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Kay Thompson

Hilary Knight's 1996 portrait of Kay Thompson for Vanity Fair.
Born Katherine L. Fink
9 November 1908(1908-11-09)
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
Died 2 July 1998 (aged 89)
New York City
Nationality American
Spouse(s) Jack Jenney (ca. 1937-1939)
William Spier (divorced 1947)

Kay Thompson (November 9, 1908, St. Louis, Missouri – July 2, 1998, New York City) was an American author, composer, musician, actress and singer. She is best known as the creator of the Eloise children's books.

Katherine Fink was born to Leo George Fink, an Austrian immigrant, and Hattie A. Fink, a native of Kansas. Kay was the second of four children. The Finks raised their family in St. Louis, where Leo Fink was a jewelry store owner.



Thompson began her career in the 1930s as a singer and choral director for radio. This led to appearances with the Tom Coakley band and later with Waring's Pennsylvanians, where she met (and briefly married) trombonist Jack Jenney. The Kay Thompson Swing Choir, which first appeared uncredited on an André Kostelanetz recording in 1935, performed two songs in the Republic Pictures musical Manhattan Merry-Go-Round (1937) and appeared periodically on CBS' Saturday Night Swing Club radio show.


Thompson's turn in Hollywood came when her friend, composer Hugh Martin, adapted his Broadway hit, Best Foot Forward, to the screen, then stayed on at MGM as a vocal arranger. When he enlisted during World War II, producer Arthur Freed asked him to name a replacement. Hugh told him to contact his friend Kay Thompson. After arriving at the studio in 1943, she served as main vocal arranger for many of Freed's MGM musicals and as vocal coach to stars, including Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, June Allyson and Ann Sothern. A wealth of information examining Thompson's contributions to Freed's musicals is found in Hugh Fordin's "The World of Entertainment!: Hollywood's Greatest Musicals" (1975).

Thompson was the vocal arranger for Weekend at the Waldorf (1945), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), The Harvey Girls (1946), Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), Good News (1947) and other films. After working on The Pirate (1948) with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, she left MGM to create the night club act: "Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers" (Bob, Don, Dick, and Andy Williams). They toured the country's nightclubs and cabarets with great success and appeared on radio, establishing a loyal cult following with their jazz-based harmonies and flamboyant performance style. Robert Alton did the original choreography for the act.

Collaboration with Hilary Knight

Thompson, who lived at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, became most notable as the author of the Eloise series of children's books, which were supposedly inspired by the antics of her goddaughter Liza Minnelli, daughter of Judy Garland and film director Vincente Minnelli, but when asked if this was true responded, "I am Eloise". The four books in the series, illustrated by Hilary Knight, are Eloise (1956), Eloise in Paris (1957), Eloise at Christmastime (1958) and Eloise in Moscow (1959). They follow the adventures of the precocious six-year-old girl who lives at The Plaza. All were bestsellers upon release and have been adapted into television projects. A fifth book, Eloise Takes a Bawth was released in 2002, based on a completed manuscript once slated for 1964 publication. However, at the time, Thompson blocked publication and took her other books out of print.

As an actress, Thompson made only three film appearances, notably as fashion editor Maggie Prescott in the musical Funny Face (1957) with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. Reunited with her colleagues from MGM, producer/songwriter Roger Edens and director Stanley Donen, Thompson garnered critical praise for her stylish turn as an editor based on real-life Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, kicking off the film with her splashy "Think Pink!" and stealing the spotlight in duets with Astaire and Hepburn. In a 6 December 2006 interview on Turner Classic Movies, Donen said that Funny Face was made at Paramount with a primarily MGM crew, including Donen, Edens and Thompson, because Paramount Pictures would not release Hepburn for any film except one made at Paramount.


As a singer, Thompson made very few records. In 1935, she recorded four sides for Brunswick and another four sides for Victor. The Brunswick sides ("You Hit The Spot", "You Let Me Down", "Don't Mention Love To Me" and "Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind") are about as good as any example of sophisticated cabaret singing in the mid-1930s. The only other performer who approached this sophisticated style is Ramona Davies (both as vocalist with Paul Whiteman's orchestra 1932-35, and a handful of cabaret vocals for the Liberty Music Shops record label in 1937).

Thompson served as creative consultant and vocal arranger for Judy Garland's highly rated 1962 television special with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and she kept busy with nightclub and television performances, as well as overseeing her successful "Eloise" franchise. In the early 1960s, Thompson moved from her beloved Plaza Hotel to a villa in Rome.

She appeared in Otto Preminger's Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) with goddaughter Liza Minnelli. In the 1970s, fashion designer Halston lured Thompson out of retirement to stage his runway shows. She eventually moved into Minnelli's Upper East Side penthouse in New York City, where she died in 1998.

Besides Jack Jenney, Thompson also married radio producer William Spier. Both marriages dissolved after a short time. She had no children. A CD of Kay Thompson's vocals, including her own compositions, is available under the title The Golden Years from Encore Productions, and the original soundtrack to Funny Face has been remastered and reissued. Most of her exceptional work for MGM has been preserved and released on Rhino/Turner Classic Movies original soundtrack series, including little-known contributions she did for films such as Meet the People (1944) and Abbott And Costello In Hollywood (1945). The entire series is available in the soundtrack section at [1].

In 2003, Kay Thompson was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

It has been written that Thompson's hyperactive, always positive personality is similar to the famous fictional Auntie Mame (although Mame had a scatterbrained aspect). Thompson's real-life personality can also be seen in her characterization in the film Funny Face.

Liza Minnelli paid tribute to Thompson's musical and personal influence in the South Bank Show (2008). In her 2008 tour, Liza Minnelli devoted much of the performance to recreating Thompson's act, using her trademark music. The success of this tribute led to Minnelli's return to Broadway in December 2008.

Liza's at The Palace...! opened at New York's legendary Palace theater, an affectionate salute to her godmother Kay Thompson. Supported by a quartet of dynamic singer/dancers standing in for the original Williams Brothers, Minnelli performed songs (with the original vocal arrangements) from Thompson's famous act, including "I Love a Violin", "Clap Yo' Hands", "Jubilee Time", and "Hello Hello". The show won a Tony award, and was subsequently released on a double CD- preserving Thompson's nightclub material in a state-of-the-art recording.


One of Thompson's sisters, Blanche Hurd, was designated as her literary heir, and was the commanding interest in the Eloise franchise beginning in 1998.

External links



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