Old friends and a theater full of admirers gathered yesterday at Broadway's Majestic Theater to bid farewell to Kitty Carlisle Hart, the one-woman cultural juggernaut who died April 17 at 96.
Performers and politicians lionized the woman who starred in films and on Broadway as far back as the early 1930s, and who went on to serve as chairman of the New York State Commission on the Arts for nearly two decades under five governors. She also had a long run as a hypercultivated fashion plate on the TV quiz show "To Tell the Truth." In a video montage of her appearances on the show, Hart correctly asked one contestant, "Are you shot out of a cannon?"
But yesterday, Hart was recalled as an icon of New York. "She became one with the lions in front of the library, the unicorn tapestries, and Gray 's Papaya," her son, Christopher Hart, said.
He added, "There is a distinct possibility that she attended more parties than anyone who ever lived." Hart's late husband, Broadway playwright and director Moss Hart, was also an inveterate partygoer.
"She would open every conversation with ‘Tell me everything,'" Mayor Bloomberg said. "And unlike other people, she meant it."
If Hart was a great schmoozer, she was also a great promoter of the arts, and it is in the funding that she gave to projects large and small across the state that her legacy will most concretely be felt. Governor Cuomo, who was on the receiving end of her efforts lobbying for more arts funding, said, "She used every skill, every artifice, every con that a beautiful women can use to get money. I was a tough kid from South Jamaica, Queens, and I thought I was accustomed to such things."
Hart fought hard for funding in lean and flush times. "She was like a tiger protecting her cubs," said Mary Hays, executive director of NYSCA during the Hart years.
"Every night before she went to bed she would look into the mirror and say, ‘Kitty, I forgive you,'" Barbara Walters, the newswoman, said.
Dr. Cathy Hart, Kitty's daughter, recalled gathering neighborhood kids in the family's garage, to witness the spectacle of her mother waxing her legs.
The famous Hart legs were the subject of repeated reminiscences, from Dr. William Baker, president of WNET, who requested the occasional peek at them, to Anne Kaufman, the daughter of Hart's husband's chief collaborator, playwright George Kaufman, who recalled being on a panel with Hart a few years ago when an audience member complimented Hart on her legs.
"Yes, I understand they are the last thing to go," Hart said.
For diminutive singer Kristin Chenoweth, the Hart charm was on display on a visit to Hart's East 64th Street apartment. "Kitty looked down at me and said, "You're very special, and you're from a different time, and where did you get those shoes?" Ms. Chenoweth recalled. "So I told her I got them at Payless and she said, ‘I must go there.' "
"At 96, she was one of the youngest people I knew," Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Schubert Organization, said.
Refusing to let age slow her, Hart last performed in the fall; still, she felt the accumulation of years, and told her accompanist David Lewis, "Ninety-six is not like ninety-five."
Mr. Lewis said that Hart told him a few years ago that he would know she was really gone if he played one of her signature tunes — "The Man I Love" — and she didn't show up to sing it. As Gershwin's music welled and the singer remained offstage, the spirit at the Majestic yesterday was that Kitty Carlisle Hart's song would go on.