Friday, October 22, 2010

Here, Kitty, Kitty!

I’m not normally much of a cat lover, but there’s one Kitty I find utterly irresistible and that’s today’s featured legend (and I am not tossing that term around loosely) Miss Kitty Carlisle Hart!

Born Catherine Conn (pronounced Cohen) in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1910, her father was a gynecologist of Jewish descent while her mother was the child of a Civil War veteran (Ben Holtzman, one-time mayor of Shreveport, LA and the longest living survivor of The U.S.S. Merrimack) on the Confederate side who had once, while living in the North, sold a necktie to Abraham Lincoln. Her mother strenuously sought to escape the Jewish label and enter into “Gentile” society.

Her father’s death when she was ten years old prompted her mother to leave The South and truck them all over Europe in the hopes of having the young girl educated and exposed sufficiently to eventually attract a wealthy husband, royalty being the most desired outcome. Despite a limited amount of funds and an even more limited social standing, her mother’s charm aided in getting young Catherine enrolled in a desirable Swiss boarding school. Because the last name Conn was frequently mispronounced (and in French was dangerously close to what she called “a dirty word”), both mother and daughter became Carlisles and Catherine went by the nickname Kitty forever after.

Kitty Carlisle came out as a debutante in Rome after leaving her Swiss (and eventually French) schooling at age 16. This varied, culturally rich background, in which she learned three foreign languages, instilled in her a greater sense of education than many college graduates and lit a fire in her for the arts. She then enrolled at The Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts in London for eight months. Her mother had little faith in her individual talents, reportedly telling her that she was not the prettiest, nor the best actress, nor the best singer, but that the combined effect of what she did have might be enough to land her a rich husband!

The stock market crash that set off The Great Depression led mother and daughter to abandon their European excursion and return to New York where Kitty would have to provide for both of them with her talent on the stage. Fortunately for both of them, Kitty won a lead role in a musical production (one which, hysterically, lasted only an hour and twenty minutes and ran up to five times a day!) She then went on an extended tour, which allowed her to keep her mother and her well fed.

Carlisle soon went on to a successful stage career, but, for a brief while, headed to Hollywood and became a Paramount Pictures contract actress as well. She was cast opposite Bing Crosby in two of his lesser-known vehicles, She Loves Me Not and Here is My Heart. Carlisle, who was rarely shy about getting to know people, found Crosby to be practically a blank personality and impenetrable. She was surprised that he allowed her to costar with him the second time since they’d barely spoken throughout the making of the first film. She completed the second picture still mystified as to who the man even really was. Years later, after a concert of his that also featured his brood of childen, she went backstage to visit him and was halted at the dressing room door with a genial "thank you" and then sent on her way! She did, however, greatly admire his warm, velvet voice.
Next, on loan out to MGM, she supported The Marx Brothers in the classic farce A Night at the Opera, though her role was decorous and lacking in the comedic aspects that made the Marxes so famous. She did, however, form a great friendship with Harpo Marx. The studio attempted to use someone else’s voice in her singing sequences, but she wisely held out and, on the advice of her agent, would not set foot on the stage until the matter was resolved. For three days, she sat in costume and makeup in her dressing room, refusing to film the large, extra-filled scene. She eventually compelled Irving Thalberg (mostly by pleading tearily to him) to allow her own voice to be used. This tenacity and fortitude would serve her well throughout her life.

While at Paramount, she was put through any number of glamorous photo shoots, usually draped in some languid pose, but occasionally attired in a swimsuit with her legs exposed. She was never happy in Hollywood, though, and found the whole process of moviemaking tiresome and unrewarding. She considered it a business town, ultimately lacking in culture and artistry outside the studio gates.
Once back in New York City, she had a couple of hits on Broadway including White Horse Inn and Three Waltzes. The 1930s and 40s were a tremendous time on Broadway and she found herself in the midst of some of the twentieth century’s greatest creative geniuses and wits, absorbing all she could from each of them. She auditioned for famed writer-director Moss Hart, who declined to use her, and became tremendously intrigued by him. Hart had co-written You Can’t take it With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner and would later direct My Fair Lady and Camelot, two of Broadway’s most acclaimed musicals during their time.

