Tribute to a Great Dame

The grand lady and great dame Kitty Carlisle Hart passed away this past week after a short illness and 96 years of fabulous life.

Our paths crossed three times. Mrs. Hart was the tender age of 91 when I observed her execute a perfect swan dive into a glacial lake in Massachusetts. We had mutual friends. My then teen-aged son was swimming nearby. The slender woman in a blue one-piece bathing suit and white bathing cap called out to him, "Young man, how old do you think I am?" Not missing a beat, he answered, "I don't know, 25?" Her head flew back, a hearty laugh escaped from her impossibly scarlet lips

She then directed her melodious voice straight towards him. "No, my dear, I'm 91." Mrs. Hart relished that story at cocktail hour.

A few years later, we were invited to interview her in her New York City apartment. The producer, engineer and I made ourselves comfortable on an elegantly upholstered sofa surrounded by silver-framed pictures of swell-egant people. Mrs. Hart kept us waiting just long enough to make an entrance. She swanned through a swinging door, dressed to the nines in a navy blue dress with double-breasted gold buttons, her jet-black hair had not a wave out of place, and she smiled with those same scarlet lips. We talked by the piano about Georges Kaufman and Gershwin, Noel Coward, Cole Porter, the loveliness of Paris and Irving Berlin.

She remembered the year 1935, when Metro Goldwyn Mayer offered her the now famous diva part in the Marx Brothers' picture, "A Night at the Opera," but Kitty Carlisle was on contract to Paramount Pictures.

"They were trying to get rid of me," she explained, "so they farmed me out to Metro to be in this movie, which in those days was considered to be knockabout comics. They weren't, quote, The Marx Brothers of today. And so they thought, 'This will kill her off.'"

The Marx Brothers became her good friends. "They were so nice to me," she recalled. "Everybody says to me 'Tell us about the Marx Brothers and the tricks they played on you.' Well they didn't play any tricks on me at all," she said.

Kitty Carlisle met her husband Moss Hart on the set of that picture.

Before escorting us out, Mrs. Hart showed us where she spent some of the day before a night on the town. We walked through the parlor door next to her grand piano, down a typically short Manhattan apartment hallway lined with paintings and into her den, a homey, small room, with a comfortable couch, family photos on top of the television, and magazines on a coffee table next to a well-used exercise bike.

I saw Mrs. Hart last year at the Algonquin Hotel. She played host to a party celebrating the legendary Round Table, where during long and liquid lunches, poets, playwrights, critics and wags dished the dirt on high society. That night in 2006, she was seated at the round table itself, holding court. After paying my respects, and briefly discussing our common acquaintances, I wondered what it meant to her to be at the Algonquin that night. She said she didn't have a better paying engagement, smiled that scarlet smile, and let out that unmistakable laugh.

Kitty Carlisle Hart, Stage Legend, Dies at 96

Kitty Carlisle Hart and Moss Hart in Times Square i i

Celebrated photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt shot this portrait of Kitty Carlisle Hart with husband Moss Hart in Times Square, 1959. Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Kitty Carlisle Hart and Moss Hart in Times Square

Celebrated photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt shot this portrait of Kitty Carlisle Hart with husband Moss Hart in Times Square, 1959.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Kitty Carlisle Hart i i

Hart, an indefatigable performer well into her 90s, is captured here performing her one-woman show in April 2006. Olney Theatre Center hide caption

itoggle caption Olney Theatre Center
Kitty Carlisle Hart

Hart, an indefatigable performer well into her 90s, is captured here performing her one-woman show in April 2006.

Olney Theatre Center

Kitty Carlisle Hart, the legendary actress, singer and arts advocate, died Tuesday night. She was 96 years old, and had been in failing health since contracting pneumonia in December.

To most members of the baby boom generation, Hart was perhaps best known as the charming panelist with the infectious laugh on the television quiz show To Tell the Truth.

