kay thompson eloise funny face

I often tell people it would take a tidal wave to get me out of New York. I mean – when prompted – not just at random. When people say, “Do you think I should make pancakes with smiley faces on them for breakfast”, I do not reply “Goddamn, it would take a tidal wave to get me off the island of Manhattan!” I mean, I could, but they would think I had suffered a psychotic break. And then I would not get smiley face pancakes – or maybe I would receive an inordinate number.

Maybe the pancakes would look like this:

sad pancakes

So, as I am writing this, New York is being hit by an 11 foot wall of water. I imagine when I wake up in the morning my neighborhood will look like something out of The Day After Tomorrow. I have always wondered why people did not just locate submarines and survive the tidal wave in that movie. It turns out it’s because submarines are really hard to find! At no point in today’s in-depth coverage did NY1 direct me to a place where I could acquire a submarine.

I don’t know why NY1 wants us to die. I guess because New Yorkers really only watch that channel when there is some sort of tidal wave approaching – otherwise one of its main features is someone literally reading the headlines from the newspaper – and the newscasters probably hate us.

So I mostly just sat in my apartment, which is in no way, shape or form a submarine, and thought about when I decided that  New York City was the kind of place worth going down in a tidal wave.

It all probably started, as it does for so many people, with Eloise.

I cannot describe how much I loved Eloise as a child.

Did you read the Eloise books when you were a kid? God, they were terrific. Eloise was the little girl who wrecked absolute havoc all over The Plaza hotel. The most famous phrase of the books is probably:

I am Eloise
I am six
I am a city child
I live at The Plaza

Like this:


(I took down my copy of Eloise from the shelf where it is prominently displayed for all to see.)

But the part that I love most is the copy on the jacket flap, which reads:

Eloise is a little girl
Who lives at The Plaza Hotel
In New York
She is not yet pretty
but she is already a Person
Henry James would want to study her
Queen Victoria would recognize her as an equal
The New York Jets would want to have her on their side
Lewis Carroll would love her
(once he got over the initial shock)
She knows everything about The Plaza
She is interested in people when they are not boring
She has Inner Resources

It’s crazy to realize that this book was written in 1955. I mean, that was the height of the post-war, Leave it to Beaver era. Women thought it was their duty to be beautiful, and this was the top song on the charts:


It was not a subversive age. The Feminine Mystique wasn’t even published yet. Books for girls were generally about how to be good wives and mothers. And yet.

Eloise was not yet pretty, but she was still a person.

And she was only 6, but she was the equal of Queen Victoria.

OK, she wasn’t perfect. There are a lot of legitimate questions about Eloise and the people who love her books. In Judging a Book By Its Lover, Lauren Leto writes of Eloise lovers:

“Narcissist” is too easy and much too simple a word to describe Eloise fans. Those nosy gossips with a taste for high-class clubbing and the ability to seek out the best sample sales will be moving straight to a big city after college graduation. Just wait for their e-mails eagerly sharing their photos on The Sartorialist and mentions in the local gossip rag.

I bet Lauren Leto is secretly an Eloise fan.

God knows, I am, and I’d probably plaster Sartorialist pictures of myself all over Facebook if there were any. (I should really start riding around on a vintage bicycle).

And what I love now, almost as much as I love Eloise, is the way Kay Thompson came up with the idea of her heroine. I don’t know how the characters in most children’s books are created – I imagine there are, perhaps, focus groups with kids – but I expect most of these characters do not start with car crashes.

Eloise began with a car crash.

There are different versions of this story, and certainly embellishments have built over the years, but here is what happened, as I understand it . . . Kay Thompson was late to meet some friends, and she was drunk. She careened her car over a golf course on the way to the gathering, eventually crashing onto her friend’s front lawn. Everyone ran out of the house screaming, “Kay, what the hell are you doing?”

She responded in a child’s voice, “I am not Kay. I am Eloise. I am six.”

Best response for anything ever. 

