Beloved arts maven Kitty Carlisle Hart to be honored at Lincoln Center
“I don’t have Picassos or Matisses, but I do have George Gershwins and Irving Berlins,” Kitty Carlisle Hart said, as she ushered me into her opulent East Side apartment. And, sure enough, lining her hallway “gallery” are oil paintings by these masters of American music.
Besides these, her home is awash in photographs of the great personalities of the last century, all of them personal friends of hers—Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (“a wicked sense of humor, but I can’t tell you anything”), Claudette Colbert (“We both had formidable mothers”), Rosa Ponselle (“My favorite singer, of course”), and many more.
These are but a few souvenirs of a truly remarkable life, as an actress/singer, television personality, the wife of legendary Broadway writer/director, Moss Hart and, the career achievement of which she is most proud, chairwoman of the New York State Council of the Arts for 20 years, under four governors (“I called each one of them ‘Governor,’ darling, so I wouldn’t mix up their names.”)
Spectacularly robust at 94, Hart made her entrance in a Chinese red dressing gown, holding a bottle of wine, which she readily pours for her guests, as she pulls the lacquered coffee table closer. Having made an awe-inspiring New York cabaret debut on her birthday last September 3, at Feinstein’s at the Regency, she is gearing up for “Hart to Hart,” a Metropolitan Opera Guild Gala on November 21, honoring her and her late husband, hosted by Julie Andrews and Beverly Sills, and with a host of stars, from Audra McDonald to Denyce Graves.
I can attest to the fact that, as a musical interpreter, she has never been better, her entire life experience soulfully informs every lyric she sings, and, she assures me, she practices every day. The onstage achievement of which she is most proud was debuting Benjamin Britten’s “Rape of Lucretia” on Broadway in 1948. A bracing joie de vivre and wonderful curiosity inform her every waking moment, and she clapped delightedly when I recalled once seeing her, a swoony epitome of glamour, draped in black fox, going up the escalator at the Lincoln Center Laurence Olivier tribute years ago, flanked by two tuxedoed young studs.
“I don’t know what my secret is,” she mused. “If I could bottle it and sell it, I’d be a millionaire. I don’t know how I can possibly be better looking today than I was in my youth, but I am!”
When I told her she’s like the actress Rosalind Russell, who also became more handsome as she got older, she agreed, “You’re absolutely right!”
Looks aside, Miss Kitty certainly had something, for she was brought out to Hollywood in 1934, and worked at the two greatest studios, Paramount and MGM. She remembers MGM as being the far grander of the two:
“It was so chic to be working there, you just knew!”
At Paramount, she worked with Bing Crosby twice, but “I ended up knowing him as well as you might have, which is to say, not at all. Very aloof.”
As for the phenomenally talented, largely forgotten Miriam Hopkins, who co-starred with them in “She Loves Me Not,” and was known to be an on-set termagant, Hart recalled, “She was perfectly delightful, lovely to me. I guess she knew I posed no threat to her.”
In her Paramount films, which included the campy delight, “Murder at the Vanities,” with its song, “Marijuana,” she was gowned by Travis Banton, Hollywood’s greatest costumer.
“I loved one gown so much,” she recalled. “I wanted to buy it, but when I heard the price…!”
At MGM, Hart appeared in the Marx Brothers classic “A Night at the Opera,” in which she sang excerpts from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.”
“They wanted to dub me, especially on the high C in the Miserere passage,” she said, “and I was so upset, I actually went into [producer] Irving Thalberg’s office, crying. He listened to me, and my voice stayed in the picture.”
She married Hart in 1946. They had two children, a son, Chris, and a daughter, Cathy (“the best doctor in New York!”), but it was no complete bed of roses. Moss Hart suffered from manic depression: “It was so very sad and hard on him. How I remember walking with him up and down Park Avenue here, and on the beach in Santa Monica, just waiting for it to pass.”
I mentioned that this was obviously before the introduction of lithium, a drug which the director Joshua Logan said helped him so much with his own depression, to which she responded, “Oh, but Josh was crazy!”
One of Moss Hart’s greatest successes was directing “My Fair Lady on Broadway” in 1956. The production was memorable for Cecil Beaton’s costumes, but Mrs. Hart recalled that, despite his talent, no one at the time could really forget the anti-Semitic slurs (including “kike”) Beaton had incorporated into one of his drawings for Vogue magazine in 1938.
“I remember watching the first preview,” she said, “when Julie Andrews, as Eliza, made her entrance for the Embassy Ball. Her gown was terrible and I was just about to say so, when Moss whispered, ‘Sh-h-h, he’s right behind you!’ Beaton eventually changed it, and it was lovely.”
Hart died in 1961, and she said, “It wasn’t easy then, being a widow with two small children to raise. But, as hard as it was, time passed, and each year made it easier to go on.”
Another huge Moss Hart hit was the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin musical “Lady in the Dark,” with Gertrude Lawrence, a legendary star who should be better remembered today. “I remember how kind she was to me when I took over the role,” Ms. Hart recalled. “Moss had her come in and she showed me how to do the bump and grind movements to the song ‘Jenny.’”
I asked Hart if she was ever aware that Lawrence was bisexual, and had had an affair with Daphne DuMaurier, the author of the book “Rebecca.”
“I never knew that,” she said, “but that’s funny. It reminds me of something Moss once said about her, ‘Gertrude Lawrence has the mind of a 12-year-old boy.” He meant that she had no brains, really, and was just pure talent.”
Speaking of DuMaurier’s best-seller brought up an episode in Hart’s life that was almost eerily similar to the scene in which the young wife explores the secret rooms of her husband’s first wife, the mysterious Rebecca. I knew that Moss Hart was close friends with my favorite Golden Age movie star, Norma Shearer, and asked about her.
“She was always chronically late whenever you invited her anywhere, which drove Moss crazy,” Hart recalled. “But of course, she would eventually show up, looking exquisite. We once were going to rent her house in California and she gave us the keys to every room except the attic, which she said was off-limits. I told her, ‘We have two small children. If there’s a fire or anything, I would need to have complete access to the entire house, so we won’t rent it in that case.’ She decided to give me the key but made me promise never to go up there. But of course, on the first rainy day, I couldn’t resist, and opened that door. And what I saw was like Aladdin’s Cave. She had kept every single outfit she ever owned, all of her children’s toys, broken desks, you name it!”