She was born in New Orleans on Sept. 3, 1910 — or 1914, or 1918, depending upon which biography you read. Her father was a doctor, her mother the daughter of the mayor of Shreveport. After her father died, her mother took her to Europe to study at private schools in Switzerland and Paris. (And, they hoped, to snare a rich husband.) It was in Paris that she adopted the surname Carlisle — after perusing a telephone book.

"My name was Katherine Conn, C-O-N-N," she told NPR's Liane Hansen in 2002. "And in Paris, it was an embarrassment, because it sounded like a very naughty French word, so I couldn't wait to change it. And the minute I changed it, my mother changed hers, and she became Mrs. Carlisle!"

Even with a new name, Kitty Carlisle and her mother found that rich princes were in short supply. She told NPR's Scott Simon in 1988 that her mother decided a new approach was necessary.

"She said I wasn't the prettiest girl she ever saw, I wasn't the best singer she ever heard, and I certainly wasn't the best actress she ever hoped to see," Hart said. "But she said, 'If we put them all together, we'll find the husband we're looking for, on the stage.'

"She had abandoned her hopes of a rich prince. So I went on the stage and, see, she was right — I found the husband I was looking for, on the stage."

But that was later. In the '30s, she developed a career singing operetta in New York and on tour. She landed a Hollywood contract and made several films, including the Marx Brothers classic A Night at the Opera. She was cast as the ingenue, an opera singer, but the powers that be weren't sure she could handle the vocal requirements.

"I'd only taken the movie in order to sing opera seriously," she told Simon, "because in those days, the Marx Brothers were ... I thought I was slumming! They were knockabout comics.

"And so to do the operatic sequences was my whole purpose in doing the movie, and when I got on the set and I heard somebody else's voice to my playback instead of me, I walked off the set. I held up the production for about three days, and finally they let me do it. And so when I hear A Night at the Opera, the movie, it's my high C in the 'Miserere.'"

Over the years, Kitty Carlisle was linked to eligible bachelors in New York and Hollywood. Perhaps the most famous was composer George Gershwin.

"Oh, George was fun," she told Simon. "George was a really most interesting man. He was an egomaniac, but then I'd grown up with egomaniacs, so that didn't bother me. He did ask me to marry him, but he wasn't in love with me, nor was I in love with him."

The man she did end up marrying, in 1946, was playwright and director Moss Hart, who staged Camelot and My Fair Lady and wrote The Man Who Came to Dinner.

"He was a wonderful playwright, he was the right age — he was about six or seven years older than I," she told Hansen. "He was divine. And he'd never been married, and I'd never been married. So, I thought, why not me? I'm perfect for you!"

The Harts hosted parties and weekends for New York writers and celebrities, from Lerner and Loewe to Noel Coward to Cole Porter to Harpo Marx. After her husband died in 1961, Hart became increasingly involved in charity work and arts advocacy. She was named vice-chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts and took over as chair in 1976, serving in that capacity — with no pay — for 21 years. She saw the council through cutbacks and culture wars, defending controversial artists including Robert Mapplethorpe before the state legislature in Albany.

"I was called on the carpet," she told NPR. "After being raked over the coals, I finally said 'I know you all go to the opera.' Well, there was a lot digging in the ribs with that, 'cause they didn't all go to the opera. I said, 'And there's an opera that is played everywhere, and it's called Rigoletto. And it's filled with rape and murder,' I said. And I threw in incest, for good measure, and they didn't know the difference. And I won the day."

No surprise: Hart was a force of nature. Well into her 90s, she barnstormed across the country performing her one-woman show, Life Upon the Wicked Stage. Alex Rybeck frequently accompanied her on the piano.

"To me, the most thrilling thing about working with Kitty is that she's a direct line to the composers whose work she's singing," Rybeck said. "She's a direct line to George Gershwin, a direct line to Jerome Kern, to Kurt Weill, to Cole Porter. So, in accompanying her and listening to her phrasing, it's about as pure a rendition of the song as you'll ever hear, because they taught her those songs."

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