The death of singer, actress, arts champion and philanthropist Kitty Carlisle Hart on April 17 at age 96 stirred a wealth of remembrances about her indefatigable spirit. In her celebrated life, she was honored by the theatre, museums, universities, mayors, governors and presidents; but, explains son Christopher, "What meant most was the people's love. She gave a lot, and they remembered her for it."
Hart's enthusiasm for doing the impossible was most evidenced during her 21 years as chair of the New York State Council on the Arts when her passion got legislators to make a complete turnaround in support of culture funding. In her post, she visited Broadway, Off-Broadway and even the East Village to see what was happening Off-Off.
Her great love, however, was the Metropolitan Opera, where she made her debut in her mid-50s.
Christopher attributed her wide public recognition not to her film and stage career, but to her years on the panels of quiz shows, "To Tell the Truth" and "What's My Line?" In 1961, four years after directing the landmark Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady, husband Moss, the legendary actor-turned-Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, director and producer, died of a heart ailment. He bequeathed an estate of millions but it became tied up in litigation. "I had two children and little money," said Hart. "I had no choice but to go back to work."
"Kitty never forgot that," says Phyllis Whitehouse, Hart's secretary. "It was the reason that late in her life, she began her cabaret career. Of course, she had the wherewithal to live her wonderful life but, truth be told, she loved that spotlight! There was nowhere she'd rather be."
Miss Hart was game for adventure, even, in her 90s. "Nothing fazed her," reports Christopher. "She embraced life with both hands."
At a Tampa resort, Miss Hart observed kids squealing with delight on a water slide. Christopher saw a sparkle in her eyes that recalled the time in her late 60s she rode on the back of his motorbike. Miss Hart said, "I want to do it." He replied, "They’re not going to let you." They did.
Up, up, up Miss Hart fearlessly climbed — three stories high — and down, down, down she came in a labyrinth tube of rushing water at 50 miles an hour. "When she came flying out," states Christopher, "there was this incredible look of happiness on her face. Once again, as I had been so many times, I was in awe."
One of Miss Hart's last requests was to long-time accompanist David Lewis. "At my memorial I want you to play 'The Man I Love,'" she told him, "and if you don't see me coming to the piano, you'll know I'm gone."
This piece appeared in the 2007 Tony Awards Playbill at Radio City Music Hall.