Kitty Carlisle Hart, Doyenne of the Theatre World, Dies at 96

Obituaries   Kitty Carlisle Hart, Doyenne of the Theatre World, Dies at 96
Kitty Carlisle Hart, the stage and film actress who served as chairperson of the New York State Council of the Arts for 20 years beginning in 1976, and thereafter functioned as one of the city's most visible advocates and symbols of the performing arts, died on April 17, her longtime musical director David Lewis confirmed. She was 96. The cause was pneumonia.
Kitty Carlisle Hart
Kitty Carlisle Hart

Ms. Hart, always a lively presence and elegantly turned out, remained vital until the last. In recent years, she commemorated her birthdays in a very public way by performing a cabaret act at Feinstein's at the Regency, a swank night spot just blocks from her opulent Upper East Side apartment. There, she would sing a few songs and reminisce about her experiences working with such entertainment icons as George Gershwin (who once proposed to her), George S. Kaufman (who slapped her during a game of Gin Rummy) and Kaufman's writing partner Moss Hart, whom she married in 1946. The events routinely sold out.

Following Hart's death in 1961, she became the executrix of his estate and worked tirelessly to keep his plays alive and in the public eye. She was often seen in the company of Kaufman's daughter Anne Kaufman Schneider. No Kaufman and Hart revival went on the boards without their say-so.

Ms. Hart was such a steady and supportive presence in the arts, so present in so many different aspects of New York society, so ebullient in her insistence that the city was the center of the universe, that she embodied the town's spirit in a way only a few artists, such as Woody Allen and Bobby Short, have. Not long before her death, she was declared a Living Landmark by the state.

Kitty Carlisle Hart was born Catherine Conn in New Orleans, LA, on Sept. 3, 1910. Her father, Dr. Joseph Conn, was a gynecologist of Jewish-German ancestry who died when she was only ten. Her mother Hortense — the daughter of the first Jewish mayor of Shreveport, LA — was ambitious to enter high society. She had her daughter educated in Switzerland, London, Paris and Rome. She was accepted into London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and went on to train at the Theatre de l'Atelier in Paris.

She said she changed her name because "there were too many Catherines." "Carlisle" came from the phone book. Her mother changed her own name in kind. Her acting career was on the brief side, but noteworthy for the talents she came into contact with. She starred in the Depression era Broadway musicals Champagne Sec, White Horse Inn, Three Waltzes and Walk With Music. She appeared in the American premiere of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia. She is best remembered as a performer, however, for her turn as the romantic lead in the 1934 Marx Brothers feature "A Night at the Opera," in which she sang "Alone," a tune she said she hated. Other movie credits included "Murder at the Vanities" and "Here Is My Heart," in which she played opposite Bing Crosby. In later years, she played herself in such films as "Radio Days" and "Six Degrees of Separation."

She found fame again in the 1950s, as a frequent guest on the game show "To Tell the Truth." She also had her biggest stage hit in 1954, when her husband cast her in the Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields comedy Anniversary Waltz. It ran for 611 performances.

In 1966, Carlisle made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera, as Prince Orlofsky in Strauss' Die Fledermaus, singing the role eleven times that season, then returned in 1973 for four more performances.

Nelson Rockefeller appointed her vice chairperson of the New York State Council for the Arts in 1971. She became chairperson in 1976 and it was in this role that she had her greatest impact on the arts.

"When I got there, there were maybe 10 or 20 institutions that got most of the money," she said. "I was like Johnny Appleseed. Everywhere I went, a new organization sprung up. And they're all mostly still there."

When George Pataki took office, her long service came to an end.

Along the way, she counted among her friends, Jackie Kennedy, Noel Coward, Harpo Marx, Irving Berlin and countless politicians.

She is survived by the two children she had with Hart.

Kitty Carlisle Hart and her musical director David Lewis
Kitty Carlisle Hart and her musical director David Lewis
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