Eloise At 55: The Legacy Of Kay Thompson Fifty-five years after Eloise first appeared, the impish girl who lived in the Plaza Hotel is as iconic as ever. Author Sam Irvin, who has written a new biography of Eloise creator Kay Thompson, talks about the famous storybook character and the eccentric actress behind her.

Eloise At 55: The Legacy Of Kay Thompson

Eloise At 55: The Legacy Of Kay Thompson

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Kay Thompson is a difficult woman to describe. She was, most famously, the creator of the Eloise book series. But she was also the woman who gave voice to MGM's musicals; a legendary vocal coach for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Lena Horn, Marlene Dietrich and Lucille Ball; a fabled friend and mentor to Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli; the actress who stole a film from under the feet of Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn; and the most popular and highest-paid cabaret performer of all time.

And if that wasn't enough, she made women's slacks into a high-fashion item. She was of her time, and before her time — a woman, as they say, of great substance and character. Thompson was a true eccentric, the kind of woman who could waltz through ballrooms and turn every head. She was such a big personality, in fact, that she had to diffuse it into an alter ego, the impish 6-year-old she called Eloise.

Eloise lived in New York's Plaza Hotel and had adventures in glamorous locations like Moscow and Paris, dragging her nanny around while she drank champagne, wore fur and tended to her pet pigeon. It was a farce of childhood meant for adults and youth alike, and it all came from Thompson's often-warped mind (rumor has it she often spoke in a child's voice).

Kay Thompson

Filmmaker Sam Irvin dived into Thompson's quirky brain for his new biography of the actress, From Funny Face to Eloise. He spoke to NPR about researching one of the most influential — and perhaps unappreciated — figures in show business.

'She Wasn't A Traditionally Beautiful Woman'

Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise
By Sam Irvin
Hardcover, 432 pages
Simon & Schuster
List Price: $26.99

Read An Excerpt

"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," Irvin says of Thompson's early life in movie musicals. "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. Hollywood wouldn't quite see it that way. She would come in and demonstrate her latest vocal arrangements for a musical, and they would say, 'God, Kaye, that is fantastic. Now who are we going to get to sing it in the movie?' "

Finally, in 1947, after being rejected by MGM time after time, Thompson quit to star her own cabaret act with the Williams Brothers. "That was little 19-year-old Andy Williams and his three brothers," explains Irvin. "And it was unbelievably well-received, just this overnight sensation."

Her nightclub act pulled in huge money — she was the first person to crack the million-dollar ceiling performing cabaret. Her grand success even led to a new fashion trend.

"She just was everywhere," says Irvin. "She 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, and she'd show up and try to defy the code and get in. Some places she didn't get in, but she'd make headlines with it, and she would use that to help sell her line of pants, which were marketed exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue."

The Birth Of Eloise

One of Irvin's big revelations is that Thompson spoke like a child herself, often imagining herself as a 6-year-old. She decided to make this persona into a reality with the creation of the Eloise books.The story of how the character really came into being, however, is often disputed.

"The official PR story which was always concocted was that Eloise sort of came into spontaneous existence in 1947," says Irvin. "Kay was late to a rehearsal with the Williams Brothers, and she drove across a golf course in order to get there as quickly as she could, and when she got there they said, 'Who do you think you are, being five minutes late?' and she supposedly broke into the voice of a little girl and said, 'I am Eloise and I am 6!' "

And yet, upon researching the biography, Irvin found that this creation myth was more of a tall tale than the reality. "Kay actually had a childhood imaginary friend named Eloise, and she spoke in this voice of Eloise all through her life," Irvin reveals.

Sam Irvin is a well-known film and television director and producer. This is his first book. Stephen Paley/ hide caption

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Stephen Paley/

Sam Irvin is a well-known film and television director and producer. This is his first book.

Stephen Paley/

The Funny Face Era

Thompson's career didn't just peak with Eloise or her cabaret years — her performance in the movie Funny Face is often regarded as one of the best of the period, and many historians consider it a huge oversight that Thompson did not snag an Oscar nomination that year.

"The reviews that she got when this movie came out, it was like the Second Coming," says Irvin. "The fact that she did not get nominated for a Best Supporting Actress is unbelievable, based on the kind of adulation she had gotten. And the reviews were not just, 'Oh she's also great'; they all said she stole the movie away from Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, which is no small feat, because they're terrific in that movie."

The Kay Thompson Legacy

When asked about Thompson's legacy and how she will be remembered, Irvin says that he thinks that it is Thompson's rebelliousness that lives on.

