Kitty Carlisle Hart, 96, the Last Charmer

Kitty Carlisle Hart died last week. She admitted to 96. But she was as young as the spring air. She left behind friends from every meeting she attended, every restaurant she dined in, every street she walked down. When I went out to dinner with her in the days after 9/11, people whose faces looked tense and drawn would smile when they saw her.

She could never appreciate how spectacular she was. All her life, she assessed herself with a cool eye. She could never quite forget her mother’s diamond-hard appraisal. “You’re not the prettiest girl I ever saw,” her mother had said, “and you’re not the best singer I ever heard, and you’re certainly not the best actress I ever hoped to see.”

Kitty wasn’t a beauty, whose stunning looks would leave you speechless; or a fierce talent, whose performances wowed you; or a celebrated wit, whose rapier asides left you giddy; or a New York billionairess.

But she had something far more potent. She had charm.

It was all she needed.

She had the ability to fascinate, to disarm, to delight. It was intoxicating to be around her. The world was suddenly effervescent, shimmering. When she focused her attention on you—even in the most general of conversations, at the noisiest, most crowded of parties—you felt as if you were only person in the room. The only person in the world. You were smarter and funnier. You met her expectations.

Like all great charmers, Kitty had an ability to seduce on the vertical. She could beguile across a dinner table, captivate at a cocktail party. Real charm is thoroughly engaging; it draws everyone in. If the legendary seductresses of the 19th century were the “grand horizontals”—after all, they did their most celebrated work lying down—you could call Kitty a “grand vertical.”

Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, was an old friend. Kitty would stay with her whenever she visited Washington. Some years ago, Kay came into Kitty’s room, where her guest was having breakfast, and wanted to know why Kitty always had so many beaus. Kitty looked at her old friend. “I twinkle,” she explained.

What she had was the polar opposite of beauty. For a great beauty, it is really only about them. All their lives, they can act whatever way they please and still get what they want. But for a genuine charmer, it is always about the other. Kitty could cosset and nurture in the most casual of conversations.

Kitty was also the last link to a storied cultural past. When she sang a melody by George Gershwin, say “The Man I Love,” it was in the tempo that Gershwin had taught her, probably around the time that he proposed. When she sang a tune by Richard Rodgers, say “Something Wonderful,” it was the way that Rodgers had performed it with her after myriad Hollywood dinner parties in the 1950’s. When she sang a ballad by Irving Berlin, it was a tune that had been written by the husband of her daughter’s godmother. When she sang “September Song,” it was something written by her friend, Kurt Weill, who had written the music for her husband Moss Hart’s masterpiece, “Lady in the Dark.” And when she sang something from “My Fair Lady,” she could remember Fritz Loewe as a young rehearsal pianist saying that one day he “would write the best musical on Broadway,” which Moss directed.

There is now no one around who can say this.

Kitty was close friends with Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, who also had the trick of making you believe you were most fascinating person in the room. But there were two essential differences between the two women, whose friendship dated back to the 40’s.

One is that Kitty had a genuine sense of humor. Pamela, from what I understand, had none—though one gentleman recalled that “she made you think you had the best sense of humor in the world.” But Kitty had a genuine appreciation for humor. She had a rippling, throaty laugh that was irrepressible and irresistible. She got the joke and could make it better and funnier.

And Kitty was a one-man woman. She may have been juggling beaus till the last months of her life, going dancing with one while attending theater with another. But she only married once, and she never got over it. Forty-five years after his death, Moss Hart was still the love of her life.

She had fallen for Moss Hart. Literally. She tripped while running over to meet him on the set of A Night at the Opera in 1935. George S. Kaufman, who had written the screenplay for the film, had brought his Broadway collaborator over to say hello. She said she landed right at his feet.

Moss was not the marrying kind. Oscar Levant made a famous remark about him at a big event he atttended with an actress he was then seeing, Edith Atwater. “Here comes Moss Hart,” Levant said, “and the future Miss Atwater.”

But to Kitty, no other beaus mattered. Other beaus were not funny like Moss, or smart like Moss, or talented like Moss. But, after eight years of trying to get Hart to the sticking point, finally even she decided that the deal was never going to close.

She went for a weekend at Hart’s house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and one night she was playing gin rummy with George S. Kaufman. In the middle of the game, Kitty talked baby talk to Moss—she was still embarrassed about this when she told this story a half-century later. Kaufman looked at her over his eyeglasses and said, “We don’t talk baby talk around here.” The room was silent.

Kitty decided that if Moss did not speak up for her, she would have to accept that marriage was not in the cards. At the same instant, she realized that there was little chance that he would speak up. Kaufman was not only Hart’s collaborator, he was his mentor, his role model, his father figure, the person he most admired. Mentally, she began disengaging.

But Moss Hart spoke up. “Around here and in this house,” he said, “she can talk any way she wants.”

Within weeks, they were married.

That’s how she told the story—and when she told it, you were the only one she told it to. Kitty Carlisle Hart, 96, the Last Charmer