Kay Thompson

Kay Thompson

Hilary Knight's 1996 portrait of Kay Thompson for Vanity Fair.
Born Catherine Louise Fink
(1909-11-09)November 9, 1909
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
Died July 2, 1998(1998-07-02) (aged 88)
New York City
Nationality American
Occupation Author, composer, musician, actress, singer.
Spouse(s) Jack Jenney (1937–39; divorced)
William Spier (1942–47; divorced)
Parent(s) Leo George Fink
Harriet Adelaide "Hattie" Tetrick

Kay Thompson (born Catherine Louise Fink; November 9, 1909[1] – July 2, 1998) was an American author, composer, musician, actress and singer. She is best known as the creator of the Eloise children's books.

Early life and family

Thompson was born Catherine Louise Fink in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1909, the second of the four children of Leo George Fink (1874–1939), an Austrian-born pawnbroker and jeweler, of at least partial Jewish descent, and his wife, Harriet Adelaide "Hattie" Tetrick (born August 6, ca. 1886 – December 26, 1954), a Christian. Thompson's parents were married on November 29, 1905, in East St. Louis, St. Clair County, Illinois.[2][3]

Thompson's siblings were: Blanche Margaret Fink, Mrs. Hurd (born January 28, 1907 – died May 31, 2002); Leo George "Bud" Fink, Jr. (born March 20, 1911 – died June 10, 1952), and Marian Antoinette Fink, Mrs. Doenges (born August 20, 1912 – died January 4, 1960).[2]

Radio work

Thompson began her career in the 1930s as a singer and choral director for radio. Her first big break was as a regular singer on the Bing Crosby-Woodbury Show Bing Crosby Entertains (CBS, 1933–34). This led to a regular spot on The Fred Waring-Ford Dealers Show (NBC, 1934–35) and then, with conductor Lennie Hayton, she co-founded The Lucky Strike Hit Parade (CBS, 1935) where she met (and later married) trombonist Jack Jenney. Thompson and Her Rhythm Singers joined André Kostelanetz and His Orchestra for the hit series The Chesterfield Radio Program (CBS, 1936), followed by It's Chesterfield Time (CBS, 1937) for which Thompson and her large choir were teamed with Hal Kemp and His Orchestra.[4][5][6][7]

For her motion picture debut, Kay and her choir performed two songs in the Republic Pictures musical Manhattan Merry-Go-Round (1937). In 1939, she reunited with André Kostelanetz for Tune-Up Time (CBS), a show that was produced by radio legend William Spier (who later married Kay in 1942). On an installment of Tune-Up Time in April 1939, 16-year-old Judy Garland was a guest. It was at this time that Kay first met and worked with Judy, developing a close personal friendship and professional association that lasted the rest of Garland's life.[8]


Guest stars for the 1961 premiere episode of The Dick Powell Show, "Who Killed Julie Greer?". Standing, from left: Ronald Reagan, Nick Adams, Lloyd Bridges, Mickey Rooney, Edgar Bergen, Jack Carson, Ralph Bellamy, Kay Thompson, Dean Jones. Seated, from left, Carolyn Jones and Dick Powell.

In 1943 Thompson signed an exclusive contract with MGM to become the studio's top vocal arranger, vocal coach, and choral director. She served as main vocal arranger for many of producer Arthur Freed's MGM musicals and as vocal coach to such stars as Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, and June Allyson. She was vocal arranger for Ziegfeld Follies (1946), The Harvey Girls (1946), Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), Good News (1947) and other films. After working on The Pirate (1948) with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, she left MGM to create the night club act "Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers". She wrote the songs and Robert Alton did the original choreography for the act.[9]

As a film actress, Thompson played one major role only: that of fashion editor Maggie Prescott in the musical Funny Face (1957). Reunited with her colleagues from MGM, producer and songwriter Roger Edens and director Stanley Donen, Thompson garnered critical praise for her stylish turn as an editor based on real-life Harper's Bazaar editor, Diana Vreeland, opening the film with her splashy "Think Pink!" and performing duets with Astaire and Hepburn.[10]

In a December 6, 2006, interview on Turner Classic Movies, Donen said that Funny Face was made at Paramount with a primarily MGM crew, including Donen, Edens and Thompson, because Paramount Pictures would not release Hepburn for any film except one made at Paramount. Thompson only acted in one additional feature film, 1970's Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, because, according to its star Liza Minnelli, Thompson disliked the slow speed of production.[10]


