51 pages 1 hour read

Crystal Smith Paul

Did You Hear About Kitty Karr?

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide


Did You Hear About Kitty Karr? is the debut novel of author Crystal Smith Paul. The novel tells the story of Kitty Karr Tate, who was born to a Black mother in the American South in the 1930s. At age 18, Kitty moves to Hollywood, where she builds a successful acting career while “passing” as a white woman. The narrative opens with the revelation that Kitty, who has just died, is leaving her massive fortune to Elise St. John, a successful young Black actress, and Elise’s two sisters, Noele and Giovanni. In exploring why Kitty left her fortune to the Black sisters, the book reveals the truth of Kitty’s past and explores themes of structural racism, family legacy, and intersectionality.

Crystal Smith Paul is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who works in e-commerce marketing for wellness and beauty brands. Did You Hear About Kitty Karr? is her first book. It was recognized as a Reese's Book Club pick in May 2023.

This study guide is based on the Henry Holt and Company edition, published in 2023.

Content Warning: Did You Hear About Kitty Karr? and this study guide include discussions of racism, sexism, physical assault, murder, rape, and racially motivated hate crimes.

Plot Summary

Elise is a member of the St. John family, who are Hollywood royalty. Elise’s mother, Sarah, was a child star, appearing in the first interracial sitcom on American television, The Daisy Lawson Show, when she was just five years old. Elise’s father is a successful musician. Her sister Giovanni is a successful working actress, while her sister Noele eschews the family business to pursue a career in law. Elise is a famous actress in her own right. When the book opens, she is on the brink of getting her first Oscar nomination.

Elise’s elderly neighbor, Kitty, has just passed away after a prolonged illness, leaving her fortune to Elise and her sisters. Kitty has also asked Elise to handle her estate. In the process of managing the deceased actress’s affairs, Elise learns her secret: “Kitty” is actually Mary Magdalene Ledbetter, born to a Black woman in the segregated South of the 1930s. Upon journeying to LA at age 18, Mary adopted the name Kitty and passed as white. Kitty went on to have a successful movie career, thanks in part to the support of her husband, Nathan Tate, head of Telescope Film Studios. Kitty’s career reached its pinnacle when she won an Oscar, making her the first Black actress to win an Oscar in a lead role, although no one realized it at the time.

When the book opens, the news that Kitty has left her fortune to the St. John sisters is already creating a stir in the media, exposing them to racist comments online. Elise knows that revealing the truth about Kitty’s “passing,” as it was called in the 20th century when a Black person presented themselves as a white person, will stir things up even more. Elise’s mother, Sarah, does not want Elise to reveal the truth.

Through flashbacks told from Kitty’s point of view, the reader learns that one reason Sarah wants to keep Kitty’s secret from the press is that she is actually Kitty’s daughter, making Elise her granddaughter. After she marries Nathan, Kitty worries that any baby she might have with him will have dark skin, revealing her true race. When Sarah is born with dark skin, Kitty asks her midwife, Nellie, to raise the child as her own. Kitty conceals the truth from her husband by telling him the child died after birth. Eventually, Nathan learns the truth, and Kitty and Nathan concoct a plan to give Sarah a privileged life: With Nellie’s blessing, Kitty and Nathan cast Sarah in The Daisy Lawson Show, America’s first interracial sitcom, and Sarah becomes “the little Black darling America love[s]” (78). Nellie and Kitty remain best friends, and eventually, Sarah learns the truth.

Despite Sarah’s warnings to stay silent, Elise tells Kitty’s life story. Kitty’s mother, Hazel, was raped by the son of her employer, Theodore “Teddy” Lakes, a wealthy white Southern tobacco magnate. Elise has had her own experiences with racial violence, as she witnessed her father get pulled over by the police as a child; the police hurled racial epithets at her father and tackled him to the ground. They also grabbed Elise, who was around five years old at the time, terrifying her so badly that she wet her pants. This experience has made Elise more eager to speak out on racial issues than her sisters. For example, in the wake of the Charlottesville riots and Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, Elise posted #blacklivesmatter content on her Instagram—which her publicist, Rebecca Owens, deleted, worried it would ruffle feathers. Elise’s desire to fight for Black rights is mirrored in Kitty’s own story, as Kitty participated in an organization, Blair House, that collected donations from wealthy white people and gave that money to civil rights causes in the 1950s and 1960s.

As the book jumps from Kitty’s to Elise’s narratives, it reveals the ways that the characters’ lives and families are intertwined. For example, Elise’s publicist, Rebecca, turns out to be the granddaughter of Claire Pew, a woman Kitty knew through Hollywood social circles. Eventually, Kitty learns that Claire is actually Shirley Claire, the daughter of the Lakes family. Claire’s father, Teddy—whom Claire is estranged from as an adult—is the same man who raped Kitty’s mother, Hazel, making the women half-sisters. Upon Kitty’s death, Elise and Rebecca learn of this connection, and Rebecca pressures Elise not to speak up about Kitty because it will unveil Rebecca’s family’s shameful past.

Despite Sarah’s warnings, Elise ultimately decides to break her silence and reveal Kitty’s truth. The book ends with Elise winning the Oscar for Best Actress. In her acceptance speech, Elise reveals that she is Kitty Karr Tate’s granddaughter and tells the truth about Kitty’s birth to a Black mother in the South and her rise in Hollywood as a white woman. Elise also reveals that she and her sisters will use Kitty’s fortune to start a reparations fund for Black Americans.

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