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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

You know, the news business likes to put unofficial titles in front of names: author, singer-songwriter, Nobel-prize winning mathematician, saxophonist, dentist - whatever. What could we possibly put in front of Kay Thompson's name to suggest all the things she was?

(Soundbite of song, "Eloise")

Unidentified Men: (Singing) Who is the little girl who lives at the Plaza in New York?

Ms. KAY THOMPSON (Actor, Singer): That's me, Eloise. I'm 6. I live on the top floor.

Unidentified Men: Who is the little girl...

SIMON: That's Kay Thompson as the voice of her 6-year-old alter ego, Eloise of the Plaza, the star of her best-selling children's books. But Kay Thompson was also the woman who gave voice to MGM's musical; a legendary vocal coach for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Marlene Dieterich and Lucille Ball; fabled friend and mentor to Judy Garland; godmother to Liza Minnelli. She was the actor who stole a film from under the feet of Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, and the most popular and highly paid cabaret performer of her time.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. THOMPSON: (Singing) That Dixieland beat, a mess of licks from Chicago. The New Orleans heat. It ain't got grammar, but it's a jammer. Clank, clank...

SIMON: She also made women's slacks into a high-fashion item. Sam Irvin, the producer and director, has written a biography of one of the most influential and perhaps underappreciated figures in show business, "Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise." Sam Irvin joins us from the studios of NPR West.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. SAM IRVING (Author, "Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise"): Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: When we watch some of the great old MGM musicals these days, how do we see Kay Thompson's influence?

Mr. IRVING: Well, you don't see it as much as you hear it. She was the doyenne of the entire vocal department. She coached all the stars. She wrote the vocal arrangements. She took a song like "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" -that you hear in "The Harvey Girls" - and the composers turned in a little, three-minute ditty. And she turns that one, particularly, into this nine-minute, penultimate show-stopper where she rewrote lyrics and added all kinds of chord changes and different melodies - and just sort of takes it right off the deep end. And it ended up winning the Oscar.

(Soundbite of song, "On the Atchison, the Topeka and the Santa Fe")

Ms. JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) What a lovely trip. I'm feeling so fresh and alive. And I'm so glad to arrive. It's all so grand. It's easy to see you don't need a palace to feel like Alice in Wonderland.

Mr. IRVING: The songwriters were rather incensed because they felt like it wasn't their song anymore. And they boycotted the Oscars. And it had to be accepted on their behalf by Van Johnson, who was the presenter.

SIMON: At the same time, Kay Thompson, despite her extraordinary success at that realm, found it frustrating to not be even more the center of attention, I gather.

Mr. IRVING: That's right. When she went to MGM, she had already been a star in radio. And people always joke about, you know, she had a face for radio. Well, in this case, it was true. She wasn't a traditionally beautiful woman. She was kind of masculine.

But she had this idea that she wanted to be a movie star. Well, Hollywood didn't quite see it that way. She would come in and demonstrate her latest vocal arrangements for a musical, and they would say, God, Kay, that is fantastic. Now, who are we going to get to sing it in the movie?

And finally, in 1947, she had really had it. And she quit the studio and created a nightclub act called Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers - that was little, 19-year-old Andy Williams and his three brothers. And it was unbelievably well-received. It was just this overnight sensation.

(Soundbite of music)

THE WILLIAMS BROTHERS (Music Group): (Singing): We give you the one and only Kay Thompson - Kay, Kay Thompson. Kay Thompson - Kay, Kay Thompson.

Ms. THOMPSON: (Singing) Hello, hello. Hello and thanks so much. Your greeting is enough to touch my heart.

SIMON: And she was raking it in, too, wasn't she?

Mr. IRVING: She was. She was the highest paid - she was the first person to crack the million-dollar ceiling. She just was chic and new and different. She wrote the material. She designed the wardrobe that she wore, which was slacks.

You know, most restaurants back then had dress codes where they couldn't even come in. And she would - she'd show up and defy the - or try to defy the dress code, and get in. Some places, she didn't get in. But she would make headlines with it, and she would use that to help sell her line of pants, which were marketed exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue.

SIMON: OK. Let's get to Eloise. Now, you go through a lot of scholarly routes to try and establish who might have inspired this character, the 6-year-old girl who lives in the Plaza Hotel, Eloise. And among the revelations is that Kate Thompson has been talking like a 6-year-old girl since she was 6.

Mr. IRVIN: Yes. Well, the official PR story that was always concocted was that Eloise sort of came into spontaneous existence in 1947, when Kay was late to a rehearsal with the Williams Brothers. And she drove across a golf course and when she got there, they said: Who do you think you are, being five minutes late? And she supposedly spontaneously broke into the voice of a little girl and said: I am Eloise, and I am 6.

Well, as I researched my book, I discovered that Kay had actually had a childhood imaginary friend named Eloise, and she spoke in this voice of Eloise all through her life.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the star turn she does very prominently in the movie "Funny Face." She plays Miss Prescott, the editor of a famous fashion magazine - I think, we can fairly say, clearly modeled on Diana Vreeland - who decrees, think pink.

(Soundbite of song, "Think Pink!")

Ms. THOMPSON: (Singing) Think pink, think pink when you shop for summer clothes. Think pink, think pink if you want that quelque chose. Red is dead. Blue is through. Green's obscene. Brown's taboo. And there is not the slightest excuse for plum or puce or chartreuse. Think pink...

SIMON: I mean, I think of this, Kay Thompson in "Funny Face" - there's a whole subset of singular performances in movie history, which may not be exactly Academy Award winners, but somebody so clearly defines the role, you can't imagine anyone else doing it. Kay Thompson is in many ways the most memorable character in this film.

Mr. IRVIN: Well, I couldn't agree with you more, and I think a lot of other people do as well. The fact that she did not get nominated for Best Supporting Oscar is unbelievable to me. And the reviews were not just, oh, she's also great - they all said that she stole the movie away from Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn - which is no small feat, because they're terrific in that movie.

SIMON: Sam, when you look around show business today - or, for that matter, children's literature today, where do you see and hear Kay Thompson's legacy?

Mr. IRVIN: Well, Kay really, you know, back in the '50s, this was, you know, the "Leave It to Beaver," milk and cookies, very sweet - sort of family values and everything. And Kay's creation of the Eloise character - this was a little girl without parental supervision; she was incredibly rebellious, and had an imagination.

I mean, Kay very purposefully gave this young girl an independent mind. And coupled with Kay playing this fashion magazine editor in "Funny Face," I really feel that in the '50s, Kay was spearheading a lot of the early - sort of rumblings of feminism, and I really think that Eloise was a seminal influence on this.

SIMON: Sam Irvin - his new book: "Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise." Sam, thanks so much.

Mr. IRVIN: This has been great.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. THOMPSON: (Singing) ...you'll be as lovely as can be...

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