Kay then adopted the quirk of talking in the voice of her creation for the rest of her life. She claimed that she mastered Eloise’s pattern of speech just by listening to her own, little person voice and then copying it down. She also signed copies of Eloise both with her own name and with the name of Eloise, as you can see here:

kay thompason signature

McCalls magazine interviewed her in 1957, and her speech was pure Eloise patter. The reporter wrote:

“Please give me room service,” said Kay Thompson. As she held the telephone, she lit a cigarette, did a couple of dance steps, hummed, pulled on a lock of hair and finally flung herself on the couch, two long legs over the back. From here she leaped up again, sang a few bars in a deep throaty voice, and then, her voice changing entirely to a childish prattle, said, “Hello, room service? This is me. Eloise. Here’s what I want. Hot coffee. Hot, hot, hot. Here’s what I don’t want. To wait for it. So you skibble right up here, will you, please? Otherwise I feel as if I might sklonk someone.”

Miss Thompson received her coffee almost immediately and nobody was sklonked.

Oh, God, if she had a turtle and a nanny with her she would have been Eloise personified. It would have been impossible to tell them apart.

But who was Kay Thompson, really – separate of Eloise?

Not a ton is recorded about her early life – she didn’t like to focus on the past – but Rex Reed wrote:

We do know she started playing jazz piano at the age of 4 and at the age of 15 performed Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Fantasy” with the St. Louis Symphony, tripping over a potted palm on her way off the stage. At 17, she moved to California, changed her name from Kitty Fink, got a severe nose job and invented Kay Thompson.

Other than the nose job, she was a notable singer and radio personality before she ever started writing books. The problem early in Kay’s career was that, while she had a terrific voice, she didn’t have the right feminine look for the times.

In his biography, Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, Sam Irvin talks about Kay’s early days. She had been performing – pretty successfully – on radio, and had a program called the Kay Thompson Festival, when she approached MGM about movie roles. Irvin writes:

“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, Kay, that is fantastic. Now who are we going to get to sing it in the movie?’ “

This is, incidentally, what Kay Thompson looked like. I don’t know about you, but I think she looked just fine.

kay thompson

Finally, in 1947, at the age of 38, she decided to give up trying to be accepted by MGM. She was going to start her own nightclub act, with the Williams Brothers (19 year old Andy Williams and his brothers). Later Andy Williams went on to record seventeen gold albums. Despite the age difference, he and Kay had a romantic affair during their time performing together and unlike, say Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, they maintained a warm, respectful relationship throughout their lives, often singing back-up in each other’s songs.

But that is not the point.

The point is that this act fucking killed.

A reviewer remarked:

No candy-box beauty, lean, angular Kay Thompson was simply one of the well-paid but subsidiary hirelings that some Hollywoodians call “movie trash.” Last week, movie trash became nightclub treasure.

In the polar calm of Hollywood’s Ciro’s, whose audiences are notoriously cool to anyone who isn’t yet fashionable in Manhattan, Kay Thompson was packing them in at $3,000 a week. Dressed in one of her 25 sleek slack-suits, comedienne Thompson stepped into the spotlight, looking like a caricature of the neurotic world-weary woman of the 20’s. Bouncing about behind her were four young mobile-faced Williams brothers, who served as kind of a combination corps de ballet and hot choir. Anything went: patter, pantomime or pratfalls, and Pauvre Suzette, a song about a young woman with a Restoration bosom. Says Kay: “We ram it down their throats.”

And people loved having it rammed down their throats. I wish I could find a better picture of this, but I think you get the feel for some of it here:

kay thompson

Meanwhile, Life magazine declared:

Miss Thompson is a 35-year-old-stringbean who looks like a savage caricature of Beatrice Lillie. She began as a piano prodigy, drifted into radio and finally became a highly successful writer of funny movie songs – for other performers. But a few months ago Miss Thompson did some of her own satiric routines at Ciro’s in Hollywood. Her loud, athletic imitations and burlesques made her an overnight sensation. Miss Thompson is now appearing in Chicago’s Mayfair Room and in a few weeks will play Miami for $15,000 a week. Pleased, she judges her act as merely “the greatest that ever hit humanity.”

