Kay Thompson is not a familiar name to most Americans today, even though she was a friend and colleague of some of the biggest names in twentieth century popular culture. She was a vocal coach and good friend of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Lena Horne; she was close with writers like Ray Bradbury and Truman Capote; she helped cast Gene Kelly and Lucille Ball in her second husband’s radio show; and she later upstaged Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire when she played the part of the “Think Pink” fashion magazine editor in Funny Face—just to name a few. You most likely have seen the results of Kay Thompson’s creative genius without ever knowing her name.
As Sam Irvin describes in a new biography, Kay Thompson (Simon & Schuster, $26.99), she was not only friends with famous actors, singers, and writers, she also inspired them, coached them, and had a lasting influence on countless aspiring stars. She was an incredible performer in her own right, an eccentric drama queen, and a force to be reckoned with, and was someone who had an unfailing drive to succeed and an uncanny ability to reinvent herself after experiencing disastrous personal and professional setbacks.
Thompson was also the author of one of my all-time favorite literary creations: the precocious, mischievous, and hilarious six-year-old Eloise who runs around the Plaza Hotel with her Nanny, her pet bulldog Weenie, and her pet turtle Skipperdee. She “sklonks” the barber in the kneecap and declares things like: “I am Eloise. I am six. I am a city child” or “You have to eat oatmeal or you’ll dry up. Anybody knows that.” Thompson was indeed a rawther fabulous person, as Eloise would say, but many fascinating yet previously unknown details of her life are revealed in this book: she was a founding member of the Rat Pack, her arrangements inspired the song “If Only I Had a Brain” in The Wizard of Oz, she had an affair with Andy Williams when she was eighteen years his senior, she directed John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball and an extraordinary fashion show in Versailles (Bill Cunningham called it “the Valhalla of American fashion—and everything was all downhill after that”), and she was able to convince airlines and other companies to sponsor her fabulous trips with illustrator Hilary Knight to Paris and Moscow to do firsthand research for the sequels to the original Eloise book, Eloise at the Plaza.
Born to Jewish immigrants in St. Louis, Thompson was actually the created name and persona of Catherine “Kitty” Fink, who experienced some rocky starts when she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in radio in the 1930s (when she first arrived on the West Coast, the job she had been promised didn’t come through). After landing radio work that catapulted her to stardom, she eventually became MGM’s “secret weapon” as a vocal coach for years. She was later released from her contract (and her first marriage), and started a cabaret act, “Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers,” which earned her outrageous sums of money and was in demand all over the country. From radio to having the number-one nightclub routine in the world, Thompson went on to cameos in the arenas of film, fashion, and publishing, all the while making groundbreaking moves like wearing pants, designing bras, or writing what Iriving claims could be considered the first rap songs. As she herself declared, “I have always been 20 years ahead of myself.”
But this book reveals some of the darker sides of Thompson’s life: she went through two divorces and was notoriously difficult to work with, often throwing Eloise-esque temper tantrums. In the early 1970s, she told a friend, “I love love and I believe in divorce. Two great things. I’ve lived with quite a few men and alone is better. That doesn’t mean I’m a loner, I just don’t like to ask permission.” (Irvin addresses rumors that Thompson had an affair with Judy Garland, who was miserable in her own marriage to Vincent Minnelli, but this seems unlikely.) Thompson was offered many film roles and money-making proposals in her life, but she would make such outrageous demands that the person making the offer would eventually give up. From a young age, she was never happy with her looks, and she had five nose jobs and multiple facelifts. The creepiest part of the book suggests that Thompson was addicted to “B-12 vitamin cocktails” that her doctor injected into her, which, in reality, were a powerful combination of amphetamines that kept Kay always energetic and rail-thin.
Irvin did an incredible amount of research for this book, and he provides meticulous details and firsthand accounts of encounters with Thompson that really make her personality and the show business world come alive. Those in the publishing world will recognize anecdotes from Bob Bernstein and Bennett Cerf at Random House, which published the Eloise at Christmastime book (the others were published by Simon & Schuster), as well as the late Nina Bourne, the famed advertising wordsmith who edited Eloise in Paris at Simon & Schuster after its original editor, Jack Goodman, died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Irvin includes plenty of classic Thompson anecdotes, including the time she drove a car across a golf course to try make it to a meeting on time, or when she disappeared and someone found her in Cuba at a hotel run by the mob, or when she sent a telegraph to Orson Welles to “ask” if she could use his name in a number she did with the Williams brothers called “Poor Suzette (with Her Restoration Bosom and Four Lovers): “Dear Darling Adorable Orson: I’m taking the liberty of using your name in a number called SUZETTE unless I hear from you to the contrary. Needless to say, it is used with charm and affection and if you are not here by 11:30 I will refuse to go on. Your lover. Kay Thompson.” For those who know Eloise, it is obvious that Kay Thompson was the creative genius behind the character with lines like these: “I’ve discovered the secret of life: A lot of hard work, a lot of sense of humor, a lot of job and a whole lot of tra-la-la!” or “Enthusiasm and imagination can carry you anywhere you want to go, without Vuitton luggage.”
At one point, Irvin quotes Louella Parsons as saying in the 1950s: “What a story Kay’s sensational rise to fame is—much more thrilling than fiction . . . Someday somebody’s going to write it—it would make a fascinating story.”
Sam Irvin’s editorial reply in the book is: “Ya think?”
And this book proves it to be true.