Hart, Kitty Carlisle

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Hart, Kitty Carlisle

Born Catherine Conn, September 3, 1910, in New Orleans, LA; died of heart failure, April 17, 2007, in New York, NY. Actress and singer. Kitty Carlisle Hart, an American actress of the stage and screen for decades, enjoyed a remarkably long career that began on Broadway in the early 1930s and spanned to 2006 dates for her one-woman cabaret act. Hart was an irrepressible figure and a New York City legend—a style icon with grace and wit, who was not averse to the occasional self-deprecating comment. One of her most famous quips, as quoted in her Washington Post obituary, was the reflection that “with a soupcon of courage and a dash of self-discipline, one can make a small talent go a long way,” so said the woman who still boasted a remarkably good performing voice at the age of 96.

The daughter of a physician, Hart was born Catherine Conn in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1910. Her German-Jewish mother, Hortense, had great ambitions for her only child, and Hart began her musical training at an early age on the piano. Following the death of her father in 1920, when she was ten years old, she and her mother traveled through Europe for a few years before settling in Paris. After a stint at a Swiss boarding school, Hart made her debut on the social circuit in Rome, but she failed to secure a husband with a title, as her mother had planned for her. Hortense offered her daughter two choices for a career—modeling or acting, and Hart chose the latter. She studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, but according to Marilyn Berger, the writer of Hart’s New York Times tribute, after her first performance her mother told Hart, “My dear, we’ve made a ghastly mistake.”

Heading to New York City, Hart changed her name to “Kitty Carlisle,” which she borrowed in part from the telephone directory, and won her first starring role in a 1932 touring production of the Broadway revue Rio Rita. She made her official Broadway de-but a year later in Champagne, Sec—the musical adaptation of Die Fledermaus, the Johann Strauss opera—and earned terrific reviews in it. Hollywood took interest, and Hart was signed to Paramount Pictures, for which she made Murder at the Vanities, a musical that also featured legendary pianist-composer Duke Ellington. That same year she sang with the young Bing Crosby in 1934’s She Loves Me Not. Her best-known film role, however, was in the 1935 Marx Brothers’ comedy, A Night at the Opera.

Paramount seemed to lose interest in developing Hart’s career after that point, so she returned to the New York stage, appeared in wartime revues, and even took summer–stock roles when her job prospects dimmed. A number of prominent men wooed her and even proposed marriage—among them novelist Sinclair Lewis, financier Bernard Baruch, and atomic scientist Robert Oppenheimer—but it was not until 1946 that Hart married a noted figure from Broadway, the playwright and director Moss Hart. They had two children together, and her husband directed her in one of her biggest stage successes, a 1954 marital farce called Anniversary Waltz.

The Harts lived part of the time on a farm in Pennsylvania, but once the television era began Hart found herself in demand as a panelist or guest star on the newly popular television game shows. An elegant New Yorker with a socialite’s appearance but a down–to–earth graciousness, Hart was ideal for the format, and her quick rejoinders and sharp wit helped make her a household name to most Americans of the era. She was a regular on several shows, but she is best remembered for her longtime service on To Tell the Truth from 1956 to 1977. On the popular game show, Hart was one of the panelists who tried to determine which of the three contestants was telling the truth and which two were impostors about having a job that seemed improbably interesting—butler to British prime minister Winston Churchill, for example, or gondolier on the canals of Venice.

Hart described the unexpected 1961 death of her husband—from a heart attack, and on the sidewalk, in the same manner as her father had died—as the one genuine tragedy of her life. In her later years, Hart combined her stage career with philanthropy. She chaired the New York State Council on the Arts from 1976 to 1996 and often found herself in Albany deftly sparring with legislators in debates over the artistic merits of certain plays or works of art. She published her memoir, Kitty: An Autobiography, in 1988 and enjoyed a long-running solo cabaret act. As late as October of 2006, she was still singing nightly at the age of 96 in her show Here’s to Life.

Hart fell ill with pneumonia near the end of 2006 and died of heart failure at her New York City apartment on April 17, 2007, at the age of 96. Survivors include her daughter Catherine, a physician; her son Christopher, a film producer; and three grandchildren. Several years earlier, as she neared her eightieth birthday, she asserted, “I’m more optimistic, more enthusiastic, and I have more energy than ever before,” the New York Times quoted her as saying, and she attributed her legendary stamina to her independent streak, noting, “You get so tired when you do what other people want you to do.”

Sources: Chicago Tribune, April 19, 2007, sec. 3, p. 8; Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2007, p. B6; New York Times, April 19, 2007, p. C13; Washington Post, April 19, 2007, p. B7.

—Carol Brennan

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