Hart, despite being a major talent, was a tormented soul, prone to emotional difficulties, mood swings and depression. (This would today be classified as bipolar disorder.) He had been leading a conflicted life of sexual ambiguity, but somehow was just as drawn to Kitty Carlisle as she was to him and, in 1946, the two married, raising eyebrows among those in the know, but experiencing great happiness together nonetheless. She was 36 years old at the time of her marriage and stunned people even further when she proceeded to have two children (miscarrying a third) at a time when most women did all of their procreating prior to the age of thirty. Miss Carlisle never let something as shallow as popular opinion keep her from doing what she considered best for her family or for anyone she was invested in. Once, when asked what she had that separated her from the chorus girls who were unable to grasp her appeal, she answered, “Determination!”

This is not to say that she was in any way a domineering or unpleasant person. She was noted throughout her life for her graciousness, elegance and generosity of spirit. She was not, however, a pushover and would stand her ground to anyone who tried to do something unjust or that otherwise offended her sense of fair play. She described herself as having a “bulldog personality,” but this bulldog was always polite in her pursuits. A wide smile and her trademark full-bodied and throaty laugh went a long way toward icing over any unpleasantness that cropped up in her relationships with people.

Moss and (now) Kitty Carlisle Hart were major components in the heady swirl of New York City social and artistic life. Though he still remained haunted occasionally by feelings of despair, according to Kitty, he would make himself put on a brave face rather than impose his discomfort onto others or otherwise wreck the social engagement of a friend. He was, without question, the love of her life and she described them as being “in each other’s pockets” and taking many long walks in the city they loved (with them, she said, sharing the same pace in their stride.)

When Mark Goodson and Bill Todman created their game show To Tell the Truth in 1956, one of the vastly popular “parlor game” style programs that flourished in the 1950s and early 60s (a genre that included What’s My Line? and I’ve Got a Secret, in particular), they asked Kitty to come on as a panelist. Four panelists would listen to the story of a real person and then try to guess, through a brief question and answer period, which of three contestants was “the real” Mr. or Mrs. So and So.

She worked on the program as a regular panelist for three weeks before being invited to lunch by the producers, where she anticipated praise, but was, in fact, fired for “being too old!” Replacement blonde bimbos proved to be too dim to make the show entertaining, so Kitty was reinstated and went on to become the primary face of the series, appearing in every incarnation of it from 1956 to 2002! She always made it a point to dress elegantly and coiffed to the rafters with her customary thatch of thick, dark hair.

She was a regular on the show for years along with Orson Bean and Tom Poston with a rotating female panelist to balance things out. Her well-rounded background and thirst for knowledge in all arenas made her a strong judge of character and a savvy inquisitor, though the show’s staff worked overtime to come up with contestants who could throw her and the other panelists off the scent. Once, she failed to recognize her own son, in heavy disguise, as one of the contestants!
The version of To Tell the Truth that I remember the most is the mid-1970s one with host Garry Moore and regular panelists Carlisle, Bill Cullen and Peggy Cass (with the other slot filled by another gentleman, such as Joe Garagiola or even Gene Rayburn.) This was the period in which one time the panel was handed Hungarian Goulash made on a budget and, after it had been tasted, was informed that it had been created with dog food! (Carlisle’s face upon hearing this is unforgettable.) This was soon revealed to be a prank on the panel, much to their relief.

The program would be cancelled and then reinstated or revamped several times through the years, but Miss Carlisle always participated in some way, even if not as a regular. In the 1990 version, she was a semi-regular panelist and was always introduced last as “To Tell the Truth’s very own Kitty Carlisle!” as she descended a steep set of stairs, always on the arm of a fellow male panelist. She made one appearance on the fairly ghastly 2002 incarnation, hosted by John O’Hurley with regular panelists Meschach Taylor and Paula Poundstone.

