from Funny Face to Eloise
Joanne Kaufman, The Wall Street Journal, 10/30/2010:
Kay Thompson is best known— solely known, perhaps, to anyone under, say, 50—as the author of "Eloise," the children's book about a
tiny terror who lives in New York's Plaza Hotel and tells adults what to do.
But before conjuring that spunky, pot-bellied 6-year-old—and long before "re-invention" was everyone's favorite noun and activity—the
gifted, idiosyncratic Thompson was a radio star, almost a Broadway star, head of the vocal department at MGM, a nightclub sensation, a
clothing designer and co-star of the 1957 musical "Funny Face." Think "Think Pink."
Now this overachiever, who died in 1998 at age 88, is the subject of Sam Irvin's "Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise." For a big
chunk of her career, Mr. Irvin notes, Thompson was one of the many aggrieved handmaidens working behind the scenes to make others
look good while just itching to holler: "Hey, what about me?" "Bolstering the careers of others," Mr. Irvin writes, "was a bittersweet
endeavor for someone who craved the spotlight so intently." When she finally got her chance, Thompson made the most of it.
The woman who claimed that the secret to life was "a lot of hard work, a lot of sense of humor, a lot of joy and a whole lot of tra la la"
was extolled for her wit and charm, her pizzazz and style (she was once under contract to the clothing manufacturer Evan Picone), her
drive and talent. Columnist Walter Winchell called her "atomic"; author Ray Bradbury called her "an explosion." But even the adoring Mr.
Irvin grants that Thompson was also a controlling, credit-grabbing piece of work.
She was born Catherine Louise Fink in St. Louis in 1909 but quickly became known as Kitty. Her mother, Hattie, was a former waitress;
her father, Leo, a pawnbroker who strove mightily to hide his Jewish background. His daughter strove mightily to conceal both Leo's
business and his religion.
The rebellious, precocious Thompson began taking piano lessons as a toddler and was soon pecking out tunes of her own devising.
She taught herself to sing and, as a college student, put her talent and implacable ambition to work, landing a part-time job crooning
with a band. As Mr. Irvin writes, Thompson's father, who had been skeptical of her musical interests, was stunned when his daughter
announced that she she'd be making $125 a week.
That was just the beginning. "She got herself all dolled up," writes Mr. Irvin, "and marched over" to the offices of KMOX, St. Louis's top
radio station. Without an appointment, Thompson talked her way into an on-air slot. It was 1930, and she was 20 years old. The job led
to guest spots on the burgeoning radio networks operated by NBC and by CBS, whose chairman, Bill Paley, was a big fan.
Radio was a perfectly fine, temporary venue. And Thompson did after all have a radio face. But she was looking for stardom in a
different medium: the movies. Hollywood had different plans for her—helping other performers raise their games.
From the mid-1930s until the late 1940s, Thompson was the go-to vocal coach and arranger for movie musicals. She prepped Rita
Hayworth for "Gilda" and Margaret O'Brien for "Meet Me in St. Louis" and got Frank Sinatra ready for his first starring role, in "Higher
and Higher." But Thompson's main charge was Judy Garland, for whom she was coach, consultant and hand-holder-in-chief. Garland
called her "my severest friend and best critic."
"Oooooh, that MGM," she later told a reporter, "I was using about 5% of my potential." While fulfilling the six-week residency
requirement for a quickie Nevada divorce from her second husband in 1947, Thompson devised a nightclub act that she would headline,
backed by the Williams Brothers, a quartet of siblings who had filled out choruses at MGM.
That would be Williams as in Andy. He and Thompson were soon romantically involved, but she also gave him showbiz guidance.
Thanks partly to her mentoring, Williams became a solo recording star. As always, Thompson was ambivalent about the success of her
protégés. "Just below the surface of Kay's generosity," Mr. Irvin writes, "was a fragile ego ready to erupt with anger and jealousy
whenever a minion's success threatened to eclipse her own." She made Williams pay (and pay). The young singer rashly promised his
inamorata 50% of the take if she could get him a recording contract. Thompson delivered and Williams was on the hook, he later
estimated, "for hundreds of thousands of dollars," adding that he "sort of expected Kay to give back that money at some later date. But
lo and behold, that never came to pass."
The cabaret act was rapturously received. Thompson and the Williams boys were soon performing to packed rooms in Los Angeles,
New York, London and Paris. It was her biggest triumph before the magical few years in the mid-1950s that included her star turn as an
autocratic fashion-magazine editor in "Funny Face" and her debut as a children's-book author extraordinaire. An ironic twist for a woman
who shared W.C. Fields's fondness for kids.
For years, Thompson had entertained friends by channeling a 6-year-old alter ego named Eloise. One dazzled listener, D.D. Ryan, a
junior fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar, insisted that the character was perfect for a children's book. Thompson wasn't so sure. But
when Ryan put her together with an artist named Hilary Knight, who produced some drawings of Eloise, Thompson was sold. She
began imagining a child living at the Plaza Hotel—where she herself had been in residence for years—and the tale of a resourceful,
devil-may-care little girl began taking shape. Publishing in 1955, the book was an almost instant hit, spawning sequels and
As a child, Mr. Irvin says, he was in thrall to "Eloise" and in the process became enamored of Thompson. It must have been painful to
learn of her rear-guard action to minimize Knight's enormous contribution to the success of "Eloise." Thompson was outraged that he
would get a cover credit, let alone royalties. Her graceless behavior regarding the book reached its nadir during the making of the
"Playhouse 90" adaptation of the book in 1956: Thompson insisted on being the voice of Eloise even as child actress Evelyn Rudie
played her on camera. During rehearsals, Ms. Rudie told Mr. Irvin, "every time I had a line, I had to cover my mouth, I had to hold a book
up; I had to turn away from the camera. I had to have a doll in front of my face." Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and young Rudie
was allowed to speak for herself.
Mr. Irvin is admirably passionate (and compassionate) about his subject, which helps to make up for some narrative excesses and
lapses in style. Describing a chorus returning to rehearsal work, he writes: "Then it was throats back to the grindstone." He also seems
to hail from the "leave no detail out" and "let no interview go unused" school of biography. Thus at least a dozen people are given space
to insist that, contrary to rumor, Thompson was heterosexual.
Never mind. Fans of Hollywood's golden age and fans of the Plaza Hotel's most famous inhabitant will be, in Eloise speak, "rawther"
glad that Kay Thompson's own story has been told.
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