Contact me at because I'm always up for a natter about anything. Well, mostly.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Book Review: Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise by Sam Irvin

My first wisp of anything Kay Thompson related came on the expanded soundtrack to The Harvey Girls. There was a demo of her singing along with 'In the Valley' with Judy Garland and the voice caught my attention years ago - but I thought nothing of it. Then I read a couple of books about Judy and Kay's name popped up as a solid friend and Liza's godmother. Then, finally, I watched Funny Face and thought 'so that's Kay Thompson!'. It was like a lightbulb switched on in my head and I had to know more about this entrancing performer. Fortunately, Sam Irvin's comprehensive biography sheds some light on a woman who was well known in Hollywood circles but floundered beyond that.

Kitty Fink began life as something of an ugly duckling, overshadowed by her prettier sisters. She realised she excelled at entertainment and changed her name when she was sacked for tardiness from one radio job in the hope that her reputation wouldn't follow her. It did and that really began a life of close bonds followed by some cataclysmic rifts. What is most fascinating about Kay (and also most frustrating) is her conscious decision to take ultimate control of everything she touches. This probably stemmed from some disappointments in her early career, notably her axing from the Vincente Minnelli stage musical Hooray for What! in the late 1930s. It would've been her big break and composer Hugh Martin (of Meet Me In St. Louis fame) described the stupidity of that decision: 'To fire that marvellous woman was unforgivable. We all knew Kay was great. Star quality! She could have been another Ethel Merman. Nobody could understand it.' (p64)

With Kay there's a tremendous amount of 'what-ifs', some of them ruined by other people but some ruined by herself. Her most famous creations were her nightclub act with the Williams Brothers and the Eloise books. She took ultimate control of the former, essentially taking much of the profit and credit on herself. While she certainly deserved the credit, some of her manipulations of her performance partners (not limited to the Williams Brothers either) are plain cruel. For instance, Andy Williams (her lover at this point) wanted to use her arrangement of 'The Lord Is My Shepherd' on a new album and she outright rejected the proposal. Williams explained: 'I couldn't believe that she wouldn't allow me to perform the song...I had been with her when she wrote it, and I had sung it for her many times in her apartment. I guess that was Kay; she was possessive about everything she worked on.' (p328) This possessive nature reared its ugly head again when Eloise was adapted for television. A passing comment from Eartha Kitt about the actress playing the title character being the 'new' Eloise set Kay completely against the little girl, since she was thought of Eloise as herself and only herself. She set about taking creative control over the special - with disastrous results. Her star turn in Funny Face was also marred by problems when she and Fred Astaire fell out to the extent that he refused to attend the opening with her. Try rewatching the 'Clap Yo' Hands' sequence with this mutual dislike in mind and see how good actors both of them were!

There are so many little titbits in this book that it's a must for anyone interested in this era of film and music. Kay's involvement numerous talents is both astounding and exhausting but what comes across most potently is the waste of her own talents. She was an acquired taste and there are frequently stories behind many of her own songs, including in-jokes that make them difficult to comprehend outside showbiz circles. This book illuminates some of those in-jokes, allowing the songs to be heard in their original glory. I'll admit that I had only listened to the album I had of her work a few times before reading this book but now I can't stop playing it. My favourite song at the moment is probably 'Bazazz', a word she used in Funny Face and decided to create a song around, but they're all wonderful songs in their own way.

Sam Irvin tries to sum up what Kay was in the opening pages of his book: 'Not to name-drop or anything, but... Kay Thompson was Judy Garland's mentor and best friend and Frank Sinatra's and Lena Horne's vocal coach. She went to school with Tennessee Williams and got her first big break from Bing Crosby. She created a nightclub act for Ginger Rogers, and played charades with Gene Kelly. Bette Davis learned from her, Diana Vreeland was portrayed by her, and Danny Kaye masqueraded in drag as her. She auditioned for Henry Ford, trained Marilyn Monroe, channelled Elvis Presley, rejected Andy Warhol, rebuffed Federico Fellini, and got fired by Howard Hughes. Prince Aly Khan made a pass at her and the Beatles wanted to hold her hand.' (pxiv) And that's just the tip of the iceberg!


Sam Irvin said...

Wow! Thanks for the wonderful review of my Kay Thompson book and CD set! For more information about both, your readers will enjoy visiting my website:

Think Pink!
Sam Irvin

CharmedLassie said...

I was on there the other day and loved it! Anything that brings Thompson to fresh audiences is just brilliant.

Thanks so much for your comment, Sam.