By Christopher P. Andersen
February 07, 1977 12:00 PM

One day in 1938 Moss Hart (who wrote such plays as The Man Who Came to Dinner and directed My Fair Lady) took Kitty Carlisle and collaborator George S. Kaufman to see his newly purchased 18th-century country estate in Bucks County, Pa. Hart pointed out the 2,000 pine trees he had transplanted to the once-barren property. Suitably impressed, Kaufman observed that “it was exactly what God would have done—if He’d had the money.”

Nearly 16 years after her husband’s death from a heart attack, Kitty Carlisle Hart knows all too well what can—and can’t—be done with money. For the past six months the veteran To Tell the Truth panelist has been raising and then parceling out dollars for culture as chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts. “Museums are shutting down several days a week. Symphonies, ballets and operas are canceling their seasons. The situation is very serious,” says Mrs. Hart (as she prefers to be known), who oversees an annual budget of $27.3 million. “Renaissance Europe had patrons like the Medici, and on a smaller scale that is our function. We try to keep cultural institutions from going under.”

The similarity with the Medici family does not end there. Kitty recalls that her husband “loved to collect houses,” and they divided their time among lavish homes in Palm Springs, New York and Bucks County during their 15 years of marriage. Since his death, however, she has lived year-round in an opulent five-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. She is also the doyenne of New York party-givers, whose guest lists typically include Jackie Onassis, Barbara Walters, Marietta Tree and Henry and Nancy Kissinger. But, she insists, “I’ve worked too darn hard to be thought of as some silly woman who has nothing better to do than give parties.”

The daughter of a New Orleans physician, she was born Katherine Conn and later picked her stage name, Carlisle, out of the phone book. At age 10 she and her mother moved to Europe after her father’s death. Mrs. Conn, Kitty explains, “had this 19th-century Jamesian notion that I should make a ‘brilliant’ marriage.”

Toward that end, Kitty was sent to a girls’ finishing school in Paris—”I got sort of half-finished”—and made her debut in Rome at 15. The Depression wiped out the family fortune, however, so Kitty’s mother pushed her into a show business career. “You’re not the prettiest girl, the greatest singer or the best actress,” she told her daughter. “But if you put them all together you’ll do well in musical comedy.”

Kitty Carlisle’s first success came in 1933, when she starred as a teenager in Champagne, Sec on Broadway. A Hollywood contract followed with ingenue roles in two Bing Crosby movies and the Marx Brothers classic A Night at the Opera. “The Marx Brothers were great worriers,” she recalls. “Groucho would ask me if a line was funny, and when I said no, he’d come back with another and ask, ‘Is that funny?’ ”

In 1946 Carlisle finally made that “brilliant marriage” to Hart, and subordinated her career to his. His death left the family amply provided for. Kitty inherited the bulk of his $1.4 million estate, and still collects substantial royalties on his plays. Their children, Christopher and Cathy, received all the royalties from their father’s best-selling 1959 autobiography, Act One.

“The only tragedy of my life was losing Moss,” says Kitty, who was stunned into temporary retirement from To Tell the Truth. “Then I remembered that Moss always said you don’t escape from life, you escape into it.” So she returned to the show after four months and in 1966 accepted an invitation from Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York, to head up a conference on “opportunities for women”—her first government post.

Now that her schedule is taken up with the arts council, Carlisle is forgoing her annual tour in summer stock this year (but she practices singing every day to keep her voice in shape). On Tuesdays she walks 16 blocks to the NBC television studio in Rockefeller Center to tape five To Tell the Truth segments. During the four-minute break between shows she rushes to her dressing room for the ministrations of a hairdresser, a wardrobe mistress and a makeup man. “Sometimes I feel like a race car at Indianapolis,” she jokes. “One person kicks off the tires, another changes the oil. But the viewers expect a little extra glamor from me.”

Slowly gaining confidence in her new role as the head of a state agency, Kitty Carlisle Hart admits to being “an anxious person, not a nervous one.” She quit smoking cold turkey last September and hasn’t had a drink in 15 years. Her greatest strength? “Perseverence. The truth is, I never quite know when I’m licked.”