Anyway, back to her husband… Moss Hart passed away in 1961 at age fifty-seven of heart failure, leaving Carlisle a single mother of two. She continued working regularly on Truth and also took part in many theatrical performances. If there’s an area in which Miss Carlisle has been criticized, it is in her steadfast refusal to acknowledge the (much reported) homosexuality of her late husband. While she has gone to extraordinary lengths to preserve his legacy as a pillar of Broadway and keep his works alive (and was present the day a U.S. postage stamp bearing his name and face was revealed), she actively tried to repress anything suggesting his alternative tendencies.

The only thing I can really say about this is that how many widowed mothers of two small children in 1961 do you think are going to come out and reveal the details of the sexual leanings of their late husband? Wives of complicated husbands, for whatever reason, never seem to have it easy in the final analysis and have to do whatever they can to get by. True, she might have gone into it years later, in more permissive and open times, but by then it might have seemed even more undignified. Miss Carlisle was, if anything, a lady. She was not ever going to be one of those wives who writes an intimate tell-all, with all the gory details, to cash in on her relationship the way that many wives had and have done when their spouse was someone with a secret. She did write a book in 1988, but Kitty’s anecdotes were always naughty enough to be interesting, but never raunchy, expository or unkind.

I will also add that it’s possible that the things documented about Moss may not have been what she herself experienced during their fifteen-year marriage. A lot of men get married and have children only to later divorce their wives and come out as gay. Still, and I have known many like this personally, many other men indulge in gay and bisexual behavior as younger men and then later settle in with a wife and have children and (whether they want to or not, hence the conflict) never go near a man again. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone ever truly knows the exact circumstances of a marriage except the two people in it. In any case, regardless of what she revealed or admitted (or didn’t), she was not ignorant and she knew the score.

In 1967, a dream of hers came true when she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House in the role of Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus, carrying on an age-old tradition of females portraying male roles in the opera. Garbed head to toe in black, it was to be her very favorite part she ever performed for a variety of reasons and she did it there several times for the next few years.

Carlisle soon became involved in the New York State Council of the Arts and served as Vice Chair for five years (1971-1975.) In 1976, she was appointed Chair of the organization and remained in that position for twenty years! A tireless commitment to the arts in all its varieties kept her very, very busy. She traveled to every region of the state of New York in an effort to provide support and gain information about the many, many different dance, vocal, theatre and creative arts within her state. Her “bulldog” personality helped make massive improvements to a faltering organization and drew revenue, which then went to encouraging and financially aiding NY arts in every field from sculpture to photography to singing to dance and beyond.

As I said earlier, Carlisle was ever a lady, but she was not a prude. She fought just as hard for experimental and extremely controversial “artists” such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Annie Sprinkle as she did for more traditional performers. She also strove to encourage minority performance groups to seek better administrative leadership so that they might allow their organizations to thrive and last and improve. As Chair of the State Council of the Arts, a group she endeavored to keep as apolitical as possible, she took on some of the big guns of the state government in order to stand her ground. Yes, her appearance as a “little old lady” might have given pause to some of her opponents, but this lady was going to get what she was after!
While still working for the Arts Council in 1983, she replaced Dina Merrill in a revival of the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart Broadway musical On Your Toes, singing two duets. Still later in 2003, she took part in the Off-Broadway staged readings of Wit & Wisdom that also counted Sandy Duncan, Rita Gam, Tammy Grimes, Rosemary Harris and Dina Merrill among its rotating casts. She also appeared in Woody Allen's Radio Days in 1987 and in the film version of Six Degrees of Separation in 1993 (her last screen acting credit.)

In 1996, at age eighty-six (!), Carlisle retired from her post, but remained active. She had been a trained pianist from the age of six and was able to accompany herself each morning as she sang scales, something she did until practically the very end of her life. Her regimen also included yoga and she was able to touch her toes until she was well into her nineties! Always justifiably proud of her legs, she often wore ball gowns with long slits, even as she tottered into her ninth decade. (In one of the glittering Night of 100 Stars charity benefit fashion shows, she wore one of the many ornate, red dresses she adored so and was paired with teeny Raven-Symone of The Cosby Show.) She also kept her trademark dark hair, swept into a full style that rarely altered much after the 1980s. The less said about her ill-advised appearance, along with her friend Arlene Francis, on The Howard Stern Show the better, though it continued to demonstrate her willingness to be exposed to all sorts of people and things, no matter how disappointing they might be.

