Book Reviews

KAY THOMPSON: From Funny Face to Eloise

By • Dec 15th, 2011 •

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I read this 384-page book in one sitting, something I don’t do very often, but Sam Irvin has done such a great service to those of us who love larger than life personalities that the life of Kay Thompson deserved my full attention. There are probably few outside of the New York/Hollywood-over-40-show-biz-crowd that would even remember who this remarkable lady was, and that is another reason to rejoice at what Mr. Irvin has done in painstakingly researching this fabulous woman from her early days in St Louis as the impossibly named Kitty Fink right through her rise to power in Hollywood as the woman behind most of the creative talent at MGM {Kay was the vocal coach for many of the biggest names in town}.

Now for me this woman resonated straight away because I had spent a certain part of my life as a Talent agent in Hollywood and difficult actresses were commonplace, yet so few had the talent to make you go the distance in being a part of their lives. Kay Thompson achieved immortality as the author of a series of very adult children’s books centered around a six yr old mascot of the legendary Plaza hotel in New York. A cottage industry has long been in place to maintain this character well into the 21st century.

Kay Thompson came into my life much the same way she came into Sam Irvin’s, as a thinly veiled Diana Vreeland parody in Stanley Donen’s FUNNY FACE. In what was to have been an Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire showcase, Kay Thompson simply steals every scene she is in. The highlight being her rendition of the “THINK PINK” number which rocked the house as if Auntie Mame all of the sudden had a musical number in it. The irony here is, of course, that Kay Thompson was the original choice to play Vera Charles to Roz Russell’s Mame.

Kay Thompson should have been a huge star after her performance in FUNNY FACE, yet a combination of ego and bad judgment created a decidedly different story for the diva in question. This situation has played out many times before with powerhouse personalities like Isadora Duncan and especially the Machesa Casati whose life story would be filmed sort of by Vincente Minnelli as his ill conceived swan song A MATTER OF TIME, in which his daughter by Judy Garland, Liza, played an ugly duckling to a very miscast Ingrid Bergman. Kay was also considered for the Bergman role, however fate intervened so she would be spared the comparison to her own life of excess. Sam Irvin has gone the distance in locating and connecting all the dots in the zany world in which Kay Thompson lived, going from Hollywood to New York, then Rome, where she drifted as surely as if her old classmate Tennessee Williams had written her into his Roman Spring as a real life Mrs Stone. This is an exhaustive biography making Kay Thompson the skeleton key for anyone interested in Broadway or Hollywood from an insider,s perspective.

The person who shines through most of Kay’s later years is Liza Minnelli, who Kay took in hand after the death of her mother Judy Garland. It would be through Kay’s optimism and genius of knowing what would work for her young protege that Liza was able to blossom into a world-class entertainer. Liza never forgot this attention, and if not for Liza’s generosity this biography would have ended in a decidedly more macabre manner than it does. Kay was given a place to live in style for the rest of her life and for that alone Liza Minnelli deserves our admiration and respect.

I could easily go on and on citing more of what Sam Irvin has done right in bringing this amazing talent back into the limelight where she has always belonged. There are others like Kay who deserve the Sam Irvin treatment and I am going to suggest right here and now that he consider doing a biography of Dolores Gray, another showstopper who never really made that many films and became a sensation in cabaret. Dolores had the same effect Kay had in FUNNY FACE whenever she was onscreen in the MGM remake of KISMET. Francis Faye also come to mind as another lady whose talents made her a world wide sensation yet remains relatively unknown today.

What Sam Irvin has done in writing this book is simply smashing, he has brought back one of the bright lights of both Broadway and New York at a time when we really need to be reminded just how entertainers like Madonna and Lady GAGA were allowed to exist in the first place…..you owe it to yourself to spend an evening with Kay Thompson and THINK PINK!

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One Response »

  1. Wow! Thanks for your extremely kind words about my book. I am so thrilled that you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it! I truly appreciate your help in spreading the high-octane gospel according to Kay!

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