Kay Thompson (born Catherine Louise Fink; November 9, 1909 (?) –July 2, 1998) was an American author, singer, vocal arranger, vocal coach, composer, musician, dancer and actress. She is best known as the creator of the Eloise children’s books and for her role in the movie Funny Face.
Unless you are a totally musical comedy nerd chances are you only know her as the creator of Eloise, the six-year-old heroine of children’s literature who lived in the Plaza with her pug, Weenie, her turtle, Skipperdee, and no adult supervision, other than her less than attentive nanny.
In 1958, Kay introduced another new successful side of her — as a children’s author. The best-selling “Eloise” series, which was sparked from Kay’s own escapades and adventures, chronicle the tale of a precocious, pixilated 6-year-old who lives at New York’s Plaza Hotel and turns the place upside down with her brazen antics.
It’s everything else she did during her illustrious career that this post is about. For instance, she was a life-long pal of Judy Garland. She taught Frank Sinatra how to sing jazz on the half beat. She became a singer’s singer, a vocal arranger’s arranger.
Kay’s spunky childhood behavior was corralled by her mother who kept her engaged in things that she excelled at, like piano, at age three. She was much like her character Eloise and lived at the Plaza herself for many years, as an adult. It was her love of music that took her to New York City and Hollywood where she re-invented herself, renamed herself and found success.
Kay also helped launch the Williams Brothers when she added them into her stage act in the late 1940’s. Soon her show became the hottest ticket in town. She and Andy, her junior by 18 years, were romantically involved for many years.
Kay was a contrast of characters. Because of her early day’s reputation, as being gifted, but unreliable, it found its way to L.A., when she went west to find bigger and better things. Who knew they did background checks back then? Kay had spent money she had not yet earned for a job she had yet to begin. So to remedy her job prospects she simply changed her name. Kitty Fink became Kay Thompson. She viewed rules as suggestions. Cut loose, cut corners, have some bazazz (a term she coined to explain one of her many admiral qualities).
Kay was raised Christian Science and wouldn’t see doctors, yet she had five nose jobs. She also prescribed to Hollywood’s Doctor Feel Good for the “miracle vitamin cocktails” to the rich and famous. She often would enter a room, late, apologizing as squeaky voiced “Eloise.” It was Eloise that gave her the chance to play her only notable Hollywood role in Funny Face, where she stole the show with her “Think Pink” number. It took the success of a children’s book, which had absolutely nothing to do with her staggering gifts as an arranger, singer, or dancer, to finally land a role in an A-list movie. The reviews heralded Kay Thompson as a blazing new star in the Hollywood firmament. She was 48 years old and had been at it for almost 30 years.
Movies and theater offers rolled in, but Kay’s ego had not forgotten all the bad turns and was not easily swayed by promises. Instead, she moved to Rome, where she sped around on her Vespa and fell in love for a minute or two, hung out at a favorite hangout where she’d play the piano and sing awhile.
Kay was a kook, the kind they don’t make anymore. Throughout her curious career, she always behaved like a diva, like a woman entitled to more. Kay was merely extraordinarily gifted – and believed that alone earned her the right to be herself.
I like looking back on these strong women of the past and into how their place in today’s world would look. How would they behave? How would they use their voices? How would they “break the rules” to be seen, to be heard, to be valued? Kay Thompson may not be an obvious choice to use, but I like that she took chances and never gave in. Bazazz! Bring it on.