Kay Thompson’s status as a show business cult figure — 12 years after her death — is bolstered by the impressive crew that contributed jacket blurbs to the new biography by Sam Irvin.
Pre-publication raves were assembled from Liza Minnelli, Andy Williams, Angela Lansbury, Leonard Maltin, Michael Feinstein and a few more notables.
Irvin’s book, “Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise” (Simon and Schuster) takes the reader through the life of a woman who spent so much time helping other performers look and sound their best that she put her own career as an actress and singer on the back burner.
Thompson was a very highly regarded performer — especially in a nightclub act she did with Andy Williams and his three brothers during the 1940s — but her quirky style was only preserved in one major film, the 1956 musical “Funny Face,” in which she co-starred with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn (above and below).
In Hollywood, Thompson was highly prized for the vocal arrangements and coaching she did at MGM for the stars who worked on musicals.
At the top of the list was Judy Garland, who became a lifelong friend (as did Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli). Even after Garland left MGM, Thompson worked with the star on nearly every major project she did up until her death in 1969.
Thompson was apparently incredibly patient and generous with the MGM stars, even the ones she loathed such as June Allyson.
Irvin is clearly a fan of Thompson’s but he doesn’t stint on including anecdotes about her extreme eccentricity and how difficult she could be with friends and co-workers.
Thompson found an odd sort of new fame in the 1950s through a series of children’s books she wrote about Eloise, a wised-up kid living mostly on her own in New York’s Plaza Hotel.
The books were hugely popular but caused lots of people lots of grief when Thompson micro-managed their publication. Artist Hilary Knight deserved a lion’s share of the credit for his whimsical drawings but Thompson tried to keep him in the background as she sold the books here and abroad.
Because she was so picky about her movie and stage jobs, the biography becomes the story of a performer who spent most of her life turning down jobs (Noel Coward wanted her for his musical “Sail Away” and also for a telecast of his supernatural comedy “Blithe Spirit”).
“Kay thrived on feeling wanted, so when the offers came her way, she would express initial interest, string everyone along with enthusiastic creative discussions, and instigate rewrites based on her suggestions,” Irvin writes.
“But, in the end, she’d invariably get cold feet. She’d start making unreasonable demands that could never be met until the parties reached an impasse. She turned playing hard-to-get into a sadistic exercise in futility,” the biographer adds.
Thompson became something of a fashion icon for her performance as the fashion editor in “Funny Face” — a character modeled on Diana Vreeland — but she was never able to build on that success with other notable movie roles.
A snarky review in The New York Times last week chided Irvin for producing such a detailed account of a largely forgotten woman’s life, but he needed considerable space to show us why Thompson was so highly thought of in her time, and continues to cast a spell within the world of show business.