"Back in the '50s, this was you know the Leave it to Beaver, milk and cookies very sweet sort of family values," says Irvin. "Kaye's creation of the Eloise character, this was a little girl without parental supervision; she was incredibly rebellious and had an imagination. She very purposefully gave this young girl an independent mind."

Irvin even credits Thompson with kick-starting the women's movement: "I really feel that in the '50s, Kay was spearheading a lot of the early rumblings of feminism — being out there, having careers — and I really think that Eloise was a seminal influence on this."

'Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise'

Kay Thompson
Ray Chokov
Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise
By Sam Irvin
Hardcover, 432 pages
Simon & Schuster
List Price: $26.99

Kitty's transformation to torch songstress did not happen overnight. She longed to be taken seriously, like Fanny Brice, an ugly duckling Jewish girl from New York's Lower East Side who had become a national sensation singing weepy ballads. They may have shared homely looks, but Kitty didn't have Fanny's distinctive voice or range. One night at a local vaudeville show, however, Kitty heard something that made her shoulders tingle: a female African-American blues singer with a deep, husky voice. Kitty announced that her latest goal was to be a blues singer, an aspiration met with considerable skepticism by her family.

"If my sisters hadn't made fun of my voice," Kay later explained, "I would never have buckled down to taking singing lessons seriously. And if they weren't so sure I could never become a singer, I wouldn't have fought for a career!"

Seething with resentment, Kitty set out to prove them wrong. "Mother, who gave singing lessons, had often said you could change the range of your tones," Kay recalled. "I decided to get rid of my squeak and develop a lower range for blues singing."

Using the keyboard as her guide to the depths of hell, Kitty groaned, growled, and grunted guttural sounds that could wake the dead. Eventually, the nightmare paid off. Incredibly, she had developed a lower register -- an entire octave -- rich and throaty. Not only did she sound great singing blues, the full range of her voice had miraculously arrived.

Stretching her newfound talent, Kitty landed a supporting role in, of all things, an operetta -- the Soldan High production of The Bells of Beaujolais, performed on April 16, 1926. Since the entire student body was required to attend, she had a captive audience -- including a schoolmate named Tennessee Williams.

Born on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi, Thomas Lanier Williams and his family had moved to St. Louis when he was eight years old.

Thomas would eventually be nicknamed Tennessee because of his thick hillbilly drawl, but back then, Kitty and his other neighborhood friends knew him as Tom. For three years starting in 1918, Tennessee resided in a furnished six-room apartment at 4633 Westminster Place, just a few blocks southwest of the Fink's Parkland Place home. (The apartment would later be the setting for Tennessee's play The Glass Menagerie.)

"[My sister] Rose and I made friends," Tennessee recalled, "and we had an agreeable children's life among them, playing ‘hide-and-seek' and ‘fly, sheep, fly,' and bathing under garden hoses in the hot summer."

Tennessee's older sister, Rose, was the same age as Kitty and Ginny. "We would run around together," Ginny recalled, "and Tom would tag along, trying to keep up with us." More often, he hung out with Kitty's brother, Bud,  his senior by only six days. Tennessee's father worked for Ginny's father at the Friedman-Shelby branch of the International Shoe Company in St. Louis (a factory where Tennessee later worked).

"Our mothers were co-joiners in the UDC, United Daughters of the Confederacy," Ginny explained. "Once a month there was a meeting of ‘the children of the C' and my brother and I were dragged kicking and screaming to a get-together where we sang ‘Dixie,' had refreshments, and listened to another member play the cello. Kitty, Rose, and Tom were victims, too, but they seemed to enjoy it."

Kitty was the local ham and Tennessee's keen interest in student theatrical productions kept him abreast of her rise to stardom -- first at Blewitt Junior High, then at Soldan High, and finally at Washington University. After leaving St. Louis, they would cross paths on many occasions around the world.

Another famous graduate of Soldan High was actress Agnes Moorehead. She was nine years older than Kitty and, by 1926, had left St. Louis. Nevertheless, they later became friends and shared stories about their Missouri upbringing. There was also Vincent Price, born in St. Louis two years after Kitty. But even though the two grew up just a couple of miles from each other, they were worlds apart in terms of social standing. Born into a wealthy family, Vincent was sent to private schools and attended Yale. Still, Kay and Vincent became friends as adults via showbiz circles and their shared passion for fine art.

