Kitty Carlisle’s “Kitty” and Andre Previn’s “No Minor Chords”

I just finished reading through these two well respected memoirs, one purely about “show business” and one touching both on music and “show business”. My reactions to them differed.

I remember Kitty Carlisle from her appearances on TV panel shows of the 1950s (“What’s My Line?” and “To Tell the Truth”), knew she was married to Moss Hart, and knew that she was in the Marx Bros. “Night at the Opera”, but, “to tell the truth”, not much else. In fact, she was an actor, who made it big but not very big, and a trained singer, who made it big, but not very big, and she wound up on what appears to be the lecture circuit talking about her life. She was married only once, to producer Moss Hart, who died in his late 50s in 1961. Kitty Carlisle lived until 2007, and never remarried (although she spent a lot of time with Presidential candidate Thomas Dewey until he, too, died prematurely)

She spent her early years in New Orleans. Her physician-father died when she was very young, and her social climbing mother sold their house and moved to New York, where she seemed to set her sights on finding the perfect match for her only daughter, either in this country or in Europe. She sent Kitty to schools all over Europe, as she lived her over-the-top vagabond existence, gave her singing and acting lessons, made sure she was a guest in the best homes, and failed in her appointed task.

But Carlisle, because of her mother’s pushing, went to some of the best schools, and had some of the best singing coaches, and met everyone. She returned to the United States, and began to get acting jobs, and singing assignments, and became in both with the New York theatrical crowd and the Hollywood crowd. She seemed to get invited to all the right parties, get opportunities (some of which she could capitalize on) for acting and singing roles both on stage and in film, received a number of wedding proposals from everyone from Brazilian diplomats to George Gershwin, and eventually married the talented Moss Hart, only to live with him (and their two children) until he died of a heart attack thirteen years after they married.

Throughout most of her life, as she writes it, she was never her own woman. She was either controlled by her strong willed mother and her mother’s long term friend (but not husband), New York lawyer Edward Otterbourg. Then she was controlled by Moss Hart. I am not sure how she decided what to do, where to go, and what to eat after Hart (and Dewey) died, because she doesn’t talk much about it, but from her description of her earlier years, I’d be surprised if she could make any of these decisions on her own.

As I said, Kitty Carlisle knew everyone, and seemed to be included in every event. But, again from reading her own accounts, she did not add anything to any place or any gathering, and why she was invited and included so often, I don’t know. Similarly, although some of the situations she describes are interesting, I did not get the feeling that she had great insights about the people she was with. As to Moss Hart, he clearly could do no wrong (the fact that he was bisexual with, so they say, a history of homosexual activity, is not referred to at all).

What a difference in Andre Previn’s memoir. Previn was a supremely talented individual, who was able to succeed as a symphonic conductor (London, and Los Angeles and Pittsburgh were his home bases), as a jazz musician, and as a composer and orchestrator for movies and in particular movie musicals. “No Minor Chords” (referring to the instructions once given him by a producer for a movie score) is a wonderful memoir, which displays the virtuosity of Previn (there is no question as to how he got where he got), shows exactly what he added to every gathering, and collects fascinating, entertaining and, yes, educational anecdotes about the greats of moviedom.

Previn’s prose is perfect (in truth, I don’t know if he had a ghost writer or not), and he has the ability to recall and retell the most fascinating of incidents. Like when he was a 17 year old working part time at MGM, invited to a party where he sat at a piano, and a young (but older than 17) Ava Gardner sat down next to him and said “Would you like to take me home after the party?” and all he, with the experience of a 17 year old, could say was: “Gee, you don’t have a ride?”. Or the time he asked Jack Lemmon if he had met the new husband of a mutual friend, and Lemmon answered like this (I paraphrase): Andre, if I came to your house wearing a red hat, you wouldn’t think anything of it, would you? Of course not. And if you came to my house wearing a red hat, I might not even notice it, and I certainly wouldn’t care if I did. But if this guy walked in front of us wearing a red hat, we would both say: “who is that schmuck in the red hat?” Previn said this turned out to be an appropriate description of the newly married man.

You meet the musicians, the composers (classical and otherwise), the jazz men, the actors, the producers, and the directors. And a funny story about each.

Take Billy Wilder, a great collector of art, showing off a new Egon Schiele watercolor to Previn: “it was one of the master’s most luridly explicit efforts: an emaciated young woman, green-tinged flesh, sunken cheeks, hopeless eyes, naked and about to engage in what used to be called self-abuse. Billy contemplated the picture with total concentration. ‘Isn’t it great?’, he said. At this moment, his wife Audrey came in the front door. Audrey is chic and dear and extremely funny. As she passed us she gave a quick glance of horrified appraisal. ‘Good God, Billy’, she said, ‘Just once! Buy a landscape!'”

Or when Previn was asked to lead an orchestra playing at an international conference being held in San Francisco. Previn was in the army at the time (the time being the time of the Korean War) and with a friend was told by the general who asked him to arrange the music: “‘On, there’s one thing I forgot. You musn’t play anything recognizably national. Nothing American or Russian or French or English. Understood?’ We looked at one another. Obviously this request was both loony and impossible to fulfill. My misplaced compulsion for jokes surfaced. ‘If the general agrees’, I said winningly, ‘we could play a long Swiss medley.’ Not a blink, not a smile was forthcoming. ‘That’ll be fine.'” Of course, they paid no attention to the instructions. And the general said “Well done, boys, carry on!”.


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