Kitty Carlisle Hart, 96; Singer, Arts Advocate

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007

Kitty Carlisle Hart, 96, was an actress and singer who appeared with the Marx Brothers in the movie classic "A Night at the Opera," became an elegant television fixture on the quiz show "To Tell the Truth" and remained a society grande dame and cabaret star until her death April 17 at her home in Manhattan. She had pneumonia.

Mrs. Hart's theatrical portfolio included Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate" and Benjamin Britten's modern opera "The Rape of Lucretia." She was perhaps best known to TV audiences as a witty panelist on the CBS's "To Tell the Truth" from 1956 to 1967, and later in syndicated versions of the program.

But it was in New York that she became an enduring icon of social standing and artistic clout, not only onstage but also as the longtime chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts and the widow of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Moss Hart.

"She was a seemingly eternal symbol of old upper-crust New York, from a time when politesse, elegant clothes and social graces really mattered," said James Gavin, an authority on the history of New York cabaret.

"Deep into her 90s, she got back up onstage in several cabarets, singing golden-age show tunes in a still-serviceable-for-her-age high voice and reminiscing firsthand about friends and acquaintances like George Gershwin," he said. "She did it with a lot of Old World charm, and you really felt as though you were watching a huge slice of New York history standing before you."

Starting in 1976, Mrs. Hart spent 20 years heading the state arts council, managing to secure funding for an array of cultural institutions even during years of fiscal drought.

In 2005, she told American Heritage magazine she had used the opera "Rigoletto" to overcome harsh criticism of funding provocative, sometimes religiously offensive artists such as Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe.

At a legislative hearing in Albany, she said, politicians "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."

Catherine Conn was born Sept. 3, 1910, in New Orleans to a middle-class family of German Jewish heritage. Her father, a doctor, died when she was 10. Her mother, Hortense, whisked her to Europe for private school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and a finishing school near Paris -- all with the hope of securing her marriage into a fashionable family.

At first, she was denied entry into a prestigious Swiss school, possibly because of anti-Semitism. Both mother and daughter were advised to change their last names. Mrs. Hart offered "Vere de Vere," but settled on Carlisle.

When she later failed to attract a husband, she was given two choices by her mother: to work as a model or actress, because either would get her noticed socially. She underwent theatrical training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, but the Depression depleted her finances and she sailed for New York in 1932.

Almost immediately, she won the leading role in a production of the operetta "Rio Rita." Somewhat ludicrously cast as a fiery Mexican, she nonetheless became part of the road company playing at vaudeville houses.

The next year, she won ecstatic reviews as Prince Orlofsky in "Champagne, Sec," a musical adaptation on Broadway of Johann Strauss's opera "Die Fledermaus."

A dark-haired beauty, she won a contract at Paramount Pictures and made her debut in "Murder at the Vanities," in which she and her co-star, Carl Brisson, introduced the standard "Cocktails for Two." (The film's "Sweet Marijuana" dance number has become a cult classic.)

Mrs. Hart paired with Bing Crosby in two forgettable musicals and became known to generations of film enthusiasts for her role in "A Night at the Opera" (1935) with the Marx Brothers. She and Allan Jones had the thankless romantic leads -- they sang "Alone" -- while the comic brothers destroyed the set and won the critical praise.

She told American Heritage there was nothing juicy to reveal about the mischievous Marx Brothers while on the set. Her only fun story came years later, when Harpo Marx was the Harts' houseguest at their farm in New Hope, Pa. She asked Harpo a favor -- to interrupt a meeting with a visiting minister they found a bore.

"After 10 minutes," she said, "Harpo appeared on a balcony overlooking the living room where Moss was talking to the minister. [Harpo] 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."

Having made little impression on Depression-era moviegoers, Mrs. Hart was dropped by Paramount and returned to Broadway. Decades later, she returned to the screen as a radio singer in Woody Allen's "Radio Days" (1987) and as a society matron in "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993).

Back in New York after leaving Paramount, she began to focus on radio and nightclub work. Her friends grew to include some of the cultural and political icons of the day, including the critic George Jean Nathan, composer Gershwin, playwright and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, novelist Sinclair Lewis and financier Bernard Baruch. Many of them, she wrote in her 1988 memoir, proposed marriage. She said Baruch was so smitten he chased her around his bedroom at his hunt in Scotland.

She married Hart in 1946 and spent their honeymoon acting with him in a touring production of "The Man Who Came to Dinner," which he had written with George S. Kaufman.

In 1954, Hart directed his wife in one of her greatest Broadway successes, co-starring with Macdonald Carey in the marital farce "Anniversary Waltz." The show, written by Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields, ran 611 performances.

By then, Mrs. Hart established herself as a personality on the new medium of television. She excelled on quiz shows, in particular "To Tell the Truth," in which panelists asked three guests questions about their careers to determine which ones were the impostors. With such a variety of professions represented -- including a pilot whale expert, a Venetian gondolier and Winston Churchill's butler -- Mrs. Hart described the show as "a continuing college education."

She told American Heritage that because she and her husband lived in New Hope, he encouraged her to appear because "he 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."

After her husband's death in 1961, she became New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller's chief adviser on women in the workplace. She lectured widely among women's groups and developed a one-woman show, often telling audiences she was an example of how "with a soupcon of courage and a dash of self-discipline, one can make a small talent go a long way."

Over the years, she reprised the role of Prince Orlofsky in Strauss's "Die Fledermaus" at opera houses, continued to act in dramas, comedies and musicals and made many appearances at Michael Feinstein's nightclub at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan.

Survivors include two children, Christopher Hart of Montclair, N.J., and Dr. Catherine Hart of Manhattan; and three grandchildren.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company