In 2006, having vowed long ago to never stop going, she celebrated her ninety-fifth birthday (an achievement in itself!), a time when most of us are either incapacitated or dead and gone, by performing a five-city cabaret show that interspersed recollections of the legendary people she’d known such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Kurt Weill, Frederick Loewe and others along with songs they had composed. Sadly, in the fall of that year, she contracted pneumonia and battled it off an on (even while continuing to appear at events through December, some of them outside!) until it finally led to heart failure in April of 2007.

The absolute epitome of elegance and grace, Miss Kitty Carlisle Hart was a delightful, inspirational, generous, hard working, eternally optimistic and, most of all, fun woman. She claimed to not be a creative person, herself, though she was certainly a sharp one, all the way to the end. Despite this disclaimer of hers, she created a tremendous amount of enjoyment for several generations of audiences and gave countless amounts of support to the arts community. For this she should be (and, in effect was, when she was given the National Medal of Arts in 1991) a national treasure! In The Underworld, she has a statue, prominently displayed, to mark her wondrous existence in the world of entertainment and to celebrate the personal pleasure she has given me.

8 comments:

joe said...

Great tribute to a great lady!

Dean said...

Great write-up. I've never seen earlier pictures of her before and know her primarily from To Tell The Truth in the 70s, but I'm so glad you mentioned her cameo in Radio Days (one of my favorite movies). She was one classy lady!

Topaz said...

Never knew all that about her. Interesting post. And to echo your words, why would she feel the need to talk about her husband's "other activities"? It wasn't her experience of him and it was probably true that their life together was very different. And lots of gay men, myself included, treasure our role as fathers, as I'm sure Moss hart did.

TJB said...

Oh, Kitty!

In honor of what would have been her 100th birthday this year, my friend Drew threw a fabulous cocktail party to celebrate. There were musical performances by Peter Mintun, the society pianist who knew and worked with Kitty; several cabaret artists of note; and Kitty's final musical accompanist, whose name I regretfully cannot think of at the moment.

Between 50 and 75 smartly dressed Manhattanites gathered in Drew's boyfriend's magnificent penthouse apartment, spilled out onto the terrace, and enjoyed the performances, the background music (supplied by yours truly), the canapes, and the copious cocktails ferried by the pretty waitstaff (male and female). In short, it was exactly the kind of party one would think only existed in Kitty's heyday, but which, thankfully, can occasionally come to fruition today.

On a personal note, I would often see Kitty, right up till the end, elegantly gowned, perfectly coiffed, and tastefully made up, at the opera and ballet. Once, I sat directly across from her, in parallel aisle seats. It was a thrilling rush of glamour. I miss her.

As always, a magnificent writing job, my friend!

Poseidon3 said...

TJB, I had a sneaking suspicion you might like this subject! Thanks so much for sharing your story about the celebration. How neat! (I wouldn't even be allowed to bring in the chipped ice to a function that snazzy. LOL) Thanks to you (and the others!) for your remarks. It's always great to hear from readers (except when it's not. ha ha!)

Dimestore Lipstick said...

The voice saying "Damn Good Actress" is, I believe, Gene Kelly's.

McMullen said...

Thank you so much for a grand tribute to an equally grand lady. I have so much affection and admiration for her, built up over my childhood and beyond. To me, she's what all women, or rather all people, should aspire to be: always immaculately put together, cheery, polished and sophisticated, kind and discreet. I really miss her these days, Arlene Francis also, and am afraid they just don't make them like this anymore!

Poseidon3 said...

Welcome, McMullen and thank you very much for your comments and compliment. Needless to say, I feel exactly the same way. Miss Arlene is tremendously overdue for a tribute of her own here. Maybe some day... Seeing the new "To Tell the Truth" (despite the presence of Betty White) just makes me miss people like Ms. Carlisle even more.