- 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, he did. We used to go dancing at El Morocco, and we would bet each other which song they would play first, because I had a hit song and he had hit songs. He asked me to marry him, but I knew he didn’t love me. He wanted to get married because he thought he should. And I was very suitable. I was the right age, I adored his music, I’d never been married before. And who knows what could have happened? But he died six months later. Mrs. Gershwin wanted to treat me like a daughter-in-law. She invited me to come to the big funeral at Temple Emanu-El and sit with the family. I didn’t want to do that, because it wasn’t honest. So I didn’t.
Do you still remember some of the great premieres in the Moss Hart era? Did you go to the premiere of My Fair Lady , which he directed?
For the New Haven premiere, I had a cold. But Moss told me that it turned out that Rex Harrison, who had never sung before, got panicked. And I don’t blame him, because when you’re used to listening to rehearsals with a piano player, you hear the melody all the time. And then you hit the orchestra rehearsal, and you don’t hear anything. You just hear “deedle deedle deedle deedle dum dum dum dum.” As somebody who’s not used to singing with an orchestra, he panicked. He said, “I don’t like musical com, I’ve never liked musical com, and I’m not opening tonight.” There was a terrible snowstorm, and people were coming from far away. Moss went to Rex, and he said, “This place is going to be jammed with people coming to hear you perform, and I’m going out and I’m going to tell them there’s no performance because Rex Harrison is yellow.” He opened.
We’re living in an age now in which quiz shows are athletic competitions on desert islands or elaborate mating games. You became one of America’s most beloved personalities in an era when families felt that they were participating in elegant parlor games, privy to the way the most sophisticated and intelligent people lived and played. For more than 20 years you did “To Tell the Truth.” How did that happen?
Oh, we were on vacation, and I was tending to the children on the beach, and I was bored stiff. One day Moss said to me, “Let’s watch ‘To Tell the Truth’ because they want you to come and do it once a week.” It was live in those days. So I said, “I’ll watch it.” And I didn’t get it. I know I’m stupid, but I really didn’t get it. And he said, “Oh, it’s a wonderful show. You must go in town and do it once a week, and it’ll be good for you.” Moss always wanted to get stuff from New York, like knackwurst, and I think he encouraged me because he wanted me to pick up the mail. So I went into town, and I caught on pretty soon. After I’d been on the show about six weeks, they called me up and asked me to go to lunch—
Goodson and Todman, the producers?
Yes. I thought, Oh I’m doing so well. They’re taking me to a fancy lunch in a marvelous restaurant, and that must mean that I’m so good on the show. And they fired me. They said I was too old. They hired me back six weeks later because they had all these gorgeous beauties on, but they didn’t know anything; they couldn’t ask sensible questions. Well, it was a great age for quiz shows, and very intelligent people were doing them. George Kaufman was on a show, Truman Capote was on another show, and Moss did “Information Please.”
Most readers, I hope, know that after your television years you could have done anything, but you committed more than two decades to public service. You became the best-known professional arts advocate in the country. As chair of the New York State Council on the Arts, you focused not only on Broadway and Lincoln Center but on every part of the state. The stories of you coming out of station wagons and helicopters and small planes to encourage kids in schools and stock companies are legend. Do you remember what brought you into public service?
It was Nelson Rockefeller who asked me. I served five governors. I called all my governors “Governor darling.” When I went up to George Pataki, I said, “I’ve called all my governors ‘Governor darling,’ and I’m not going to make an exception for you.” And he said, “When you don’t call me ‘Governor darling,’ I’ll know I’m slipping.” At one point they wanted to fire me because we were funding things like [Andres] Serrano and [Robert] Mapplethorpe and Annie Sprinkle. So I went up to Albany, but before I went, I called Beverly Sills, and I said, “They’ve got me dead to rights, and what should I tell them?” She said, “Tell them about Rigoletto .” I said, “ Rigoletto ?” She said, “You’ll get it.” So I went up there to a big hearing, and they were raking me over the coals. I was sitting down in the well, and they were all up there on their big seats. I had to say what I had done, and finally I said, “Now you all go to the opera.” There was a lot of digging into people’s ribs with that. And I said, “There’s an opera that is done all over the world every day, sometimes twice a day, matinee and evening, and it’s called Rigoletto . And it’s all about rape and murder,” and I threw in incest for good measure. I thought that wouldn’t hurt. And so the hearing was over.
And you continued to issue your grants to experimental artists?
When I first got there, we were giving money to maybe 16 major institutions. When I left, it was like Johnny Appleseed. And a lot of those institutions are still getting money, and they’re alive.