from Funny Face to Eloise
Steven Suskin, Playbill, 11/21/2010:
SHELF LIFE: "Kay Thompson: From "Funny Face" to Eloise" by Sam Irvin
For those of us born on the later side of 1950, the name Kay Thompson mysteriously turns up from time to time (as in the tribute
goddaughter Liza Minnelli recently brought to the Palace). Less young readers might remember her when she was in still active, but we
don't. Sam Irvin, who last fall gave us "Think Pink!" [Sepia 1135], a three-CD compilation of her recordings and performances, has written
the first full biography of Ms. Thompson (1909-1998). Actually, this seems to be the first accurate anything about her; Thompson reinvented
herself many times over, with little interest in biographical accuracy.
What we discover is that Thompson — Kitty Fink, a pawnbroker's daughter from St. Louis — had no less than five full-blown careers. She
started out as a distinctive and at times highly successful radio singer and arranger, working in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere. In
this guise she made it to Broadway, or nearly so, in 1937; she was fired in Boston from a major role in what would turn out to be her only
Broadway musical, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's Ed Wynn vehicle Hooray for What?. She maneuvered herself into an arranging and
coaching job at M-G-M in 1943, becoming an all-important cog in that studio's Arthur Freed unit — the one that turned out all those golden
That type of gold dried up in 1947, so Thompson did not renew her contract and put together a grand nightclub act. Kay Thompson and the
Williams Brothers was apparently an act unlike anyone had seen before, or perhaps since, literally drawing West Coast audiences to the
newly-established Las Vegas. Thompson virtually set her own price in top clubs in America, Paris, London and elsewhere. Soon enough,
the novelty of that career began to wear off — hastened by competition from top-name celebrities who followed Thompson's example.
Career four was brief; Thompson went back to Hollywood as an actress, co-starring with no less than Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn in
the 1957 motion picture "Funny Face." Thompson is simply wonderful in that film; her "Think Pink" number is iconic and if you haven't ever
seen it, drop what you're doing and find it on YouTube. You could even make a case that she managed to steal the movie from the
illustrious Fred and Audrey, which was quite a feat. But Thompson never did follow up her success with another film. Her fifth career, as an
authoress, started simultaneously with a bang and a clang: "Eloise" was the fifth highest-selling fiction book of 1956 — and this was a kid's
book! Eloise and Thompson moved into the Plaza, from which they ran an Eloise empire with sequels, merchandising and more. But that
didn't last long, either. Then came a long decline, with Thompson cloistered away the rest of her years as permanent houseguest to Ms.
With Mr. Irvin as our guide, we see that Thompson really did attain several levels of fame. We also see that the lady was something of a
monster; Irvin doesn't quite label her as egotistical, grandiose and graspingly greedy, but that's what comes across. Which is why each
career starts, builds and mystifyingly ceases. That and various addictions, including many years as a patient of Max Jacobson (AKA Dr.
Feelgood). Over the years we have heard about him, too, in various books. Irvin is the only author I've come across, though, who tracks
down Jacobson's daughter for an interview. That's the kind of book "Kay Thompson: From "Funny Face" to Eloise" is. Comprehensive, yes;
it seems like Mr. Irvin discusses every song Thompson ever sang, starting when she was six. But could we truly understand this
ridiculously complicated whirlwind without all these details?
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