- 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
Yes, I did. But he never talked to me. Once he showed me a little jewelry kit that he was going to give his wife, Dixie Lee. He said to me, “Do you think she’ll like it?” And I said, “I think she’ll love it, Bing.” That was the extent of our conversations. However, he must have okayed me because he had jurisdiction over who came to play with him. So after the first movie he said O.K. to Kitty. But I never got to know him.
He was remote?
I don’t know how to describe him. He wasn’t remote, he wasn’t anything, but he sang better than anybody. He sang better than Sinatra. And I can tell you that going into the recording sessions, he’d be chewing gum, eating nuts, eating everything that you shouldn’t eat before you sing. And out came this glorious sound.
In the midst of being insulted by MGM and Crosby, you managed to introduce songs that are in the American vernacular now. And you sing them still. What song did you introduce onscreen?
“Love in Bloom.” I was hoping it would be my theme song, but it was picked up by an American violinist. [Laughs] His name was Jack Benny. And he stole the song from me. Any time I sang it, everybody started to laugh.
What was 1930s Hollywood like for a young girt from the South? I mean socially?
My mother and I hated it. Oh, we couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was terrible. And I wasn’t doing well in the movies. Finally they paid me off after A Night at the Opera . They paid me off and sent me home. I cried all the way home on the train.
But in the end you weren’t sad that you didn’t have a movie career.
Oh, no. No, no, no. I hated Hollywood. I didn’t cotton to it. I didn’t understand it. It was an industry town, and I was used to Paris and London, you know. I’d had a very good run in Europe. I’d been to hunt balls, and I’d come out in Rome and Paris. My mother was very resourceful, because when we first went to Europe, we were very poor and we didn’t look like much of anything. She tried to get me into school in Switzerland, but I was turned down. So she decided that she would go to the consul general, and she had a ravishing smile, and she persuaded the American vice-consul to take me back to one of the schools that had turned me down. That’s when they changed my name. I was born Catherine Conn, and that name was an absolute horror in Paris because nobody knew how to pronounce it. And it was a very dirty word if it was pronounced wrong. I couldn’t wait to change it.
Who thought of Carlisle?
Me. I went into the telephone book. Originally I thought of Vere de Vere. But I was dissuaded from that. So I chose Kitty Carlisle, and my mother became Mrs. Carlisle overnight.
Your family has Civil War stories to tell, right? Don’t you have an ancestor who fought on the Merrimack ?
That’s right. My grandfather. He was the oldest living survivor of the Merrimack . He came here originally from Bavaria and worked in a dry-goods store, because Jews had dry-goods stores in those days. His claim to fame was that he sold a tie to Mr. Lincoln. And then he migrated South, the way some Jewish families did. He found a lady who had been born in Shreveport, and he married her and set up a dry-goods emporium in Shreveport. So I was born in Louisiana.
And from there?
I went to boarding schools in Lausanne. And then I went to school in Neuilly. I stopped school when I was about 16.1 went to Rome to come out. I never got any degrees or anything, but I am … should I say this? I’m better educated than people who went to college. I speak three languages, and I’m better off.
Did you go to the Royal Academy?
Yes, I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, because my mother came to me the day after we lost all our money in the stock market crash (my father had died when I was ten) and said to me, “You’re not the prettiest girl I ever saw, you’re not the best actress I ever hope to see, you’re certainly not the best singer I ever hoped to hear. But if we put them all together, we’ll find the husband we’re looking for on the stage.” I went on the stage to find a rich husband, and I did. I was only at the Royal Academy seven or eight months, because the money ran out and I had to go back to New York and get a job and support my mother. Best thing that ever happened to me. I loved supporting my mother. I thought that was hilarious. I never looked back because I got a job playing the lead. The first job I got, I was in an old musical, and we did four and five shows a day. The shows lasted an hour and 20 minutes, and I had four changes of costume. We toured after that for eight months, and when I came back I thought, “I know my job.” But I would go up to the chorus girls to make friends, and I would hear them saying, “How the hell did she get that job? She doesn’t know anything.”
But your life in New York was very different after you returned from Hollywood. Didn’t George Gershwin propose to you?