Kitty Carlisle Hart, 96, passed away one week after the official end of Passover. The concurrence reminded me of how few of her fans knew she was Jewish — and how lucky I was to have had the chance to hear her talk about that quiet part of her life.
We met three years ago when she granted me an interview for my book, “Stars of David,” which asked Jewish celebrities how much being Jewish mattered to them, and why.
It was a Sunday, but her attire made me forget it was a weekend. Hart looked pristine in a lime-green suit with nude pantyhose, low black heels and a double strand of pearls. Her pink lipstick matched her nail polish, and her perfect hair was motionless. We sat together on a green tufted velvet sofa in her spacious Upper East Side parlor, and she kept a small black purse beside her, as if she might at any moment need to dash.
We actually talked about Seders. “I once went to George Gershwin’s,” she recalled. “Gershwin and Oscar Levant decided to do the whole Seder in music. It was so wonderful. They sang and did the whole thing in jazz.”
Of all the public figures I interviewed — 62 in all — no one’s inclusion in the book surprises readers more than the singer-actress-socialite-arts advocate known to fans as Kitty Carlisle. Over and over again, I hear people say: I had no idea she was Jewish.
Indeed, it was never a prominent feature of the starlet, who gained national fame in the early years of television, as a regular on the game show “To Tell the Truth” and a guest on “What’s My Line?” But the former Catherine Conn told me: “My entire family was Jewish.”
And her mother wasn’t proud of it.
“We ‘passed’ for years,” Hart explained, “because it was easier to get up in society.” She said her mother, Hortense, sent her to “the chicest finishing school in New Orleans,” but her classmates knew she was the only Jew there. “They didn’t want to eat lunch with me.”
I asked if her mother’s single-minded attempt to penetrate “society” was ultimately successful. “Oh yes,” Hart assured me. “I came out in Rome and in Paris.”
Once she became a famous performer, Hart was always aware of which musical theater greats shared her lineage. “Everybody in the theater was Jewish,” she declared matter-of-factly. “Except Cole Porter.”
She only gradually became aware of antisemitism around her. “I went to a dinner party — and in those days, everybody dressed up for dinner parties,” she recalled. “And they were talking about the Jews in a way that was just awful. It was unbearable. And I got up in the middle of dinner, and I said, ‘I am Jewish, and I won’t sit here and listen to this kind of talk for another five minutes.’ And I left. The bravest thing I ever did.”
There was prejudice even closer to home. “I once got into a taxi with my mother,” she laughed. “And after she dropped me off, the driver turned around and said to my mother, ‘That’s Kitty Carlisle, right?’ And my mother said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Is she Jewish?’ and my mother said, ‘She may be, but I’m not.’”
When I called Hart a year later to ask her permission to use a wonderful 1977 Jill Krementz photograph alongside her interview, she had forgotten we ever spoke. “Oh, I don’t think I want to be in a book like that,” she said on the phone. Then, to my relief: “Come and show me the picture.” On my second trip to her salon, I presented the Krementz portrait. “Oh, that’s lovely,” she smiled. “When is the book coming out?”
Hart dazzled me by attending my book party; as always, the best-dressed woman in the room. After it was over, my sister told me an incredible story: that when she was chatting with Hart on a couch in a corner, Hart leaned into her and whispered, “You know I came out in this book.”
Abigail Pogrebin has become a rare voice among American Jews, as a journalist and an explorer who shares with refreshing wit and candor her path to finding a meaningful Jewish life.