February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
She played opposite the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera and hasn’t slowed down since
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.
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?
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.
Then, in your eighties, you decided to come back onto the concert stage and sing again in a new career that’s included a PBS television special and many personal appearances.
Well, I had to get my voice back, because my vocal cords were flopping around like there was no tension there at all. I worked like a dog.
With trainers and teachers?
No, I’d had all the teachers that I could possibly use. Once I followed Risë Stevens into a lesson and said, “Why don’t you give me those high notes, those pianissimo high notes like Risë has?” The teacher looked at me as if I’d lost my mind and said, “They komm from Godt.” That was an honest singing teacher.
But you’re still singing, still busy at 94.
Oh, yes. And I’m loving it, and I’m so happy that people want to hear me sing. I’m generally not nervous anymore. And the fourth wall has disappeared. I’m at one with the audience.