Liz Smith: Kay Thompson Bio — A Party in your Hands!

And more from our Liz about the venerable author of the Eloise series

“YES, well, it ‘tis a bit of a strain.”

That was Audrey Hepburn’s response to the feuding that went on between Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson on the set of “Funny Face.” Miss Thompson loved to repeat that mild complaint because it was so “perfectly Audrey” … and so unlike the volatile Miss Thompson herself.

The above is culled from an incredible new book, Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, by Sam Irvin.

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SOME OF you know Kay Thompson as the author of the famous Eloise books…to others she is known as the brilliant MGM vocal coach and music arranger who helped so many stars refine their style (Lena Horne adored her, Frank Sinatra respected her, Judy Garland eventually lifted every one of Kay’s moves and distinctive cadences and took them for herself). There are those who remember her as a fascinating nightclub chanteuse … and before that, a hugely popular radio star. And there are those who know Kay Thompson only as Liza Minnelli’s godmother, to whom Liza dedicated her last Broadway show. Oh, and fans of the movie “Funny Face” recall her as the arch magazine doyenne who wants the world to “Think pink!” (Diana Vreeland was not amused.)

Kay was all that. But this fabulous woman was much more. She was the queen of “re-invention” decades before the media began to use that phrase about Madonna. She set styles, she created sensations, had affairs with much younger men — and she did it with ferocious high style. And on her own terms. She was, despite two marriages, totally liberated, and she rarely backed down. When she broke 1950’s protocol and wore slacks to the Manhattan’s elegant Stork Club, not only was she allowed to stay, but it made the papers. “Ethel Merman told her, “Boy, you’re the first dame who ever got into this joint in a rig like that!”

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KAY THOMPSON didn’t look like anyone and didn’t sound like anyone else. (Okay, from about 1948 onward, Judy Garland sounded a lot like Kay!) Her vivid performing style eventually turned her into the highest paid cabaret attraction the world—even beating out Marlene Dietrich and her peek-a-boo gowns. Backed by the Williams Brothers (Andy was her lover for many years), Kay was the act to catch if you wanted to be considered “in the know.”

Irwin’s book captures Kay’s manic energy, the laser intensity of—as he describes her—“a massive overachiever” who achieved less than she should have. (The book is rife with missed opportunities, projects that fell apart at the last minute, inexplicable refusals.) And there was Kay’s obsession with her looks, going through no less than five nose jobs and any number of face lifts, while keeping her weight dangerously low. (Her constant fiddling with herself became an open topic of amusement in New York gossip columns.)

The author also brings to life the fabulous high-style world of 1950’s nightclubs and cabarets—a lush oasis of sexual innuendo and sophistication in that repressed decade. You can almost smell the cigarette smoke and hear the martini glasses clinking, with everybody dressed up! The saga of her books is also told: the rivalry with illustrator Hillary Knight, Kay’s feeling that in Eloise she had created a “Frankenstein monster”—a monster that she eventually killed with little regret. (Revealed is the fact that “Eloise” existed even before Kay brought her to life between the pages of her books. Kay, would often talk “as” Eloise as a way to defuse a sticky situation or get what she wanted without having to resort to adult wrangling. Thompson was famously demanding and “no” was not a word she understood.)

From Funny to Eloise is packed, and I mean jam-packed, with one juicy story after another. And even when stories aren’t especially “juicy,” they are still fascinating because Kay was fascinating, and her friends were fascinating and they lived in a marvelous era of genuine creativity. The book is like a party in your hands!

Late in life, Kay became something of a recluse, rescued from dire circumstances by Liza, in whose apartment she lived until her death. But even as a recluse she had style. When she did venture out she inevitably drew attention: painfully thin, got up head to toe in black, with something odd wrapped around her head. She would claim not to understand why people were staring. (And she didn’t like being mistaken for Isak Dinesen, either!) Kay still made plans and announced projects that did not come to fruition and never lost the quickness of her mind or her inquisitiveness. She listened to the music of Annie Lennox and Sting.

Toward the end, she was reading a book on meditation. She told a friend, “Listen, we need to go to Tibet.”

And that was “perfectly Kay.”

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THE OTHER day I wrote here about the latest British masterpiece of TV drama—the series “Downtown Abbey,” which was inspired by the venerable “Upstairs, Downstairs” but adds modern twists.

I praised this aristocratic workingman story of class differences, asking why HBO didn’t bring it to America.  Well, I was out of the loop for sure, because PBS is bringing it to us, beginning on Sundays, January 9th to 30th at 9 p.m. EST.

My favorite magazine, The Week, enlightened me, and adds that the script is by the talented Julian Fellowes and the actors are Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and “scene-stealing Maggie Smith, along with many others.

One comment so far.

  1. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    One of my “early childhood” memories is my mother coming in looking like something out of a Hollywood film to say goodnight as she and my father left me and my brother with the babysitter – off to Glenn McCarthy’s Cork Club .  Smoke-filled rooms, martini glasses clinking and sheer elegance!  To see and be seen but also to be entertained and of course to dance the night, and the cares, away.  Those were obviously the days as they say.