By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
Kay Thompson is a name with which most people outside of the classic film world are unfamiliar. If she is known at all, it is often through the lens of Eloise, the immortal children’s book character she created in the 1950s. In classic film, she is primarily remembered by the legions of Audrey Hepburn fans, who know Kay Thompson for her work with Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Most people I’ve come across fail to realize that the the author of Eloise and the woman in Funny Face were the same person. While Kay Thompson was indeed a wonderful author and brilliant in Funny Face, these endeavors showcased only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the extraordinarily widespread talents of this gifted woman.
I am entirely confident in saying that Kay Thompson may have been the single most versatile personality ever to come out of classic Hollywood. Actress, singer, dancer, vocal coach, vocal arranger, cabaret performer and author, Kay Thompson ranked among the very best in every medium of the entertainment world she tackled. Associated with MGM for many years, she worked on some of the most celebrated films of the era, and served as vocal coach to the likes of Judy Garland, Lena Horne, and June Allyson. She became especially close to Judy Garland, developing a devoted relationship of best friend and confidante. She is the godmother of Judy’s daughter Liza Minnelli.
Born Catherine Louise Fink in St. Louis, MO, she signed a contract with MGM in 1943 after a stint as a singer and chorus director in radio. Her position as the head of the vocal unit, which included responsibilities such as arranging and directing the vocals in productions under Arthur Freed, enabled her to work on such films as Ziegfeld Follies of 1946 and Good News (1947) and helped hone her distinctive style of vocal arrangement.
Judy Garland in a segment of Ziegfeld Follies of 1946, which Kay Thompson co-wrote with Roger Edens.
“The Varsity Drag” from Good News.
In 1948 Thompson left MGM to pursue a nightclub act at Ciro’s, in a group she called “Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers,” an act which included the young Andy Williams in one of his first appearances. The act was a smash hit, with Kay Thompson writing all the songs for the group’s nightly productions.
When her goddaughter Liza Minnelli was born in 1946, Thompson immediately took to her. The two became very close and their friendship lasted until the day she died. Thompson witnessed all of Liza’s mischievous antics, and in 1955, while living in New York, decided to write a book about a young, mischievous girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel. It is said that this character was based on Liza herself.
The book was Eloise, a book that remains popular today and that heralded several subsequent books by Thompson. Eloise is a character that has proven to be a timeless symbol of childhood, and in 2006 prompted a cartoon series for children on Starz.
Thompson made the first of only two movie appearances in 1957, in the Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire vehicle Funny Face. Though the part was essentially a secondary role to Astaire and Hepburn, it is Kay Thompson who steals the show with several show-stopping numbers that prove her abilities as a dancer as well as a singer. Despite Audrey Hepburn’s obvious charm, it is Kay Thompson who is the larger-than-life character in the movie, and hence it is her character that makes an impression and whom you remember after the movie is over. In addition, in this number in particular, her influence on Judy Garland’s performance style in her later career is very visible.
“Clap Yo Hands” from Funny Face.
Judy Garland in her last film, I Could Go On Singing, 1963.
Kay Thompson only made one more movie appearance in her life, and that was with Liza Minnelli in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon in 1970. She moved back to New York from Hollywood in 1969, and in 1974 directed a fashion show at the Palace of Versailles. She moved in with Liza in the late 1980s, and lived there until she died, at the age of 88, in 1998.
Liza created a tribute show to Kay Thompson in 2008, based upon Thompson’s nightclub act at Ciro’s. The show was called Liza’s At the Palace, and it won several Tony Awards in 2009. During her Tony acceptance speech, Liza thanked her parents for “the greatest gift they ever gave me, Kay Thompson.”
I think the reason Kay Thompson is not widely acknowledged today may be the fact that she was so talented and did so many things so well. The fact that she nurtured all of her talents, without focusing on one specific area, spread her too thin. Had she been able to concentrate her energy on one of her many talents, I think she would have been one of the biggest stars of her day. Yet if she had done that, we may not have had Eloise, we may not have had the magnificent vocal arrangements we have come to associate with MGM, and we may not have seen the talents of so many stars she nurtured. Kay Thompson was indeed an integral part of the entertainment world, and her influence lives on through her work.
See you next time!