- Historic Sites
The 94 Years Of Kitty Carlisle Hart
She played opposite the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera and hasn’t slowed down since
February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
Eternally glamorous, effortlessly vivacious, and impossibly beautiful, Kitty Carlisle Hart has crammed at least eight notable lives into her eventful 94 years. Southern belle, expatriate debutante, thirties movie star, Broadway chanteuse, television star, arts funder, and for the last decade ageless nightclub and concert singer, she was also, notably, the wife of the late legendary playwright-director Moss Hart and led the national observance of his centennial in 2004. In short, she has been part of American culture for most of the twentieth century and, so far, all of the twenty-first.
At a recent interview in her sprawling Manhattan apartment, she emerged with her famous smile beaming, hair perfect, dazzling in a royal blue suit with brass buttons, set off by a big gold bug-shaped lapel pin. I have never before seen such an entrance without paying for a ticket.
She poured white wine and then invited us to lunch at a gorgeous antique table, which I promptly doused with the dregs of my second glass, earning only the briefest glance from my hostess, who’s seen it all, from kings to klutzes. She pressed a discreet buzzer, a server emerged to mop the mess, and we were on to hot soup and roast chicken—who cared if it was 90 degrees outside? This is where George S. Kaufman played gin rummy, where Pamela and Averell Harriman nursed highballs, and where the walls are blanketed with paintings by George Gershwin and Harpo Marx.
When our main course was cleared, to be replaced by honey cake smothered in gobs of ice cream, we got down to the business of recalling her long, charmed life and career.
Two weeks later the legend grows. Kitty Carlisle Hart opens an acclaimed three-night engagement at a New York boÎte, proving that she still boasts the pipes and stamina of a woman half her age, not to mention—though she invariably does, usually lifting her gown to the hip—the best legs in show business. And the best memory.
This magazine celebrates American history, which you are very much a part of and continue to make. The thing that’s astounding is that you made the movie A Night at the Opera almost 70 years ago.
How about that? And I’m still alive and working and singing. I don’t sing the way I did when I did A Night at the Opera , because that was a soprano voice, but I’m singing now in the voice that my husband liked. Moss used to say to me on trips in the car, “Sing me something in that low voice of yours. I like that low voice.” So I would sing [sings] “The one I love. …”
The first thing I wanted to ask, because people are fascinated by this, is what the Marx Brothers were like for a young, innocent girl to work with.
Well, they were so nice to me. I have no stories. They didn’t play tricks on me, and they didn’t make fun of me, and they were just as nice as could be. Groucho was always coming up to me to ask if I thought a line was funny. And he would never read it funny, so I’d say, “No, Grouch, that’s not funny.” Chico was always in a card game with a lady in his dressing room. And as you know, we became good friends with Harpo. I never told you the Harpo story, about Moss’s place in the country.
Moss bought this great farm in the country, and he had Harpo as a houseguest. And he said to Harpo one morning, “Harpo, the local minister is coming to call to welcome me to the neighborhood, and I don’t have an awful lot to say to the local minister. So would you interrupt us after about 10 minutes?” So, after 10 minutes, Harpo appeared on a balcony overlooking the living room where Moss was talking to the minister, and he was dressed only in a towel with a huge shaving brush in his hand. He said, “Moss, time to shave the cat!” And the minister fled.
What do you remember best about making A Night at the Opera ?
That I almost didn’t get to sing my own songs. At one point, when doing the “Miserere” from Il Trovatore , a big scene with lots and lots of extras, I started to mouth the words to the pre-recorded score, and something was strange, so I stopped. The director, Sam Wood, called up from the boom way above me: “What’s the matter, kid?” And I said, “I don’t know, Mr. Wood.” He said, “O.K., take two!” So I started again, and this time I said, “That’s not—” He came down to my level, and he said, “What’s the matter, kid?” I said, “That’s not my voice.” And he said, “Well, go ahead and sing it, and we’ll explain later.” Something told me not to do that, that if I sang that playback, I would be in the soup. So I did the bravest thing I’ve ever done. I walked off the set, and I called my agent, and he said, “I want you to be dressed and ready to work every day until I come for you.” So I sat there for three days, waiting for him to come for me.
In costume. At eight o’clock, made up and everything. He came after three days and said, “Mr. [Irving] Thalberg is going to see you.” He was the executive producer. And so I went into his office in full makeup and I cried in his office, I cried on his desk, I cried on his waste-paper basket, I cried on the top of his head. And when I hear the “Miserere,” that high C is mine!
That’s great. Now, you also did two movies with Bing Crosby.