Sans silver spoon in a class-conscious society, Kitty used her musical skills to parlay herself into a higher bracket. In the middle of her junior year at Soldan High in February 1926, Kitty was elected to serve as librarian of the Chaminade Glee Club, the fifty-member girls' choral group, known for singing songs like "S'wanee River." And that summer, for the third year in a row, she returned to Minne-Wonka Girls' Summer Camp, this time leading all the campfire songs.

That fall, Kitty entered her senior year at Soldan High and involved herself in just about every extracurricular activity on campus: Song Committee, Orchestra, Chaminade Glee Club, the Athenaeum (a twenty-five-girl debate and speech club), Scrippage Committee (the school newspaper staff), Dancing Club, and the Girl's Athletic Association, where she excelled in hockey, tennis, and swimming. And, in addition to her regular gig as pianist for the St. Louis Symphony, she somehow found time to star in the school production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe.

All this took its toll on her schoolwork; by the time she graduated in June, she mustered an average of only 67 (out of 100), ranking 209th in a class of 214 students. Diplomatically, the quote in her yearbook focused on her strengths:

"A friendly maid and likewise gay is she; her touch upon the keys is heavenly." But by then, she'd given up piano lessons -- another thorn in her father's side.

On the verge of burnout, she insisted on recharging her batteries at Minne-Wonka Summer Camp.

In the fall of 1927, Kitty enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, which offered a broad range of academia. But the social whirlwind of sororities was what girls like Kitty and Ginny craved. "I became a Kappa Alpha Theta," Ginny said. "Kitty became a Delta Gamma first -- her sister Blanche's sorority --  and then broke that pledge and joined Kappa Kappa Gamma."

After a freshman year best described as one long party, Kitty and Ginny spent the summer of 1928 at Minne-Wonka again -- their fifth annual retreat to Wisconsin -- this time as camp counselors.

Once they returned to school for their sophomore year, however, Ginny didn't hang out with Kitty as much. Differing sororities played a role. "We sort of grew apart," Ginny lamented.

There were other gravitational pulls. Kitty was devoting more of her time to the music and theater departments. Surrounded by scores of extroverted actors and ambitious singers, Kitty had her hands full trying to elbow her way into these highly competitive cliques.

"While other girls posed in front of mirrors trying to look like Norma Talmadge and Vilma Banky," Kay later mused, "I wore myself out working for personality."

Don't let her fool you. Kitty was equally concerned about her looks. She had matured early into her adult size: 121 pounds, five feet five-and-a-half inches tall. "I know that I give the impression of being tall," she was later quoted, "so I avoid stripes especially. When I have my shoes on, with their higher heels, I am about five feet six-and-one-half or seven inches." She may have had the body of a woman, but she still had the face of a kid with red hair, freckles, and an unfortunate nose. This mug worked fine for comedic performances, but if she was going to be taken seriously as a torch singer, she needed sophistication.

"Make me like Carole Lombard," Kitty told flummoxed hairdressers and makeup artists at the Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney cosmetics counter, showing them magazine photos of her favorite actress. At that time, the young Lombard was a teen idol who, after a disfiguring automobile accident, had just undergone her very own makeover with the aid of advanced plastic surgery, state-of-the-art makeup, and a tireless publicist. Lombard's ordeal was great fodder for fan magazines and Kitty attentively followed her every move on the road back from tragedy. Details from Lombard's life story -- dropping out of school, her use of a stage name, her hair and makeup techniques, even her plastic surgery -- all eventually became essential to the creation of Kay Thompson.

However, even after her accident and recovery, Lombard was still a knockout, so Kitty's wish to look like her was a very tall order indeed. Without the aid of Hollywood magicians, Kitty had to rely on St. Louis hair and makeup folk to do the best they could.

When she turned eighteen, Kitty got the first of many nose jobs -- a battle zone that would forever remain a work in progress.

"With my new appearance, my collection of fraternity pins jumped by leaps and bounds," Kay later boasted. "I've got more than fifty tucked away at home."

It also helped her land a part-time singing job with a band, earning a whopping $125 per week. She ran home and reported the news to her stunned father.

"I won't need my allowance anymore," Kitty proudly announced.

"What?" Leo said, shocked by her good fortune. "They pay you for making those noises that drove us crazy? Something is wrong somewhere." In spite of her father's hurtful cynicism, Kitty had become a campus celebrity.

Excerpted from Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise by Sam Irvin. Copyright 2010 by Sam Irvin. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster.

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