from Funny Face to Eloise
Steve Weinstein, Edge, 11/19/2010:
If you know Kay Thompson, chances are it’s as the Vreeland-esque fashion editor in the Paramount musical Funny Face or as the author
of the Eloise books, adult-oriented kids’ books about a bratty kid who lives at the Plaza Hotel.
The revelation of Sam Irvin’s thoroughly researched and, for any theater queen, thoroughly fascinating first-ever biography is that
Thompson’s outsized talent, drive, competitive instinct, fashion sense, eccentricities and huge network of celebrities made her one of the
most influential taste-makers of the mid-20th century.
Born Kitty Fink in St. Louis, Thompson was a child piano prodigy. By her teens, she was playing with the St. Louis Orchestra. She left the
Midwest as soon as she could and shed her Jewish upbringing (but not her Jewish schnozz; she was addicted to nose jobs throughout
She soon found work singing on the newfangled radio. It was the era of the big bands, and Thompson found herself on a never-ending
shuttle between New York and Hollywood -- a trip she would make hundreds, if not thousands of times, in a life that was truly bicoastal
well before jet airlines made it simple.
Her talents couldn’t be contained by remaining in front of the microphone, however. From the beginning, she made a name for herself as
a composer, arranger, chorus director and voice coach. Most notable among her many pupils were Judy Garland, her closest friend along
with her daughter, Liza Minnelli; and Frank Sinatra, who remained devoted to Thompson his entire life.
Thompson found a home in the fabled Freed Unit at MGM, where she also solidified her avocation as a fag hag. Although she was
married briefly twice and had a long proto-cougar affair with Andy Williams, one of the back-up singers in her nightclub act, her best
friends throughout her life were gay men.
Because of her short haircuts, penchant for slacks (she was more responsible for the acceptance of women in pants than anyone,
including Katharine Hepburn) and overall butchness, lesbian rumors persisted her entire life. Irvin dismisses these, although he admits he
wasn’t under the bed.
If Thompson had enormous talents, she also had equally large eccentricities. If an eccentric, as they say, is a crazy person with money,
Thompson was able to get away with her "bazazz," as she called it, only as long as people needed her.
When her neurotic inability to complete or commit to projects wore on her professional reputation, her habits went from charming to
annoying. Worse, she was difficult to work with, and increasingly just impossible.
Irvin doesn’t psychoanalyze this but the book is full of instances where she was thwarted, either by herself or her collaborators. Most
striking is the way she was pushed out of her first (and only) Broadway show by a conniving actress who slept her way through the
creative talents until she got the role. That this happened to be Vivian Vance, who became the much-beloved Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy,
only makes it more ironic.
Instead of acting on Broadway, Thompson did a few movies. Too few, as it turned out. Other than Funny Face, where her fashion editor
has become the stuff of camp legend (as well as the prototype for everyone since, including Miranda Priestley and Anna Wintour), she
only acted in a few forgettable duds.
Much more successful was her collaboration with the long-suffering artist Hilary Knight on the Eloise books. These witty, brassy and
double-entendre-laden stories were sophisticated enough to attract the Beatles, who were fans, but innocent-seeming enough for the
Queen Elizabeth II, who read them to her children.
Although she wrote a few rock songs, the coming of the new era in entertainment left Thompson pretty much out in the cold. She moved
to Rome for a while, where she enlisted Robert Wagner and Mart Crowley (later famous as the writer of The Boys in the Band) to paint a
table red using nail polish.
From there, she ended up in New York and destitute. Fortunately, Liza Minnelli took her in and cared for her up the end of her life. Minnelli
has been as generous in death to her beloved godmother; her recent Broadway show was partly a tribute to Thompson’s nightclub act.
If there is one recurring theme that runs through Irvin’s book, it’s that Thompson’s talent would never have allowed her to succeed in what
was very much a man’s game if it hadn’t been for her inexhaustible energy. Irvin shows that this came from Max Jacobson, the infamous
"Dr. Feelgood" who injected methamphetamine and vitamins into Thompson for years.
Yes, Thompson was a tina queen. That, and Coke (mostly the capped "C" but undoubtedly plenty of the small "c" coke as well).
It’s only one of the funny, sad, shocking, entertaining, and always riveting anecdotes that run through this fascinating showbiz biography.
If you’re at all interested in movie musicals, Broadway or cabaret, this is a must-read.
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