It’s hard to call her an overnight sensation when her career had started so many years before, but, suddenly, the name Kay Thompson was on everyone’s lips. So. If you are in your twenties, and not breaking through, don’t despair. Kay Thompson was nearly 40 before she did.

Irvin writes that after that:

“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.”

I love this story.

So, Kay was a hit, at last, and MGM was begging for her. By 1957 she had written Eloise and then started an Eloise enterprise. Its merchandise included a phonograph record called Absolutely Christmas Time and a set of French postcards suitable for Eloise fans. It was not merely a shop. It was Eloise LTD, with headquarters at The Plaza.

And that year Funny Face came out. Kay is probably best remembered for this movie. In it, she plays a female editor supposedly based on the famously eccentric Diana Vreeland, who was the EIC of Vogue during the 1950s (and who I may turn into a Shelved Doll at some point, if I can get over how consciously whimsical she seems). Some people will tell you that Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire are the stars of Funny Face, but those people have never sat down and carefully watched the Think Pink scene. Here is that scene, which is wonderful:


Isn’t she the best? And you know, I’m not the only one who thinks that she is wonderful. Irvin notes that:

“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.”

It’s pretty cool the way Kay could do absolutely everything ever.

During all this time, Kay had a pretty intense friendship with Judy Garland. Now! Some people say that they were lovers. They probably weren’t, but, hell, you can still speculate about that endlessly. We do know for sure that Kay scored many of Garland’s musical parts during the 1940s, and played an important role in shaping some of the standards Garland is remembered for, such as On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe. Have you heard that song? I hadn’t. Here. It’s a really nice song:


Kay. All Kay. Okay, Kay, with a little bit of Judy in there.

But the most important thing about their friendship was probably the fact that Judy Garland made Kay the godmother of her daughter, Liza Minelli.

The two were in attendance at Liza’s first performance when she was 13. Liza remembers that they both cried uncontrollably throughout. She also recalls that the performance lasted exactly 22 seconds.

Though her most notable successes came in the 1950s, Kay had a wonderful time well into the 1960s and 70s. She attended Halston’s first fashion show. She taught Prince Albert of Monaco how to “sell a song” at a charity benefit. She sometimes stopped traffic on Fifth Avenue when she sauntered down the street covered in bones and turkey feathers (again, if only we could find a picture!). She also periodically went out in a prison uniform, with a scarf wrapped around it. I don’t know if that qualifies as a wonderful fashion moment, but it surely qualifies as . . . something.

Toward the end of her life, she fell heavily into coke. In an odd bit of trivia she’d always been a big drinker of liquid Coke (she thought the red cans were really chic) but, you know, the other kind. She also began receiving B-12 injections that were almost entirely speed. This regimen did allow her to keep her famously trim figure – and to party with her goddaughter, Liza, at Studio 54 – but it kind of ruined everything else.

Her money ran out and she became increasingly reclusive. Fortunately, Liza let her move into her apartment, and took care of her until Kay’s death in 1998.

Liza said, “The greatest gift my parents ever gave me was my Godmother. No one was as brilliant or as funny.”

The last thing Kay said to Liza was “take care of Eloise.”

Kay said that the secret of life was “a lot of hard work, a lot of sense of humor, a lot of joy and a lot of tra-la-la!” I’m tempted to fall back on a paraphrase “she was not pretty, but she was still a person”, but, no, to hell with that . . . she was pretty. And she was certainly more than your average person. As far as I’m concerned she is the equal of Queen Victoria.

Additional Reading:

Eloise, A Book For Precocious Grown-Ups, by Kay Thompson

Kay Thompson: From Funny Face To Eloise, by Sam Irvin

“Dizzy Making”, Time Magazine, 1947

“Kay Thompson Spoof Stage Stars,” Life Magazine, 1948

Oh, Kay, You’re Okay With Me!, New York Observer, 1998


Pics via

Wikipedia, Scrubs, Kay Thompson, Time Magazine