Kitty Carlisle Hart was a part of our lives for so long it’s hard to believe that she’s finally gone, at age 96, just several months after performing at a nightclub in New York. Still doing club dates at 96! It boggles the mind. They should make her the patron saint of retirement towns everywhere, except she, of course, never retired.
I knew her from a special perspective. From 1976 to 1984, she was my boss at the New York State Council on the Arts. She was the chairman, appointed by the governor to champion the arts and to oversee the annual disbursement of as much as $50 million in grants. I was a lowly grants officer. I’ll never forget the day she got the job. She called a meeting and we all assembled in the board room of our dingy office building in Lower Manhattan. (I had a beautiful view of the World Trade Center right outside my window.) We were all a little skeptical of the governor’s new appointment. She was glamorous, to be sure, but she was a TV celebrity, and we weren’t quite sure if she had the right tone, the right gravitas to lead such an important organization as the one we worked for.
She was charming in her remarks but said she wanted to make two things clear: one, she was not rich, as the New York Times had reported in its story on her appointment, and, two, “To Tell the Truth [the TV show on which she was a panelist] is very important to me.” She would keep working because she needed the money (the arts council job didn’t pay anything—literally). She would try and keep conflicts to the minimum but we had to understand, she had a living to make. Oh, and another thing. She wasn’t Kitty Carlisle. She was Mrs. Hart. Mrs. Moss Hart, widow of the famed playwright and director. That’s how she wanted to be known, and the thing she was most proud of.
She totally rethought her new job and turned it into something she could manage. She wasn’t particularly interested in administration. There were other people for that. True, she would have to solve the crises, she would have to fire people when necessary (which she did with great dispatch), but the role she played was that of a leader. She crisscrossed the state visiting the groups we funded, never less than wildly enthusiastic no matter how lame they might be. (And we funded everything from the Metropolitan Opera to the Cooperstown Cloggers, don’t forget.)
A visit from Mrs. Hart was the high point of the year for many of these groups, and she was very conscious of giving them an afternoon to remember. No one dressed the part so carefully. Her specialty was the fur-trimmed suit; I remember a particularly stunning version in purple, with matching maribou at the cuffs. She was very hands-on and a big hugger, and always there was that enormous smile, and her head thrown back in that throaty laugh. When pressed, as she often was, she would launch into stories about working with the Marx Brothers (she was the ingénue in A Night at the Opera) and tell the stories with such verve you thought she was doing it for the first time.
Of course she had another side, as we all do. She worried a great deal, mostly about next year’s budget and snide things that were said in the press. And sometimes she would get very quiet and there would be no more smile and she wouldn’t bother with the charm. My favorite example: We were waiting at the elevator to go to a meeting and the council’s PR guy, a notorious doofus who was a state employee she was stuck with, forgot yet another paper and had to run back and get it. Mrs. Hart tapped her heel for a minute or so. Then she turned to me. “It’s usually the press agent who waits for the star,” she said grimly.
Mrs. Hart did much of her work at home, so it wasn’t all that unusual to go over there for a meeting. Home was a sprawling apartment on Madison Avenue in the 60s, right on the second floor, overlooking all the buses going by. The walls were a celadon green and the furniture, while beautiful, was the tiniest bit shabby. The first thing Lisa, her secretary, had to do each day was show up at the apartment, and with Mrs. Hart still in bed sipping her café au lait, they would go over the details of her day. Every year at Christmastime she threw a party for the entire council. These events were about as glamorous as you could get, even for New York City. The food was incredible, and you’d be chatting with the likes of Kurt Vonnegut. Or Peter Duchin. Or Dina Merrill. The high point would be when Mrs. Hart would sing. Her set usually included the songs she introduced (Love in Bloom and my favorite, Cocktails for Two, which begins, “In some secluded rendezvous . . .”). And then, just to prove she could, she’d do a killer rendition of Kurt Weill’s My Ship.
My favorite Mrs. Hart moment dates back to 1981. There was a meeting at the council that was canceled at the last moment. But three people showed up anyway: me, Mrs. Hart and Mrs. John D Rockefeller III. We sat there in the conference room and tried to decide what to do next. Then Mrs. Hart got an idea. We would watch the inauguration. Yes, Ronald Reagan was being sworn in as President that day, Jimmy Carter was out, and simultaneously, the hostages in Iran were being released. It was quite a moment in history.
Neither Mrs. Hart nor Mrs. Rockefeller had been invited to the inauguration. They were both big Democrats, powers in the party, in fact. Mrs. Rockefeller’s son was a senator. So the Reagan inauguration was a defeat for them. Of course, this only made it better. Mrs. Rockefeller found a roll of Lifesavers in her purse, and as we passed it around the fur started to fly. “Look at what she’s wearing,” they screamed as the new First Lady appeared. “And those crazy kids. And is that . . . Barbara Bush???”
After I quit working at the council and moved to Sarasota, I saw Mrs. Hart several more times, at the airport of all places. I know this sounds unlikely, but I swear it’s true: She had a boyfriend in Plymouth Harbor. She’d come down and visit him, all through his final illness. We would chat, and when I told her I wanted to send her a book I’d written she professed to be delighted. When neither of us could find a pencil she said, “Just look up my address in the phone book.” Yes, there she was, still listed under “Moss Hart.”