Hart was the best example of just how good life can be

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My phone rang one weekend last summer with a rather urgent call from Joanna Ney, the deft and organized head of activities at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center.

"I'm in a bind," she said. "Would you be available and willing to introduce our screening this Sunday of 'Winged Victory'? Kitty Carlisle was going to do it, but she just called and said she can't make it. She's not ill. She said, very excitedly, 'I've got a gig!' "

Kitty Carlisle Hart, 96, had just been booked for a singing engagement in Martha's Vineyard and wouldn't be able to make it to Lincoln Center to talk about the genesis of "Winged" — the World War II play-then-movie that her husband, Moss Hart, had written in the 1940s as a flag-waver about the Army Air Corps.

Now, "getting a gig" might come as a surprise had it involved any other nonagenarian you know, but with Kitty, one didn't bat an eye. For years, she'd been the one great constant of New York, seemingly everywhere around town — always looking svelte and perfectly groomed (no jeans or slacks for Kitty), with a ready smile and her trademark jet-black hair and charming personality warming up the landscape even in the dead of a winter. She seemed to have an endless vitality and curiosity.

Besides being a dedicated champion of the arts, serving on many councils and appearing at benefits, dedications and fundraisers, she had started putting her schedule into overdrive, doing sold-out cabaret shows at Feinstein's at the Regency on Park Avenue and various other venues around the country.

Last fall, I saw Kitty do a full-length theatrical show, which was exceptionally good, at the 14th Street Playhouse in Atlanta. It included her singing songs she had done in movies, such as the Marx Brothers' "A Night at the Opera" and Broadway musicals like "On Your Toes" as well as telling funny stories. She touched on her life with Moss when he was writing such screenplays as the Oscar-winning "Gentleman's Agreement" and Judy Garland's "A Star Is Born"; the anxious trials and tribulations when he directed the original "My Fair Lady" onstage; and her own friendships ranging from George Gershwin and George S. Kaufman to Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Oscar Levant, Cole Porter and Woody Allen.

There's plenty to tell when you're 96, having lived the life she did, and still sharp as a tack. The big surprise was always hearing how well she sang. Kitty didn't have the pipes of a 36-year-old, but her voice wasn't one you'd expect from someone 96, either — her vocals were exceptionally melodic, smooth, on-pitch and easy on the ear.

There seemed to be no stopping Kitty Carlisle Hart, and as the years ticked on she became the best example imaginable of how good life can be, even near the 100 mark, if one is blessed with good genes and a great attitude.

Personally, I never thought she'd die. Kitty Carlisle Hart has always seemed as much a part of the New York skyline as the Brooklyn Bridge, as indomitable as the Statue of Liberty. With her death Wednesday, the state of New York is going to seem a much less attractive place, and its arts movement once again is in serious danger without her to fight for it.

But no one could have done more while she was here, and I suspect few have enjoyed life as much as she did or given so much to others in the process — one reason she was named a "Living Landmark" in 1998 by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

I'm only sorry I never got to hear her stories about "Winged Victory," but I am glad she got that gig, especially when I heard she had told Ney of the Film Society, "I love being able to say, 'I got a gig.' "

It's long been said that whenever a person dies, it's like having a library burn down. With the death of Kitty Carlisle Hart, the loss of this library is incalculable.

Robert Osborne is the primetime host and anchor of the Turner Classic Movies cable network.
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