Kay Thompson is a difficult woman to describe. She was, most famously, the creator of the Eloise book series. But she was also the woman who gave voice to MGM's musicals; a legendary vocal coach for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Lena Horn, Marlene Dietrich and Lucille Ball; a fabled friend and mentor to Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli; the actress who stole a film from under the feet of Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn; and the most popular and highest-paid cabaret performer of all time.
And if that wasn't enough, she made women's slacks into a high-fashion item. She was of her time, and before her time — a woman, as they say, of great substance and character. Thompson was a true eccentric, the kind of woman who could waltz through ballrooms and turn every head. She was such a big personality, in fact, that she had to diffuse it into an alter ego, the impish 6-year-old she called Eloise.
Eloise lived in New York's Plaza Hotel and had adventures in glamorous locations like Moscow and Paris, dragging her nanny around while she drank champagne, wore fur and tended to her pet pigeon. It was a farce of childhood meant for adults and youth alike, and it all came from Thompson's often-warped mind (rumor has it she often spoke in a child's voice).
Filmmaker Sam Irvin dived into Thompson's quirky brain for his new biography of the actress, From Funny Face to Eloise. He spoke to NPR about researching one of the most influential — and perhaps unappreciated — figures in show business.
'She Wasn't A Traditionally Beautiful Woman'
"When she went to MGM, she had already been a star in radio, and people always joke about, you know, she had a face for radio," Irvin says of Thompson's early life in movie musicals. "She wasn't a traditionally beautiful woman; she was kind of masculine. But she had this idea that she wanted to be a movie star. Hollywood wouldn't quite see it that way. She would come in and demonstrate her latest vocal arrangements for a musical, and they would say, 'God, Kaye, that is fantastic. Now who are we going to get to sing it in the movie?' "
Finally, in 1947, after being rejected by MGM time after time, Thompson quit to star her own cabaret act with the Williams Brothers. "That was little 19-year-old Andy Williams and his three brothers," explains Irvin. "And it was unbelievably well-received, just this overnight sensation."
Her nightclub act pulled in huge money — she was the first person to crack the million-dollar ceiling performing cabaret. Her grand success even led to a new fashion trend.
"She just was everywhere," says Irvin. "She was chic and new and different. She wrote the material; she designed the wardrobe that she wore, which was slacks. You know, most restaurants back then had dress codes, and she'd show up and try to defy the code and get in. Some places she didn't get in, but she'd make headlines with it, and she would use that to help sell her line of pants, which were marketed exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue."
The Birth Of Eloise
One of Irvin's big revelations is that Thompson spoke like a child herself, often imagining herself as a 6-year-old. She decided to make this persona into a reality with the creation of the Eloise books.The story of how the character really came into being, however, is often disputed.
"The official PR story which was always concocted was that Eloise sort of came into spontaneous existence in 1947," says Irvin. "Kay was late to a rehearsal with the Williams Brothers, and she drove across a golf course in order to get there as quickly as she could, and when she got there they said, 'Who do you think you are, being five minutes late?' and she supposedly broke into the voice of a little girl and said, 'I am Eloise and I am 6!' "
And yet, upon researching the biography, Irvin found that this creation myth was more of a tall tale than the reality. "Kay actually had a childhood imaginary friend named Eloise, and she spoke in this voice of Eloise all through her life," Irvin reveals.
The Funny Face Era
Thompson's career didn't just peak with Eloise or her cabaret years — her performance in the movie Funny Face is often regarded as one of the best of the period, and many historians consider it a huge oversight that Thompson did not snag an Oscar nomination that year.
"The reviews that she got when this movie came out, it was like the Second Coming," says Irvin. "The fact that she did not get nominated for a Best Supporting Actress is unbelievable, based on the kind of adulation she had gotten. And the reviews were not just, 'Oh she's also great'; they all said she stole the movie away from Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, which is no small feat, because they're terrific in that movie."
The Kay Thompson Legacy
When asked about Thompson's legacy and how she will be remembered, Irvin says that he thinks that it is Thompson's rebelliousness that lives on.
"Back in the '50s, this was you know the Leave it to Beaver, milk and cookies very sweet sort of family values," says Irvin. "Kaye's creation of the Eloise character, this was a little girl without parental supervision; she was incredibly rebellious and had an imagination. She very purposefully gave this young girl an independent mind."
Irvin even credits Thompson with kick-starting the women's movement: "I really feel that in the '50s, Kay was spearheading a lot of the early rumblings of feminism — being out there, having careers — and I really think that Eloise was a seminal influence on this."