservations for her at the Shoreham Hotel, where she spent the night. The next morning, January 18, 1968, they sent a limousine to take her to the White House.[1]

Eartha Kitt was one of 50 women attending the White House event, “Women Doer’s Luncheon” to discuss the subject of the luncheon: “Why is there so much juvenile delinquency in the streets of America?” Unfortunately, Ms. Kitt became angry when that topic was not being discussed and most of the talk was all about how wonderful were Lady Bird’s attempts to beautify the countryside with flowers, and such things as regulations for constructing fencing around auto salvage yards. Most of the other women there were friends of Lady Bird, wives of Senators and other ladies not so much inclined to go where Eartha wanted to explore.

Both “L.B.J.’s” were present in the dining room of the family’s residence as shown in the photo above. The President arrived just after dessert was served to deliver a few platitudes and soak up the fawning [probably fake] adulation of most of the ladies there. According to a Jan. 19, 1968, Washington Post article headlined: “Eartha Kitt Confronts the Johnsons,” LBJ called for more support of police and said, “there’s a great deal we can do to see that our youth are not seduced, and the place to start is in the home.”

When LBJ finished speaking, Kitt “rose and stood in front of him,” according to The Post. “Mr. President,” she asked, “What do you do about delinquent’s parents? Those who have to work and are too busy to look after their children?” Johnson’s response was simply that “We have just passed a Social Security bill that gives millions of dollars to day-care centers,” as he left the room. Ms. Kitt was not as impressed by his eminence as the other ladies were.[2]

Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson kept a detailed taped diary throughout her LBJ’s presidency. A transcript from a Jan. 18, 1968, recording details the day of the luncheon. Mrs. Johnson said that Kitt took a step toward her, “looking with intense directness at me,” when she offered her critique. She also said that Kitt’s speech “stunned the room into silence.” According to Ms. Kitt, “Mrs. Johnson’s account had me blocking the path between the podium and the door. I don’t recall that, but I was certainly angry enough.”

Finally, Lady Bird nodded to her to make comments.

Ms. Kitt said, “I think we have missed the main point of this luncheon. We have forgotten the main reason we have juvenile delinquency.” She then proceeded to explain to Mrs. Johnson and the other ladies perhaps for the first time how she, and many other citizens, felt about the damaging effects on young people, and the culture itself, of the disastrous Vietnam War:

“You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They will take pot and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”

Dick Cavett Interviews Eartha Kitt in 1978

Her comment (at about the 5:30 point) in this video, about LBJ’s first comment, “I want you all to know how wonderful it is for the first family to invite the common people to have lunch with us” speaks volumes about his intrinsic narcissism.

Unlike her trip to the White House that morning, there was no limousine dispatched to return her to the hotel. Within the video, Eartha Kitt stated that “within two hours” of that incident, President Johnson called both the FBI and CIA (and someone got the Secret Service involved as well) to investigate her background (evidently, he was rational enough to realize that merely disturbing the peace in the White House wasn’t sufficiently “criminal” to arrest her immediately).

She also stated that Johnson called the heads of the television networks to tell them he never wanted to see her face on TV ever again. His man in Hollywood, Jack Valenti, undoubtedly also received a call as well, since her name was put onto a “Blacklist.” In a 1998 interview with The Washington Post, Kitt called the FBI and CIA reports “purely” political and proof that LBJ had personally blackballed her. “When Johnson calls up and says, ‘I don’t want to see that woman’s face anywhere,’ ” she said, “you are out of business.”[3]

As she also commented in the 1998 interview, “Dates simply started getting canceled,” she said. “I knew that some government investigators had come around checking. I didn’t know what it was for, then. One club owner told me he was sorry, but, ‘You’re a problem.’”

But, like Catwoman, she never wavered in her fight to keep her place in show business, spending the better part of the next decade working in Europe. She returned to the United States in the late 1970s and lived to 2008 when she died at age 81.

(Cudos to Deborah Shah in the U.K. for the idea to post this piece!)

END NOTES:

[1] DeNeen L. Brown, “‘Sex kitten’ vs. Lady Bird: The day Eartha Kitt attacked the Vietnam War at the White House,” The Washington Post, January 19, 2018

[2] “Eartha Kitt Confronts the Johnsons,” The Washington Post, January 19, 1968

[3] Paula Span, “The Nine Lives of Eartha Kitt,” The Washington Post, December 31, 1998

2 thoughts on “Lady Bird to LBJ: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”

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