Kitty Carlisle Hart, at 96; was 'great dame' of stage and screen
NEW YORK -- Kitty Carlisle Hart -- whose long career spanned Broadway, opera, television and film, including the classic Marx Brothers movie "A Night at the Opera" -- died Tuesday night in her Manhattan apartment, her son said yesterday. She was 96.
Christopher Hart said his mother had been in and out of the hospital since contracting pneumonia over the Christmas holidays. "She passed away peacefully," said her son, who was at her side when she died. "She had such a wonderful life and a great long run; it was a blessing."
Mrs. Hart had been touring the country in her one-woman show, "Here's to Life," until falling ill.
David Lewis, her longtime musical director, said, "The show was about everyone she had known: Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and her wonderful relationship with her husband, Moss Hart."
Lewis said that when he once asked her "why she would attend events every single night of her life and dress up and be the grand dame Kitty Carlisle Hart, she said that the grim reaper was lapping at her feet. She had to outpace him."
A December appearance in Atlanta was her last, her son said.
Mrs. Hart had appeared for years on the popular game show "To Tell the Truth" as a celebrity panelist.
The entertainer was also a tireless advocate for the arts, serving 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.
Well known for her starring role as Rosa Castaldi in the 1935 movie "A Night at the Opera," Mrs. Hart's other film credits included: "She Loves Me Not" and "Here Is My Heart," both opposite Bing Crosby; Woody Allen's "Radio Days"; and "Six Degrees of Separation."
She began her acting career on Broadway in "Champagne Sec" and went on to appear in many other Broadway productions, including the 1984 revival of "On Your Toes."
Mrs. Hart made her operatic debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967 in "Die Fledermaus," and she created the role of Lucretia in the American premiere of Benjamin Britten's "Rape of Lucretia."
From 1956 to 1967, she appeared on the CBS prime-time game show "To Tell the Truth" with host Bud Collyer and fellow panelists such as Polly Bergen, Johnny Carson, Bill Cullen, and Don Ameche. The show featured three contestants, all purporting to be the same person. The panelists asked them questions to determine who was telling the truth. (The popular show also had runs, sometimes including Carlisle, in daytime and in syndicated versions.)
Mrs. Hart's late husband was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who wrote "You Can't Take It With You" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner" with George S. Kaufman. He won a Tony for directing "My Fair Lady" on Broadway.
Mrs. Hart's film career began in 1934; in "Murder at the Vanities," she sings "Cocktails for Two," a song later made famous in a spoof version by Spike Jones.
"A Night at the Opera" followed in 1935. It was the Marx Brothers' sixth film and became a huge hit.
Elegant and sophisticated -- with hair, makeup, and dress perfectly in place -- Mrs. Hart has often been called a great dame.
In a piece on CBS's "60 Minutes" in 2000, Marie Brenner, author of "Great Dames: What I Learned From Older Women," said: "A great dame is a soldier in high heels. . . . They lived through the Depression. They lived through the war.
"They were tough, intelligent, and brassy women," said Brenner, who described Mrs. Hart as a great dame who "walks into a room, and the room lights up."
Discipline ruled Mrs. Hart's success. She began every day with an exercise routine, even after she turned 90.
"I can do things a woman a fifth my age can't do. . . . I do 40 leg lifts without stopping. And then I take my legs -- I put them over my head, and I touch the floor behind me with my toes, and then very slowly I let myself down, touching every vertebrae as I go," Mrs. Hart told "60 Minutes" in 2000.
Mrs. Hart was born in New Orleans on Sept. 3, 1910. She attended the Sorbonne, the London School of Economics, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
She married in 1946 and had two children. Moss Hart died in 1961 at age 57.
She was once asked which she loved more: the movies or television. "I think television had more of an influence on my life than the movies, because with television you came into somebody's home," Mrs. Hart replied. "People remember me from television.
"They don't even remember me from 'A Night at the Opera.' They have no idea that I played the lead and did all the singing," she said, "but they do remember television, particularly 'To Tell the Truth.' "
Besides her son, Mrs. Hart also leaves her daughter, Catherine, and three grandchildren.