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Tribute to a Great Dame

The grand lady and great dame Kitty Carlisle Hart passed away this past week after a short illness and 96 years of fabulous life.

Our paths crossed three times. Mrs. Hart was the tender age of 91 when I observed her execute a perfect swan dive into a glacial lake in Massachusetts. We had mutual friends. My then teen-aged son was swimming nearby. The slender woman in a blue one-piece bathing suit and white bathing cap called out to him, "Young man, how old do you think I am?" Not missing a beat, he answered, "I don't know, 25?" Her head flew back, a hearty laugh escaped from her impossibly scarlet lips

She then directed her melodious voice straight towards him. "No, my dear, I'm 91." Mrs. Hart relished that story at cocktail hour.

A few years later, we were invited to interview her in her New York City apartment. The producer, engineer and I made ourselves comfortable on an elegantly upholstered sofa surrounded by silver-framed pictures of swell-egant people. Mrs. Hart kept us waiting just long enough to make an entrance. She swanned through a swinging door, dressed to the nines in a navy blue dress with double-breasted gold buttons, her jet-black hair had not a wave out of place, and she smiled with those same scarlet lips. We talked by the piano about Georges Kaufman and Gershwin, Noel Coward, Cole Porter, the loveliness of Paris and Irving Berlin.

She remembered the year 1935, when Metro Goldwyn Mayer offered her the now famous diva part in the Marx Brothers' picture, "A Night at the Opera," but Kitty Carlisle was on contract to Paramount Pictures.

"They were trying to get rid of me," she explained, "so they farmed me out to Metro to be in this movie, which in those days was considered to be knockabout comics. They weren't, quote, The Marx Brothers of today. And so they thought, 'This will kill her off.'"

The Marx Brothers became her good friends. "They were so nice to me," she recalled. "Everybody says to me 'Tell us about the Marx Brothers and the tricks they played on you.' Well they didn't play any tricks on me at all," she said.

Kitty Carlisle met her husband Moss Hart on the set of that picture.

Before escorting us out, Mrs. Hart showed us where she spent some of the day before a night on the town. We walked through the parlor door next to her grand piano, down a typically short Manhattan apartment hallway lined with paintings and into her den, a homey, small room, with a comfortable couch, family photos on top of the television, and magazines on a coffee table next to a well-used exercise bike.

I saw Mrs. Hart last year at the Algonquin Hotel. She played host to a party celebrating the legendary Round Table, where during long and liquid lunches, poets, playwrights, critics and wags dished the dirt on high society. That night in 2006, she was seated at the round table itself, holding court. After paying my respects, and briefly discussing our common acquaintances, I wondered what it meant to her to be at the Algonquin that night. She said she didn't have a better paying engagement, smiled that scarlet smile, and let out that unmistakable laugh.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liane Hansen
Liane Hansen has been the host of NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday for 20 years. She brings to her position an extensive background in broadcast journalism, including work as a radio producer, reporter, and on-air host at both the local and national level. The program has covered such breaking news stories as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the Columbia shuttle tragedy. In 2004, Liane was granted an exclusive interview with former weapons inspector David Kay prior to his report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The show also won the James Beard award for best radio program on food for a report on SPAM.