It's hard to separate Kay Thompson from her most indelible creation, Eloise. Her series of books about the precocious 6-year-old living with her nanny, her pug dog, Weenie, and her turtle, Skipperdee, at New York's Plaza Hotel have been beloved by generations of kids and their parents.
But that's only part of the résumé of the multitalented Thompson, who was also a singer, an actress, music arranger and vocal coach to stars such as Judy Garland.
"It's no exaggeration to say that Kay Thompson changed the face of American popular music in the 20th century," says singer-music historian Michael Feinstein, who knew Thompson. "She was a band singer and went on to radio. She started to do these complex vocal arrangements combining jazz, blues and pop music with classic influences in a way that no one had done before. It was immediately copied by everybody, so any vocal group that has done anything in harmony is influenced by Kay's style."
Thompson, he adds, "could take any song and turn it into a production number, which she did in movies. She went to Hollywood and changed the way Hollywood presented songs and production numbers. As an actress she was completely unique. She was probably the only person who could upstage Fred Astaire in 'Funny Face.' She influenced not only the music world but fashion and style. Kay seemed to be involved in every aspect of culture."
A new biography, "Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise" by Sam Irvin, provides a revealing look at this complex and contradictory woman, born Catherine "Kitty" Fink in St. Louis in 1909, who transformed herself into the sophisticated Kay Thompson.
Irvin said he tried to figure out why Thompson didn't become a bigger star and do more movies. "The people I talked to had different theories, but the conclusion I finally came to was that at MGM she was working behind the scenes, and I think it really did a number on her head," he says. "She was the wind beneath everybody's wings. Kay was constantly frustrated that she would never get offered anything to be on the screen herself."
She left MGM in 1947 and divorced her second husband, William Spier. "She created this nightclub act, Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers," says Irvin. Andy Williams, the youngest of the brothers, was also Thompson's longtime lover, even though he was 20 years her junior.
"She wrote the songs, she collaborated with Bob Alton on the choreography, she taught them harmonies, she designed her own wardrobe," says Irvin. "Then it was this overnight sensation just like 'Eloise.' I think she became an incurable control freak. The reason she agreed to do 'Funny Face' is that she trusted the producer Roger Edens and the screenwriter Leonard Gershe, and they really beefed up her part. But a few years after that, she lost trust in Roger Edens and started turning down his movies. You were on her list or not. She was a mass of contradictions."
Feinstein is even more blunt. "Not to take anything away from her talent, but she was crazy."
Case in point, Feinstein recently learned that when she was performing on the "Standard Oil 75th Anniversary" broadcast, "she had a big choir that was to accompany her, and one by one she fired everyone in the choir until it was she and Buster Davis left. She didn't like any of the other voices. Kay almost caused a disaster on the show, which had all the producers up in arms."
Hilary Knight, who illustrated the classic "Eloise" books, adored Thompson.
"She was brilliant, hilariously funny and wicked," says Knight.
But she was also a "perfectionist in a wrong way" who was displeased if Knight received better reviews than she did for the books. "Eloise" had taken the world by storm in 1955, and Thompson and Knight followed up the bestseller with "Eloise at Christmastime," "Eloise in Moscow" and "Eloise in Paris." A reworked version of "Eloise Takes a Bawth," which Thompson pulled the plug on in 1965, was released in 2002, four years after her death.
"You could tell her displeasure with any kind of people who got too much attention and took attention away from her," says Knight. "I am talking about everybody. I didn't realize how deep-seated that was in her psyche. It was tragic she felt that way."
When she was "finished" with somebody it was over, says Knight. Though they worked together closely, Thompson ignored Knight in her later years. "I made many attempts to contact her. On her birthday, I would send her flowers and amusing little drawings I thought she would like — nothing. Still, she remains this brilliant person."