from Funny Face to Eloise
Patrick McGuire, Chicago Sun-Times, 11/20/2010:
Book Review: ‘Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise’ by Sam Irvin
Sam Irvin’s Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise is light, breezy, gossipy and filled with historical connections one could never
imagine. Its subject is important enough to warrant a bio, but she is obscure enough to most readers under 50 to require one. Irvin
fashions the story of Thompson’s triumphs and defeats, her devastations and resurrections, in the easy, competent prose the genre
calls for. Events happen quickly, responses are intense; Kay moves on. Psychology is glib and superficial; motives are black or white,
and Thompson is generally believed when years after an event she explains it all in self-serving interviews. All of which is what we
expect from a show-biz bio. To expect anything more would be obtuse; to write anything more about any but the rarest celebrity would
Kay Thompson began life in 1909 as the ugly duckling in the beautiful and accomplished Fink family of St. Louis. She quickly learned to
get attention by being far cleverer and more crazy-funny than any of her siblings. She had her first nose job when she was 18, and thus
began her lifelong romance with plastic surgery. She was very bright, racing through grade school precociously. Besides being ugly and
smart, however, she could play the piano and was thought of as something of a prodigy. Hearing a female blues singer before she was
20, Thompson decided that she, too, had a right to sing the blues, but not with the squeaky voice she possessed; so, with lessons, she
changed her range and created that unique smoky jazz voice still available on recordings.
But, as one chapter title declares, Kay had a face for radio. And she did well in radio, moving with ever-growing popularity, but never
becoming the recording success she had hoped. During these years, she was forever piecing together and coaching groups of mostly
women to accompany her in performance. She became a sought-after re-arranger for songs already popular, working with classical
conductor Andre Kostelanetz so successfully that, in his first Broadway musical, Vincente Minnelli “wanted to emulate the ‘marvelous
Andre Kostelanetz arrangements on the radio’ and ended up borrowing Kay . . . to recreate that magic formula.” Later, her successful
nightclub act brought her adulation and admiration from audiences and performers alike.
In Hollywood, she coached voices through the 1940s and ’50s: Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Judy Garland, Andy
Williams (with whom she had an affair), Marlene Dietrich and Van Johnson — and the list could go on. On radio, in nightclubs and as a
coach, Thompson was marvelous, but in Irvin’s book, these are mere rehearsals for her two finest achievements: her performance in
“Funny Face” (1957) and the publishing of her Eloise books.
Irvin is at his best narrating the petty, intense feuds between Thompson and Fred Astaire on the “Funny Face” set and of Astaire and his
personally hired choreographer, Hermes Pan, “colluding” to undermine her performance. When she visited the mayor of Paris, Pierre
Ruais, they exchanged gifts: She received a silk scarf; he, a case of California wines, and then assured her that he would enjoy the wine
“after it has been chilled.” Then Ruais handed Thompson a “Friend of Paris” certificate with instructions for her to give it to Fred Astaire.
Thompson’s other great achievement began in 1955 with the publication of Eloise, which was followed by three other Eloise books and
a cottage industry of movies and products from which Thompson eventually distanced herself. Here, Irvin gives us courtroom drama and
Thompson amusing the gallery with her Eloise voice to answer the judge’s queries.
The author has done the right thing: He delivers a Kay Thompson that is neither complex nor superficial, dwelling less on her lovers and
her sense of self than on her work, for, after all, that’s what made her famous.
Patrick McGuire teaches English at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Visit him at McGuireHimself.com.
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