The Kitty Carlisle Hart I knew

Posted: Apr 23, 2007 1:37 PM
The Kitty Carlisle Hart I knew

We met by accident at a newspaper editor's convention in St. Paul, Minn., in 1989. She was to be one side in a debate over federal funding for the arts. She was for it. Her opponent was against it. Except, her debating partner's plane was delayed, and so the host editor called me.

"You've got to help me by stepping in," said Ronald Clark, who, at the time, was the editorial page editor for the St. Paul newspaper. "Are you nuts?" I said. "I'm not prepared and I certainly am not going to debate an old lady, especially one with her standing." He persevered and I relented.

I was somewhere else in town and had to come back to the convention site. By the time I arrived, she had begun her presentation. It was worse than I had anticipated - not her presentation, but the obstacles I faced. There she was with her half granny glasses and a little lamp on the podium, reading her notes. I was supposed to attack this grandmother twice my age? I should rather commit suicide!

An inspiration came to me. When it was my turn to respond, I began by saying how much I admired her husband, the late Broadway director Moss Hart, and how when I read his autobiography "Act One" in the early '60s, it had deepened my appreciation for the theater. I had her eating out of my hand!

We made a "date" to visit at her marvelous Upper East Side apartment in New York. When my wife and I arrived, she escorted us into a main room and we had tea. Then she said, "I know what you want to see; come on." She led us down a hallway with original posters of "My Fair Lady," "Camelot" and other shows that Moss Hart had directed or written. It was manna for an unreconstructed "Stage Door Johnny."

We would meet many times after that on flights or trains between New York and Washington and at the Kennedy Center. Two years ago, Kitty appeared at the Kennedy Center with Carol Channing and Debbie Reynolds to reminisce about show business in the 1940s. The audience was charmed.

Kitty defined elegance. She was always dressed and coiffed for stepping out. Until recently, she performed a one-woman show at Feinstein's in New York, in Palm Springs and any other place that would have her. Her recollections about her life and the people she knew made you feel as if you were an eyewitness at a cocktail party of famous people; people famous for actually doing something, rather than those today who are famous just for being famous. Celebrities we call them.

Kitty's stories were a verbal arcade of the brightest and best of Broadway. At 96, some might think her time had long ago passed her by. She once told me that she believed the golden era of the Broadway musical was long gone and would not make a comeback, except through the occasional revival, because there was neither the talent, nor the interest in such things today. I said I hoped she was wrong, but I feared she might be right.

Any journalist will tell you that the people you meet are the best part of this business. And I have been doubly blessed. Not only have I been fortunate to meet world leaders, but also talented performers from the Broadway stage — a place I dreamed of becoming a part of, before I entered the world of journalism.

I could live vicariously through people like Kitty Carlisle Hart, who knew the people I wished I knew, and some I actually came to know. That golden age — those magical years in the '30s and '40s when scores of shows ran simultaneously on and off-Broadway — will never live again except in the memory of those who were there and lived to tell and write about them. If those days are never to be again, at least we can know what they were like through books like Steven Bach's "Dazzler," a biography of Moss Hart, and through the stories Kitty told to those who wanted to hear them.

I wanted to hear them and to pass them on. She would have liked that. And I do so without a government grant.