book review: Kay Thompson: From Funny Face To Eloise

By Sam Irvin (Simon and Schuster)

If you only know Kay Thompson as the charismatic fashion magazine editor in the 1957 musical Funny Face, or as the author of the delightful children’s book Eloise, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Thompson was a force of nature: an innovative singing star on radio in the 1930s, a major contributor to the sound of the MGM musicals of the 1940s who created vocal arrangements and coached such eager pupils as Judy Garland and Lena Horne, the highest paid nightclub performer of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a fashion trend-setter, talent scout, mentor, choreographer, and much, much more.

Hers is a unique show business saga that has never been fully told. Fortunately, Sam Irvin began his exploration a decade ago, when a number of Thompson’s friends and colleagues were still alive to help piece together the often quixotic story of her life and career. His roster of sources is daunting, from Thompson’s god-daughter Liza Minnelli and her protégé (and lover) Andy Williams to

key figures in the world of film, theater, fashion, and publishing, as Thompson brushed up against—and made a lasting impression on—so many disparate people during her ninety years on the planet.

Irvin’s book is enjoyably dishy but not salacious, as he documents the self-made grand dame’s serial nose jobs, multiple marriages, and downright peculiar, even self-destructive behavior that kept her from making the most of her talents in a variety of fields. She should have starred on Broadway but sabotaged her own chances. She could have made hay with Eloise but drove both her illustrator-partner and patient publishers to the brink of madness. And, in the wake of Funny Face, she could have carved a new career as a screen personality but made such impossible demands that several juicy opportunities fell by the wayside.

It’s an amazing journey that no one could invent; I can only imagine the amount of time and effort Irvin invested to create a complete and coherent timeline of Thompson’s existence. As a show-biz buff, I ate it all up like a bowl of M&Ms. Kay Thompson deserves a great biography, and this is it.

p.s. Once you’ve finished this book, the next logical step is to purchase Sam Irvin’s three-CD tribute to Kay, Think Pink! A Kay Thompson Party. It’s filled with rare recordings from every phase of her career. Consider it a must: Think-Pink-Kay-Thompson-Party.

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May 2024