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|Born||Catherine Louise Fink
November 9, 1909
St. Louis, Missouri, USA
|Died||July 2, 1998
New York City, New York, USA
|Occupation||Author, composer, musician, actress, singer.|
|Spouse(s)||Jack Jenney (1937–39; divorced)
William Spier (1942–47; divorced)
|Parents||Leo George Fink
Hattie A. Tetrick
Catherine Louise Fink was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1909, the second of the four children of Leo George Fink, an Austrian-born pawnbroker and jeweler, and his wife, the former Hattie A. Tetrick. Her siblings were Blanche, Marian, and Leo.
She married twice:
- Jack Jenney, trombonist and bandleader, married 1937, divorced 1939
- William Spier, radio producer, married 1942, divorced 1947
Thompson began her career in the 1930s as a singer and choral director for radio. Her first big break was as a regular singer on The Bing Crosby-Woodbury Show (CBS, 1933–34). This led to a regular spot on The Fred Waring-Ford Dealers Show (NBC, 1934–35) and then, with conductor Lennie Hayton, she co-founded The Lucky Strike Hit Parade (CBS, 1935) where she met (and later married) trombonist Jack Jenney.
Kay Thompson and Her Rhythm Singers joined André Kostelanetz and His Orchestra for the hit series The Chesterfield Radio Program (CBS, 1936), followed by It's Chesterfield Time (CBS, 1937) for which Kay and her large choir were teamed with Hal Kemp and His Orchestra. For her motion picture debut, Kay and her choir performed two songs in the Republic Pictures musical Manhattan Merry-Go-Round (1937). In 1939, she reunited with André Kostelanetz for Tune-Up Time (CBS), a show that was produced by radio legend William Spier (who later married Kay in 1942). On an installment of Tune-Up Time in April 1939, 16-year-old Judy Garland was a guest. It was at this time that Kay first met and worked with Judy, developing a close personal friendship and professional association that lasted the rest of Garland's life.
In 1943 Thompson signed an exclusive contract with MGM to become the studio's top vocal arranger, vocal coach, and choral director. She served as main vocal arranger for many of producer Arthur Freed's MGM musicals and as vocal coach to such stars as Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, and June Allyson. She was vocal arranger for 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). She wrote the songs and Robert Alton did the original choreography for the act.
As a film actress, Thompson played one major role only: that of fashion editor Maggie Prescott in the musical Funny Face (1957). Reunited with her colleagues from MGM, producer and songwriter Roger Edens and director Stanley Donen, Thompson garnered critical praise for her stylish turn as an editor based on real-life Harper's Bazaar editor, Diana Vreeland, opening the film with her splashy "Think Pink!" and performing duets with Astaire and Hepburn.
In a December 6, 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. Thompson only acted in one additional feature film, 1970's Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon because, according to its star Liza Minnelli, Thompson disliked the slow speed of production.
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 partly 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 Thompson responded, "I am Eloise". The four books in the series, illustrated by Hilary Knight, are Eloise (Simon & Schuster, 1955), Eloise in Paris (Simon & Schuster, 1957), Eloise at Christmastime (Random House, 1958) and Eloise in Moscow (Simon & Schuster, 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. She also composed and performed a Top 40 hit song, "Eloise" (Cadence Records, 1956).
A fifth book, Eloise Takes a Bawth, was posthumously published by Simon & Schuster in 2002, culled from Thompson's original manuscripts once slated for 1964 publication by Harper & Row. However, at the time, Thompson was burned out on Eloise; she blocked publication and took all but the first book out of print.
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. She later recorded for Capitol, Columbia, Decca, and, most importantly, for MGM Records which issued the one and only complete album of songs by Thompson in 1954. In February 1956, Thompson wrote and recorded the song "Eloise" at Cadence Records with an orchestra conducted by Archie Bleyer. The song debuted on March 10, 1956, and became a Top 40 hit, selling over 100,000 copies. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Kay mentored the solo career of the young Andy Williams. She helped land him a regular singing spot on NBC-TV's new late-night series, The Tonight Show, hosted by Steve Allen. She got her friend Archie Bleyer to add Andy to the roster of artists on his label Cadence Records where she wrote many of the songs Andy recorded, including the 1958 Top 20 hit "Promise Me, Love". Though it had been denied for decades, Williams claimed in his 2009 memoir, Moon River and Me (Viking Press), that he and Thompson had been secret lovers for several years, despite the age gap between them. She later recorded a spoken-word album for Signature Records, Let's Talk About Russia, which detailed her adventures in Moscow. Signature released a single of two songs by Thompson, "Dasvidanya" and "Moscow Cha Cha". She served as an adviser to the 1957 Patti Page television series, The Big Record.
Thompson kept busy with nightclub and television performances, as well as overseeing her successful "Eloise" franchise. She returned to live in New York in 1969. Immediately following the death of Judy Garland in 1969, Thompson appeared with her goddaughter Liza Minnelli in Otto Preminger's Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (Paramount, 1970). In 1974, Thompson directed a fashion show at the Palace of Versailles, featuring a performance by Minnelli and the collections of Halston, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Anne Klein.
Thompson eventually moved into Minnelli's Upper East Side penthouse, where she died in 1998, aged 88.
- 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). Her 1930s recordings are available on the CD "Kay Thompson: Queen of Swing Vocal & Her Rhythm Singers" (Baldwin Street Records), produced and annotated by Ted Ono. The rest of her recording career is compiled on the 3-CD box set "Think Pink! A Kay Thompson Party" (Sepia Records), produced and annotated by Thompson biographer Sam Irvin.
- In 2003 Thompson was posthumously inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
- Minnelli recreated Thompson's nightclub act for her 2009 Tony Award-winning Broadway event, Liza's at the Palace. A CD cast recording, a PBS television special, and a DVD followed. Liza's at the Palace opened at New York's legendary Palace theater, an affectionate salute to Thompson, her godmother. 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 "Clap Yo' Hands" and "Hello Hello".
- For an exhaustively-researched list of all of Thompson's hundreds of credits for radio, TV, movies, stage, books, and music, see the "Kayographies" tab at Kay Thompson Website. Featuring over 300 pages of endnotes, sidebars, letters, credits, etc., this website includes exclusive comprehensive extras about Thompson, which, due to space considerations, could not be included in Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise by Sam Irvin (published by Simon & Schuster).
- 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. After Hurd's death in 2002, the estate passed to Hurd's two children.
- Hollywood director Sam Irvin wrote a comprehensive biography, Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, published in November 2010 by Simon & Schuster.
- Robert Osborne: "Why didn't she do more movies?" Liza Minnelli: "She didn't like it...It was too slow", Private Screenings, TCM, December 11, 2010
- Salon: "Will the real Eloise please stand up?" by Amy Benfer (June 1, 1999)
- St. Louis Walk of Fame. "St. Louis Walk of Fame Inductees". stlouiswalkoffame.org. Retrieved 25 April 2013.
- Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise
- Kay Thompson biography, KayThompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, by Sam Irvin, published by Simon & Schuster. This website features exclusive extras including exhaustively researched lists of Thompson's credits in various media
- Kay Thompson at the St. Louis Walk of Fame website
- Kay Thompson at the Internet Movie Database
- Kay Thompson at the Internet Broadway Database
- Kay Thompson biography at the Eloise website
- Eloise on Playhouse 90 (1956) at the Internet Movie Database