The death of singer, actress, arts champion and philanthropist Kitty Carlisle Hart on April 17 at age 96 stirred a wealth of remembrances on her indefatigable spirit. In her celebrated life, she was honored by the theater, 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, a film director/producer, stated Miss Hart instilled in him and his sister, Dr. Catherine C. Hart, a specialist in infectious disease and internal medicine, "a deep appreciation for the arts and the artists who bring them alive."

Though Miss Hart led the rarefied life few will ever be accustomed to, she wasn't a snob. "Mother was down to earth, funny and more than a bit of a card shark," Christopher says. "She loved to laugh and was comfortable with everyone from doormen and policemen to people on the street."

What impressed Phyllis Whitehouse, Miss Hart's secretary, was her graciousness to everyone she met – and her boundless energy. "Kitty's schedule made me dizzy. I loved watching her live, and live she did – to the fullest. It's what she thrived on. She was fond of saying, 'It's boring doing what someone tells you. It's better to do what you want.' She lived her life doing exactly what she wanted."

During more her 15 years as chair of the New York State Council for the Arts, Miss Hart fought passionately for arts funding. She visited Broadway, Off Broadway and even the bowels of 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. She had two subscriptions, so she could always take a guest.

"Kitty wasn't one for the Grand-Tier boxes," says Ms. Whitehouse. "Monday nights, you could find her on the first row. She loved being in the thick of it." After a gala night at the opera, it was incongruous, to say the least, seeing Miss Hart in her elegant finery hopping the crosstown bus. "But," notes Ms. Whitehouse, "she found that so convenient, since she lived right across the Park (on East 64th Street)."

Christopher said his mom wasn't a "limo gal." During the years traveling New York for the Arts Council, she had a car but after that "it was taxis and the bus. She loved New York and it was her way of seeing it."

Miss Hart attributed the 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." She went on TV not as a lark but out of need.

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 massive coronary.  He bequeathed an estate of millions, but it became tied up in litigation. "I had two children and little money," said Miss Hart. "I had no choice but to go back to work."  

"Kitty never forgot that," says Ms. Whitehouse. "It was the reason that late in her life, she began her cabaret career. She was always saying, 'I'm broke. I need more club gigs.' Of course, she had the wherewithal to live her wonderful life but, truth be told, she loved, 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 labyrinthian 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."

[END]

 

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Key Subjects: 
Kitty Carlisle Hart, Christopher Hart, Phyllis Whitehouse
Writer: 
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of <I>Jesus Christ Superstar</I>" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
Date: 
May 2007