We are in the middle of learning more about four of the regular members of To Tell the Truth. We have looked at Orson Bean and Peggy Cass, and today Kitty Carlisle is up.
Kitty was born Catharine Conn in 1910 in New Orleans. Her grandfather was the mayor of Shreveport, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War. He was on the USS Virginia as a gunner during the battle with the USS Monitor. Her father, a gynecologist, died when she was only ten. Her mother took her to Europe the following year. Apparently, her mother thought European royalty would be more likely to marry a Jewish girl than a wealthy American. Kitty was enrolled at some of the best schools on the continent: Chateau Mont Chois in Switzerland, Sorbonne and the London School of Economics. She studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and studied singing with Estelle Liebling who taught Beverly Sills.
In 1932 she and her mother returned to the United States, settling in New York. Under her stage name, Kitty Carlisle, she appeared in several operettas and musical comedies. She apprenticed with the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania. She also appeared on the radio during the early thirties. She studied with Julliard teacher Anna E. Schoen-Rene and appeared in 16 theater productions.
Kitty dated George Gershwin for a while in the 1930s. In April of 2007 in an interview on NPR, Kitty talked about her relationship with George: “Oh, George was fun. George was a really most interesting man. He was an egomaniac, but then I’d grown up with egomaniacs, so that didn’t bother me. He did ask me to marry him, but he wasn’t in love with me, nor was I in love with him.”
Not long after her arrival back home, she began her movie career. Her first film was Murder at the Vanities in 1934. She appeared with the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera. That must have been quite an experience. In a trivia post on imdb, Kitty is quoted as saying during her filming, “Groucho would come up to me from time to time to ask me, ‘Is this funny?’ Then totally deadpan he’d try out the line. I’d say, ‘No I don’t think it is funny,’ and he would go away absolutely crushed and try it out on everyone else in the cast. Chico was always playing cards in the back room and had to be called on the set. Harpo would work until about eleven o’clock. Then he’s stretch out on the nearest piece of furniture and start calling out at the top of his voice, ‘Lunchie. Lunchie.’”
Carlisle also made several films with Bing Crosby. However, her movie career never took the direction she was hoping for, and she only appeared in six movies, two as herself.
In 1946, she married playwright Moss Hart. The first time she met him was in Hollywood when she was introduced to several theater playwrights and musicians. She was so excited that she tripped over a cable and fell right in front of Moss. A few years later she was introduced to Moss at a dinner party at Lillian Hellman’s house. They would have two children. She appeared in several of his productions including “The Man Who Came to Dinner” in 1949.
They were married until 1961 when he passed away at their home. She never remarried; at one time she said, “When you’ve had the best of it, why fiddle around? He was so wonderful. He was so witty and it was such fun to be with him. I loved it and I loved him.” Carlisle lived another 46 years after his death and she did have several important romances, including a long-time relationship with Ivo John Lederer, a historian for sixteen years until his death in 1998.
In 1966, Kitty made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus.” Her final performance with the company was in 1973.
She also showed up on a couple of television shows: Nash Airflyte Theater in 1951 and Max Liebman Spectaculars in 1956, as well as one made-for-tv movie, Kojak: Flowers for Matty in 1990.
Carlisle appeared on To Tell the Truth from 1956 to 1978 and again in reboots in 1980, 1990, and one episode in 2000. In fact, she was the only panelist to appear on every version of the game show. She always showed up elegantly dressed in evening gowns or beautiful dresses and jewelry. The show has a reboot currently on television, but if you have not seen it, the format was that three contestants all claimed to be the same person. The panelists ask them questions to try to figure out which one was really the person. Some of the original contestants on the show included aviator Douglas Wrong-Way Corrigan, a concert pianist who was also a judo expert; a female bullfighter, Winston Churchill’s butler, President Eisenhower’s barber, and a gondolier from Venice. Kitty also appeared on Password, Match Game, Missing Links, and What’s My Line.
After her fame on To Tell the Truth, she was probably best known for her support of the arts. She participated in a variety of councils and was chairman of the New York State Council of the Arts for two decades from 1976-1996, as well as other cultural institutions.
Later in her career, she performed in a one-woman show, telling anecdotes about the men she knew from musical theater including Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, and Kurt Weill, performing some of their more famous songs.
Kitty died in 2007 from congestive heart failure after a battle with pneumonia.
Both Kitty and Moss wrote autobiographies. Carlisle’s is called Kitty: An Autobiography. Hart’s was Act One. Kitty said that she believed it was the best book ever written about theater life. Both books have a 4.5 rating. I have not had a chance to read Kitty’s book, but I did read Hart’s. It is a detailed look at how a boy born into poverty in New York was able to become a musical playwright. The book ends before Moss becomes famous. If you love the theater, it’s an amazing piece of history of early theater life in New York City.
I had a lot of fun learning about Kitty Carlisle. She overcame life with an overbearing mother who often criticized her and constantly reminded her she wasn’t the prettiest girl or the best singer or actress. She had a lot of interesting romantic relationships including a wonderful marriage, had two children, performed on stage and in movies and on television, and did an incredible amount of work to support the arts. I hope she knows how much we appreciate her. I am looking forward to reading her book to continue learning about her interesting life.