Apr. 8th, 2014

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Kay Thompson, Sam Irwin. To refresh your memory, Kay Thompson trained as a singer and pianist, started out as a singer on the radio, and began doing arrangements. She had several radio shows, then moved on to Broadway, where she wrote and arranged songs but never hit the big time as an actress. She went to MGM in the 40s, where she did arrangements and coached singers like Lena Horne and Judy Garland. She was Liza Minelli's godmother. Then she left the studio to sing and dance in a nightclub act with the Andy Williams and his brothers. Naturally, she arranged all their music and choreographed their dancing in a new energetic style - by the way, she and Andy were lovers. The act was a huge hit in New York and Las Vegas. Around 1955 she finally got around to writing a book about the character she'd drop into to make her friends laugh, a little girl named Eloise. She was a huge hit, too, and Kay wrote several sequels. Somewhere in there she finally got a worthy movie role, the fashion editor in "Funny Face". She never got another good movie role and eventually stopped doing cabaret, but in 1973 she directed a legendary fashion show of American designers at Versailles. When Judy Garland died, she stepped up to manage her funeral and Liza says she was the person who stood behind her and her sister with her arms around them. Liza was a loyal friend, too; in Kay’s last years she had her move in to her apartment.
I really enjoyed this biography. Sam Irwin, who started out as Brian De Palma's assistant and went on to direct and produce movies including one of my favorites, Gods and Monsters, was hired to direct a documentary on the history of Eloise, and once he started interviewing people, he realized her story should be a book and that he had the passion to do it. He had no idea how big the project would be! He talked to what seems like hundreds of people - Kay knew everybody in Hollywood and on Broadway - and learned her family history from her niece and nephew. Her journey through radio and on to Hollywood has lots of great stories - she had a feud with Mary Martin, of all people - and while Irwin clearly loves her, he doesn't hesitate to point out when she made bad decisions or was her own worst enemy.
The theme that emerges in Kay's later years is that while she had tremendous musical and acting talent, she was a perfectionist who had to be in control. Noel Coward wanted her for the role of Madame Arcati in a musical version of Blythe Spirit and to star in Sail Away, another Broadway show, but she refused these and other roles. She claimed she had a complex about working on Broadway because of being let go from shows when she was starting out; the truth was she just couldn't commit to anything if she couldn't be in charge. She was almost signed as the friend of Rosalind Russell in the movie version of Auntie Mame but made so many demands that she was replaced by Coral Browne. There are many stories like that. As for her books, Hilary Knight, the illustrator of Eloise, eventually refused to work with her because she was so insistent on doing things her way. It's frustrating that for whatever reason, she didn't make more movies or write more books. I wish I'd known her!

May 2016

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