Kitty Carlisle Hart, Actress and Arts Advocate, Dies at 96
Kitty Carlisle Hart, who began her career in the theater in a 1932 musical comedy revue on Broadway, acted in films and opera and was still singing on the stage, into her 10th decade, as recently as last fall, died Tuesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 96.The cause was heart failure, her daughter, Catherine Hart, said. Outgoing and energetic, Miss Carlisle became in her middle years a visible advocate of the arts, lobbying the New York State Legislature and the United States Congress for funding. For 20 years, first as a member and later as chairman of the New York Council on the Arts, she crisscrossed the state to support rural string quartets, small theater groups and inner-city dance troupes.
At another moment, she could be found performing on a cruise ship plying the Greek islands, as she was during her 90th year. Just last November, she sang George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” at the annual gala fund-raiser for Jazz at Lincoln Center. That followed a series of engagements in New York and other cities celebrating her 96th birthday. Miss Carlisle, as she was know professionally, also became a favorite of the first television generation as a regular on the game shows “To Tell the Truth” and “What’s My Line?”
As a young girl, she was taken around the capitals of Europe by her mother, whose ambition was to establish her daughter in a “brilliant” marriage, preferably to a prince. There were piano lessons, voice lessons and a grounding in the dramatic arts.
When a royal husband did not materialize, Miss Carlisle remembered, her mother would tell her, “You’re not the prettiest girl I ever saw, and you’re not the best singer I ever heard, and you’re certainly not the best actress I ever hoped to see, but if we put them all together, we’ll find the husband we’re looking for on the stage.”
She found that husband in the dramatist Moss Hart. They were married in 1946. In the years before he died, in 1961, they were at the center of New York’s glittering theatrical life.
The revue in which she broke into show business, “Rio Rita,” played the Capitol Theater on Broadway four or five times a day as the stage show between movies. She also played the “subway circuit” for one-week stands in Brooklyn and the Bronx. The show then went on the road for eight months.
Her next role, as the prince in a musical based on Strauss’s “Fledermaus,” won her a screen test and a Hollywood contract. In 1934, Miss Carlisle made her first movie, “Murder at the Vanities.” That same year she appeared in a movie called “She Loves Me Not,” in which she sang “Love in Bloom” with an up-and-coming crooner, Bing Crosby. She was paired with Crosby again that year in “Here Is My Heart.” In its review, The New York Times called her “a charming and gifted young woman who promises to make her mark in the cinema.”
The same was not said of her opera ambitions. Asked to sing “Alone” in the Marx Brothers spoof of the genre, “A Night at the Opera,” she was horrified to learn that she was expected to move her lips to the sound of someone else’s recording. She refused. For the next three days, her agent argued for her right to perform with her own voice. She won. For years, the song became something of a signature for her.
The collaboration with the Marx Brothers was as close as she came to opera until 31 years later, when, at the age of 56, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Prince Orlofsky in “Die Fledermaus.”
When Paramount found no more roles for her — “I was a meteoric bust,” she wrote in “Kitty: An Autobiography” (Doubleday, 1988) — Miss Carlisle returned to Broadway as the lead in “White Horse Inn” in 1936 and in “Three Waltzes” the next year. Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic for The Times, wrote that the show was “distinguished chiefly for the admirable singing and acting of Kitty Carlisle and Michael Bartlett.”
Miss Carlisle accepted jobs wherever they were offered, often in summer stock. She sang “The Star Spangled Banner” at many World War II bond rallies and appeared in the 1944 film “Hollywood Canteen.” In her later years, Miss Carlisle was seen around town with her latest beau, Roy R. Neuberger, the financier.
Until the end of her life, Miss Carlisle remained a svelte, attractive woman with dark, neatly coiffed hair that she said she colored herself. With a full mouth outlined in bright red lipstick, she burst easily into warm laughter. She was known for her grace and charm, but by her own account she was slightly eccentric, a trait she treasured because she believed it gave her a lot of leeway.
She practiced singing every day, exercised every morning (and was the first to tell anyone that she had beautiful legs, which she did) and believed that discipline was the key to life. In her last decades, she became a popular lecturer. She often told her audiences, “With a soupçon of courage and a dash of self-discipline, one can make a small talent go a long way.” In recent years, Encore Productions re-released her Decca operetta recordings from the 1940s and ’50s.
In her later years she performed occasionally in a one-woman show, “My Life on the Wicked Stage.” It was full of anecdotes about her friends Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Robbins and George and Ira Gershwin. She also appeared on stage in a Broadway revival of “On Your Toes” and made film appearances in “Six Degrees of Separation” and Woody Allen’s “Radio Days.”
“I’m more optimistic, more enthusiastic and I have more energy than ever before,” she said just after her 79th birthday. Energy, she said, came from doing the things she wanted to do.
“You get so tired when you do what other people want you to do,” she said. When she was 90, she started work on a second book.
She was indeed an optimist. As a girl, she once said, she would try to lift her mother out of her frequent dark and angry moods. “Oh, mummy,” she imitated herself saying, “it won’t rain and there will be a picnic and everybody will have a wonderful time.” She wrote in her autobiography that she started each morning by smiling at herself in the mirror.
She also wrote that she had captivated men. The playwright Norman Krasna wanted to marry her, George Gershwin proposed to her, and the financier Bernard Baruch wanted to leave his wife for her, she said.
She refused everyone, however, until she met Mr. Hart, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who, with George S. Kaufman, wrote “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and “You Can’t Take It With You” and who directed “My Fair Lady.”
Mr. Hart, a man of sparkle and wit, largely directed their lives as well, organizing their homes and their dinner parties, even choosing his wife’s wardrobe.
When Mr. Hart died of a heart attack in 1961, Miss Carlisle was devastated, she wrote, but she went on to live by his precept that “you can’t escape from life, you escape into it.” They had two children, Christopher, a producer, who lives in Hollywood, and Catherine Hart , a physician in New York. They and three grandchildren survive her. In her later years, working for the arts council, saw herself as a “Johnny Appleseed for culture,” especially in rural parts of New York State. “Wherever we go, the arts flourish,” she said. “It’s a cliché now that people say they want to make a difference, but I’d like to think that I somehow made a difference.”
In 1998, she was named a ”living landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. The next year, she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.
Miss Carlisle was born Catherine Conn in New Orleans on Sept. 3, 1910. Her father, Joseph Conn, a doctor, died when she was 10 years old. Afterward, her mother, the former Hortense Holtzman, sold their house and took her daughter to New York and then to Europe, where the young Catherine was enrolled in Mont Choisi, a school overlooking Lac Léman in Switzerland. She ended her education at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where she won a certificate.
She wrote that her mother, as critical as ever, saw her first performance, looked her straight in the eye and said, “My dear, we’ve made a ghastly mistake.”
She delighted in proving her mother wrong. “A career takes more than talent,” Miss Carlisle was fond of saying. “It takes character.” And perhaps stamina. Still working as a nonagenarian, she took her stage show on the road last fall, appearing in Atlanta, St. Louis and other cities.
“I’m 96,” she told The St. Louis Post Dispatch in October, “and I’m loving it.”