Picks and Pans Review: Kitty

updated 10/24/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Kitty Carlisle Hart

The author's husband, playwright Moss Hart, used to tell her, "You don't escape from life, you escape into it" When he died in 1961, she was left financially well-heeled, but with two children, ages 11 and 13, to raise on her own. "I didn't know how to make a life," she confesses in this autobiography. "I thought of suicide." Those who grew up watching Kitty Carlisle on To Tell the Truth or have followed her career as chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts will be surprised that she ever had such a self-destructive thought. Mrs. Hart is one of the most relentlessly upbeat players on the New York scene. Her life is an American success story that is as improbable as it is colorful. She was born Kitty Conn in New Orleans. Her father, a gynecologist, died when she was 10, and her mother, Hortense, quickly moved the family to Europe, where she was determined to mold her daughter into the kind of woman that rich and famous men marry. Kitty had Wally and Wanda Toscanini as playmates in Italy and made her way into Rome society. She had Agnes de Mille as a dancing teacher and studied singing and acting as well. She lifted her professional surname from a telephone directory. Although Carlisle was only a "small talent," she managed to land the part of the opera singer in the Marx brothers classic A Night at the Opera through her friend Oscar Levant. Her personal life was a four-star hit. She dated Bernard Baruch, Sinclair Lewis professed his love, and George Gershwin proposed. Hart, whom she married in 1946, became her mentor. After his death, she could have played the Widow Hart, but Carlisle chose instead to continue her career as well as branch out into public service. At times Carlisle's writing is corny: "I was on more boards than you could shake an agenda at." But this is a book you can fox-trot with. There are cameo appearances by, among others, Cole Porter, Woody Allen, who gave Carlisle a bit role in Radio Days, and Marlene Dietrich. But the celebrity you'll enjoy meeting the most is Carlisle herself—buoyant, socially ambitious, resourceful and seemingly very, very nice. (Doubleday, $19.95)

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