There is an aristocracy in the arts, and Kitty Carlisle Hart was of it. It is not an aristocracy of birth, of marriage, of talent, or of wealth, though Mrs. Hart, who died on April 17 of heart failure, at age 96, had some distinction in all those realms. Her grandfather was the mayor of Shreveport, Louisiana; her husband Moss Hart was one of New York’s most admired
and most successful playwright-directors; she herself achieved notable success on TV panel shows, and with her singing onstage, in films, and latterly in cabarets. Still, none of these by itself would have made her the beloved, universally known personage whom everyone found instantly approachable, and whom no one would have dreamed of approaching without the utmost politeness. She belonged to what one might call the aristocracy of consideration. In a world where even garden-variety good manners have almost vanished, Kitty Carlisle Hart practiced a democratic version of noblesse oblige: She knew very well that she was one of the elite, but for her this meant practicing straightforward give-and-take rather than demanding deference. She was wholly considerate of you, and expected you to be so of her. If she wanted something from you, she never hesitated to ask-—a quality that was of immense help to her during her 20 years as chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts-—and if you asked something of her, you always got a straight answer.
This wonderful balance of openness and formality carried with it a complete lack of snobbery that was the secret of her often-praised charm. At NYSCA she fought for the little struggling workshops as well as for the big institutions; you were as likely to find her on a folding chair in an Off-Off-Broadway fleapit as in a plush seat at a Metropolitan Opera opening. Within the limits of a sensibility that came of age in the 1920s, she was interested in everything, and inquisitive about everything. As late as last year, she was struggling to learn new songs, and relearn some from her past, for what turned out to be the last version of her cabaret act. In 2004, I had suggested a song that she sang in the Off-Broadway revue Tasting Memories, William Bolcom’s “Lime Jello”; it became a favorite that she included in the act from that point on. At her dress rehearsal, last fall, I reintroduced myself, we chatted briefly about the song, and then I asked her about some long-ago part of her career that the rehearsal had brought to mind. “I’ve got to rest now,” she said, with her usual forthrightness. “Maybe we’ll talk about that next time I see you.” At 95, she was still thinking of the future.