Actress Kitty Carlisle Hart dies at 96

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Kitty Carlisle Hart, the glittering grande dame of show business who had a seven-decade career, has died. She was 96.

Hart, who died Tuesday of cardiac arrest at her home in Manhattan, had been touring in her one-woman show, "Here's to Life," until stricken with pneumonia in December.

Said her longtime musical director David Lewis: "The show was about everyone she had known -- Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and her wonderful relationship with her husband," Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Moss Hart, who directed "My Fair Lady."

Lewis said when he once asked her "why she would attend events every single night of her life and dress up and be the grande dame Kitty Carlisle Hart, she said that the grim reaper was lapping at her feet. She had to outpace him."

Kitty Carlisle Hart was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President Bush in 1991.

She made her theatrical debut in the 1932 musical comedy "Rio Rita" on Broadway, sang "Love in Bloom" in the film "She Loves Me Not" with Bing Crosby and was still singing almost to the day of her death.

She became a favorite of the first television generation as a witty regular on the game shows "To Tell the Truth" and "What's My Line?"

Hart started each morning by smiling at herself in the mirror, she wrote in her autobiography, a practice that she said captivated men.

Playwright Norman Krasna wanted to marry her, Gershwin proposed to her, and financier Bernard Baruch wanted to leave his wife for her, she said.

At a party given by playwright Lillian Hellman, Kitty Carlisle ran into Moss Hart, who had turned her down for a part 10 years earlier when she auditioned for "Jubilee," the musical he wrote with Cole Porter.

He "called me the next morning and said, 'Are you surprised?' " she said later. "And I said, 'No, I knew you would call.' "

The two were married Aug. 10, 1946, shortly before her 36th birthday.

"Moss directed my clothes the way he directed a play," Hart said. "I happily followed every one of his notions." The couple entertained frequently in their 15-room apartment on Park Avenue or at a weekend farm in Pennsylvania.

Well known for her starring role as Rosa Castaldi in the 1935 Marx Brothers movie "A Night at the Opera," her other film credits include "Here Is My Heart," also opposite Crosby; Woody Allen's "Radio Days"; and "Six Degrees of Separation."

She made her operatic debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967 in "Die Fledermaus" and created the role of Lucretia in the American premiere of Benjamin Britten's "Rape of Lucretia."

When movie roles became scarce -- "I was a meteoric bust," she wrote in "Kitty: An Autobiography" -- Hart returned to Broadway as the lead in "White Horse Inn" in 1936 and in "Three Waltzes" the next year.

Her other Broadway credits include "On Your Toes," "Anniversary Waltz" and "Walk With Music."

Hart accepted jobs wherever they were offered, often in summer stock. She sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at many World War II bond rallies and appeared in the 1944 film "Hollywood Canteen."

In her later years, she was seen around town with her latest beau, financier Roy Neuberger.

The entertainer also was a tireless advocate for the arts, serving 20 years on the New York State Council on the Arts.

"I worked hard. I learned how to be a politician and how to get the money out of Albany," Hart said a couple of years ago. "And I learned how to charm five governors. I started with Nelson Rockefeller. I called all my governors 'darling.' "

Hart was born Catherine Conn on Sept. 3, 1910, in New Orleans to Joseph and Hortense Conn. After her father's death, her mother sold their house and took her daughter to New York and then to Europe, where the young Catherine was enrolled in Mont Choisi, a school overlooking Lac Leman in Switzerland. She ended her education at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where she won a certificate.

Duane Byrge and wire services contributed to this report.
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