Kitty Carlisle Hart belonged to the heyday of the ‘21’ Club and Sardi’s, of Harpo Marx acting up at parties where George Gershwin (who once proposed to her) played only his own songs. Her death today, at a vibrant 96, severs one of the last links to a New York that had more glamour than celebrity, more sophistication than wealth. In a newspaper interview a few years ago — between cabaret engagements, dates with beaux, and the other social commitments incumbent upon a “living landmark” of the city — she wondered what had happened to the place. Decades ago, she recalled, “we used to get all dressed up and go out dancing, then we’d go out for breakfast, and then we’d go to work the next day. I don’t know why they don’t do that anymore.”
For years, Hart had been one half of my favorite comic team. With Anne Kaufman Schneider, the daughter of George S. Kaufman, she would tell stories about Moss Hart, her late husband and Kaufman’s great writing partner. Playing the tall and debonair beauty that she always remained, Kitty would share some sweet or funny reminiscence of the bygone world of thirties showbiz, both the Broadway and Hollywood branches. (She met her husband on the set of the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, when she tripped and fell in front of him.) Then Schneider, true to her father’s acerbic legacy, would follow with something wicked and hilarious.
At one of their programs four years ago, actors alternated their stories with songs from the Kaufman and Hart heyday. In what looked to me like a spontaneous move, Kitty decided to perform one herself. With no accompaniment, barely louder than a whisper, she sang Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s melancholy “September Song.” She made it somehow lovely and sweet and heartbroken all at once, and it reduced me to tears. I’ll miss the stories she could tell about our city’s legendary past, but I’ll miss even more the luminous performances like that one, when she made it seem we were still living there. —Jeremy McCarter