September 3, 1910 – Kitty Carlisle Hart was the grande dame of the American theatre, a resource for any writer working on a story about the greats of Broadway or Tin Pan Alley. As she once said:
“Nobody knows the stories I know because I’m the only one left who knew them.”
Most of all, the formidable Hart was an expert on one of Broadway’s most important writers, directors and producers: Moss Hart, her gay husband, the man who introduced My Fair Lady to the world.
She danced on Broadway, palled around with Rudolph Valentino, filmed with The Marx Brothers, and was a close friend of Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter. Plus, she was the plaything-on-the-side of a man who twice tried to become U.S. president.
In the early days of television, when production was mostly in New York City, she was an original panelist on To Tell The Truth, and What’s My Line?, two of the pioneering, particularly popular television game programs.
She was born Catherine Conn, the daughter of a strict Jewish doctor in New Orleans. Hart: “I wasn’t allowed to go to the movies. It was considered oh, not proper for children to go to the movies.” So, starting from seven years old, she was taken to concerts instead.
It was a traumatic family event that started her fascination with the film business. From her memoir Kitty: An Autobiography (1988):
“One day, our cook went mad and tried to kill us all and we had the police in the house. My mother thought, in order to take my mind off the terrible experience I had been through, she decided to take me to the movies.”
She watched a Charlie Chaplin film, and she writes that it changed her life (she could not see a thing and it was agreed she needed glasses).
Her father died when she was 10 years old, and her mother Hortense Holtzman Conn was obsessed with breaking into Gentile society. A taxi driver asked if her daughter were Jewish, and she answered:
“She may be, but I’m not.”
Hart’s mother took her to Europe in 1921, hoping to marry her off to some European royalty, believing that the nobility there were more amenable to a Jewish bride. The two of them traveled around Europe and often lived in what Hart writes was “the worst room of the best hotel”. She was educated at the Château Mont-Choisi in Lausanne, The Sorbonne and the London School of Economics. She stayed in London and studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
But in 1929, her mother lost all her money in the Wall Street crash, so Hart tried acting in the theatre “to catch a rich husband”. Her mother said:
“You’re not the prettiest girl I ever saw, and you’re not the best singer I ever heard, and you’re certainly not the best actress I ever hoped to see, but if we put them all together, we’ll find the husband we’re looking for on the stage.”
She was cast in a Broadway show, Champagne Sec, billed as “Kitty Carlisle”. The pianist was Frederick Loewe, who told her he was going one day to write the best musical on Broadway: 25 years later, he and Alan Jay Lerner collaborated on My Fair Lady.
On Broadway, “Kitty Carlisle” appeared in operettas and musicals, and in the American premiere of gay composer Benjamin Britten‘s The Rape Of Lucretia.
She went to Hollywood in 1934 as Kitty Carlisle and made three films before her big break the following year as the female lead in the best Marx Brothers movie, A Night At The Opera (1936). It was while making that film that she met Moss Hart, who came on the set and introduced her to Cole Porter. Hart:
“I got very excited. I’d sung some of Cole’s songs, but I hadn’t ever met Moss Hart. He was the kind of person that people told stories about. I began to run and tripped over one of those cables and landed flat in front of him.”
Porter and Moss Hart asked her to audition for their new musical Jubilee. She did not get the part, but a decade later, she did get, and married, Moss Hart.
She made two films with Bing Crosby, She Loves Me Not (1934) and Here Is My Heart (1934). Then, there were no more films until 1943 when she made Larceny With Music and was among the performers playing themselves in Hollywood Canteen, about the club for American troops with movie stars serving coffee and doughnuts and dancing with the servicemen. Hart:
“I was enormously flattered that anybody wanted me in the movies.It never occurred to me that I looked like a movie star. And I didn’t. That’s why my career was very short-lived.”
Her film career may have dried up, but there were other distractions. She had an affair with the married New York governor Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate for president in 1944 and 1948.
Hart resurrected her film career later in life, appearing in Woody Allen‘s bittersweet Radio Days (1987) and the marvelous Six Degrees Of Separation (1993). Her final film was Catch Me If You Can (2002), where she convincingly plays herself in a reenactment of a 1970s To Tell the Truth episode.
Her husband, Moss Hart, had a long-term, very successful collaboration writing with George Kaufman, the first playwrights to win the Pulitzer Prize. Among his plays that became films were Once In A Lifetime (1932), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), George Washington Slept Here (1942), and Lady In The Dark (1944). He did the screenplays for Hans Christian Andersen (1952), A Star Is Born (1954) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Directing My Fair Lady and Camelot for their first stage productions in 1957 and 1960 gained him lasting theatre fame.
Hart introduced his wife to the upper crust of New York society, much of it from the theatre world. It was about their lifestyle that George Kaufman commented:
“It’s what God would have done if he had the money.”
She possessed a tart tongue. She said of Irving Berlin, “He was a genius, but we all knew he had no education.” Even Julie Andrews did not escape her candidness: “She was not very good. She was very inexperienced and all at sea until Moss took her in hand.” And then there was Andrew Lloyd Webber: “I gave Lloyd Webber an honorary degree at the University of South Carolina and I found him absolutely charming and adorable, so I can draw a veil over his plays.”
She made her television debut in 1949, and appeared regularly on the panels of the What’s Going On and I’ve Got A Secret. She was the only panelist to appear on every episode of the original To Tell The Truth from 1956 to 1991. Hart:
“We went into people’s homes. People remember me from television. They don’t remember A Night At The Opera. They have no idea that I played the lead and did all the singing, but they do remember television.”
At 73 years old, she starred in a new Broadway production of the musical On Your Toes.
As Moss Hart’s charming wife, she was committed to protecting her husband’s secrets. She was married to Hart for the last 15 years of his life. Although Moss Hart left this world in 1961, taken by a heart attack when he was just 57 years old, she lived for another 46 years, never remarrying. In Dazzler: The Life And Times Of Moss Hart (2001), writer Steven Bach reveals that throughout his marriage, Hart had assignations with men. Kitty Hart made no public comment about the book, but until her own final bow, she continued to de-gay her husband’s life story, despite his known love affairs with literary agent Lester Sweyd, writer Dore Schary (later president of MGM Studios), and screenwriter Charles Lederer and many of the men in showbiz mentioned in his dazzling love letter to the theatre/memoir Act One (1959).
After his death, Hart sealed her husband’s diaries and blocked access to all materials that contained any evidence of his gayness.
Hart was a longtime champion of Historic Preservation in New York. She served 20 years on the New York State Council on the Arts. In 1991, she received the National Medal of Arts from President George H. W. Bush. She was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1999.
Until her last last year, she toured with a one-woman show, My Life On The Wicked Stage where she told showbiz anecdotes and sang songs by her famous friends. Hart took her final curtain call in 2007 at 96.