Saturday, March 23, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Kittypalooza

"Style is everything."
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

Kitty Carlisle had a sensational figure.  And she was one, too - a peerless self-invention (aided, it's true, by a fairly poisonous mother, the high-society equivalent of Momma Rose).  She had a middling career as an operetta leading lady (at precisely the moment that the genre more or less died) and was something of a fizzle as a film star (too distinctive in her looks to be an ingenue, too young, in her early '30s go at the screen, to suit her temperament) before she made a highly advantageous (and apparently, however, unorthdox, quite entirely devoted) marriage, one that allowed her devote the subsequent six decades to the fine art of being Kitty Carlisle, Mrs. Moss Hart.

Watching her breeze on to the To Tell the Truth set - as here, again and again - it's striking how contemporary she still looks.  There's a lesson there: if you hone a style until it is indistinguishable from your own genuine persona, you can maintain it almost indefinitely.  Having perfected the art of looking perfect, she could then turn her attention to all the other things, from promoting the arts to maintaining her husband's legacy, that interested her.

Some people - and characters as diverse as Crawford and Madonna come to mind - use their style as a weapon, a kind of barricade to really knowing anything about them; Kitty's was a natural extension of her character.  Paradoxically, this both made her a character - the ultimate Great Lady, New York-division, which one would normally think would be a limiting thing, and gave her enormous freedom to exercise what was never, really, more than a limited talent (considered impartially on its own) on a far wider stage than would otherwise have been at her disposal.

By the end, she was an institution, through sheer force of personality, a phenomenon of charm and joy that seemed to draw strength from its contrast to the increasingly crass world outside its orbit.  Kitty Carlisle is on the very, very short list of people about whom I have never heard anyone whisper an unkind word. Insofar as she is camp, it's of a very knowing kind, in which she is wholly complicit - the joy of an ugly duckling having turned into the most exquisite, and appreciated, of swans.


  1. Lovely piece. When she died at 96, it felt far too soon.

  2. I am completely lightheaded from that exquisite fashion parade. Kitty!!, now and forever.

  3. That parade of hostess ensembles is simply overwhelming: those were the days.

    Question: did Kitty "tell the truth?"

  4. She oozes charm and sophistication with every entrance (and every immediate head flick to the audience), even when she has barely-disguised contempt for the blond girl or for the small children in her way... Love it! Jx

  5. that was wonderful.
    i didn't recall that later version of TTTT
    doing the "walk-in-intro" that WML had

    kitty and arlene, certainly getting
    manicures at this very moment.