The Hart of the Matter
Kitty Carlisle Hart on her marriage to Moss Hart and the upcoming Metropolitan Opera Guild benefit celebrating their careers.
Yet as Mrs. Hart, still glamorous and sharp at 94, tells me as we sit in her spacious Upper East Side apartment, the couple's first meeting -- in 1935 -- hardly qualifies as love at first sight. "We met on the set of the film A Night at the Opera," she recalls. "Moss came out with Cole Porter to visit George S. Kaufman [Hart's frequent collaborator and one of the film's screenwriters]. They were looking for a leading lady for their new musical, Jubilee, so they asked me if I would come up to their hotel suite that evening and sing a couple of songs. I wanted to be in that show, so I went up there and I sang for them. I didn't get the job, but I got the man -- many years later."
Carlisle and Hart saw each other sporadically over the next decade but sparks still didn't fly. "I auditioned for him a lot, but he never really saw me," she says. "He never really focused on me. But, one day, I was at a party at Lillian Hellman's house. I was sitting on the sofa and he was sitting on the arm of the sofa, and I wanted to attract his attention. So I said to him, 'Moss, tell me about your trip to the South Pacific.' And we were married eight months later."
Carlisle's mother, Hortense Conn, couldn't have been happier; in fact, she had pushed Kitty into a stage career as a teenager not because she was convinced of her talent but so that her daughter would "find a rich husband." And Hart was, among other things, quite rich: "Mother thought I had made the right choice. She never found anything wrong with him, thank God. If she had, I don't know what would have happened." Not that Mrs. Conn fully approved of the actual wedding: "We were married by a justice of the peace in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and all these dogs came to the wedding -- more dogs than you have ever seen. Mother sat in the corner as if she was watching a bad taxi accident."
Despite their superficial differences, the couple had a great deal in common. "Moss stopped school at 14 in order to support his family," Mrs. Hart relates, "and I stopped school at 15, although I am well educated and speak three languages. I stopped because we traveled too much. Mother kept looking for the key to European society." During their 15-year marriage, the couple had two children, Christopher and Cathy -- both of whom will speak at the Met Opera Guild benefit -- and often worked together. Carlisle spent a year on Broadway in the Jerome Chodorov-Herbert Fields comedy Anniversary Waltz, directed by her husband. "He never gave me any direction, just everybody else," she says. "So one day I cornered him in the bathroom as he was shaving and I said, 'Moss, you're a very good actor. If you read me the part, I will copy what you do and then I won't bother you anymore.' So he read me the part, I copied him, and I got great notices."
Mrs. Hart says that she employed similar tactics when she took on the part of Liza Elliott in a summer stock production of the groundbreaking musical Lady in the Dark, for which her husband wrote the book: "Moss took me to see Gertrude Lawrence [who had originated the role on Broadway] in The King and I. After the matinee, she came down to the stage in her street clothes and sang 'The Saga of Jenny' -- and I stood behind her and imitated her."
If Lawrence were still with us, she might well be one of the performers or hosts of the Hart to Hart benefit, since many of them have strong connections to the couple. Mrs. Hart met co-host Beverly Sills when they performed together during the 1967 Boston Lyric Opera season in The Daughter of the Regiment. Ironically, Mrs. H. tried to get out of her contract -- she only had a small role in the opera -- after receiving a certain phone call. "One day, I get a call from Greece and it's Jackie [Onassis] asking me to fly over and then come back with her and Ari on the Christina," she relates. "So I called Sarah Caldwell [the Lyric's director] to tell her I wasn't doing the part. And she said 'We've sold tickets because of your name. You're doing it.' So I didn't get to go to Greece, but the best part is that I met Beverly."
The benefit's other co-host, Julie Andrews, starred in My Fair Lady and Camelot, both of which were directed by Moss Hart. When I ask Mrs. H. if it's really true that Andrews was so awful in the early days of My Fair Lady rehearsals that Hart almost fired her, she replies: "Moss had let me come to some of the rehearsals, and one day, as we were going uptown in a taxi, he asked me, 'Is she as bad as I think she is?' I said, 'She's worse.' " But Mrs. Hart had a very different reaction when she first heard Andrews' Camelot co-star, Robert Goulet, who is also set to appear in the Avery Fisher Hall program. "He came in that first day, and the minute he opened his mouth, everybody's jaws dropped," she says.
Joining Goulet on the bill will be fellow Tony Award winners Jane Alexander ("She came to me when she was head of the NEA and asked me for advice; I also offered to lend her my clothes because she didn't have enough"), Rosemary Harris ("Moss brought her from London for The Climate of Eden in 1952; when it closed, I got one of her dresses"), Celeste Holm ("When I was single and she was in Oklahoma, we dated the same man, the Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia"), and Audra McDonald, who will perform a song from one of Hart's shows.
Among the other guests who will salute the Harts are Michael Feinstein; Mrs. Hart's longtime friend and fellow To Tell the Truth panelist Orson Bean; and former New York governor Mario Cuomo, with whom she worked closely during her 20-year tenure as Chairperson of the New York State Council of the Arts. And to honor Kitty's career as an opera singer -- she debuted at the Met in 1954 -- there will be performances by Denyce Graves, Thomas Hampson, Theodora Hanslowe, Sylvia McNair, Anna Moffo, and Risë Stevens. "I used to follow Risë in my singing lessons," Mrs. H. relates, "and, one day, I asked my teacher, 'Why don't you give me those same high pianissimos you give Risë? She looked at me as if I had lost my mind, and she said, 'Those notes come from God.'"
While she may never have had those particular notes, Kitty Carlisle Hart still sounds great, as audiences at Hart to Hart will discover. She practices every single day, following the lessons of discipline taught to her by her mother. But If you can't attend the event, it won't be your only chance to hear the guest of honor; she will perform in Florida this winter and, in the spring, will return to Feinstein's at the Regency -- where she sold out for three nights in September -- with her fabulous one-woman show. Is that show her all-time favorite? "I tend to like best the last thing I've done," she says, speaking like a true actress. "And, right now, I need more gigs!"