Thompson, who lived at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, became most notable as the author of the Eloise series of children's books. The books have been speculated to be partly inspired by the antics of her goddaughter Liza Minnelli, daughter of Judy Garland and film director Vincente Minnelli, though when asked if this was true, Thompson responded, "I am Eloise." The four books in the series, illustrated by Hilary Knight, are Eloise (Simon & Schuster, 1955), Eloise in Paris (Simon & Schuster, 1957), Eloise at Christmastime (Random House, 1958) and Eloise in Moscow (Simon & Schuster, 1959). They follow the adventures of the precocious six-year-old girl who lives at The Plaza. All were bestsellers upon release and have been adapted into television projects. Thompson composed and performed a Top 40 hit song, "Eloise" (Cadence Records, 1956).[11][12][13]

A fifth book, Eloise Takes a Bawth, was posthumously published by Simon & Schuster in 2002, culled from Thompson's original manuscripts once slated for 1964 publication by Harper & Row. However, at the time, Thompson was burned out on Eloise; she blocked publication and took all but the first book out of print.[14]


As a singer, Thompson made very few records, starting with one side, "Take a Number from One to Ten", on a 1934 session by the Tom Coakley band. In 1935, she recorded four sides for Brunswick ("You Hit The Spot", "You Let Me Down," "Don't Mention Love To Me," and "Out of Sight, Out of Mind"), and another four sides for Victor. The 4 Brunswick sides are excellent examples of mid-1930's sophisticated New York cabaret singing. She later recorded for Capitol, Columbia, Decca, and, most importantly, for MGM Records, which issued her only complete album of songs, in 1954. In February 1956, Thompson wrote and recorded the song "Eloise" at Cadence Records with an orchestra conducted by Archie Bleyer. The song debuted on March 10, 1956, and became a Top 40 hit, selling over 100,000 copies.

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Kay mentored the solo career of the young Andy Williams. She helped land him a regular singing spot on NBC-TV's new late-night series, The Tonight Show, hosted by Steve Allen. She got her friend Archie Bleyer to add Andy to the roster of artists on his label Cadence Records where she wrote many of the songs Andy recorded, including the 1958 Top 20 hit "Promise Me, Love". Although it had been denied for decades, Williams claimed in his 2009 memoir, Moon River and Me (Viking Press), that he and Thompson had been secret lovers for several years, despite the age gap between them. She later recorded a spoken-word album for Signature Records, Let's Talk About Russia, which detailed her adventures in Moscow. Signature released a single of two songs by Thompson, "Dasvidanya" and "Moscow Cha Cha". She served as an adviser to Patti Page's 1957 television series, The Big Record.

Thompson kept busy with nightclub and television performances, as well as overseeing her successful "Eloise" franchise. She returned to live in New York in 1969. Immediately following the death of Judy Garland in 1969, Thompson appeared with her goddaughter Liza Minnelli in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970). In 1974, Thompson directed a fashion show at the Palace of Versailles, featuring a performance by Minnelli and the collections of Halston, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Anne Klein.[2]


Thompson eventually moved into Minnelli's Upper East Side penthouse. She was found unconscious in bed and rushed to Lenox Hill Hospital, where she was officially pronounced dead on July 2, 1998, aged 88. Her body was cremated and the ashes transferred to her next of kin, her older sister, Blanche Margaret Fink Hurd (1907–2002), of Woodland Hills, California. When Mrs. Hurd died in 2002, her body was cremated as well. In 2007 Julie Hurd Szende confirmed that the ashes of both her mother and aunt were in her possession.[2]

Personal life

Thomspon was married twice:




  1. "In the St. Louis Registry of Births, in the volume covering the period July 1909 – January 1910, on page 85, is the following entry: "Catherine Louise Fink, November 9, 1909."
    Kay Thompson official website, kaythompsonwebsite.com; accessed July 26, 2015.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Biographical endnotes from Sam Irvin's biography of Thompson, Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, published 2010 by Simon & Schuster; accessed May 15, 2014.
  3. Kay Thompson biography at eloisewebsite.com; accessed May 15, 2014.
  4. "kaythompsonwebsite.com", page 67~73.
  5. "Kay Thompson - "All Over Nothing at All" (1937) - YouTube"
  6. "1937 Kay Thompson - Carelessly - YouTube"
  7. "1937 Kay Thompson - There's A Lull In My Life - YouTube"
  8. "kaythompsonwebsite.com"
  9. Kay Thompson at the Internet Movie Database
  10. 1 2 Robert Osborne: "Why didn't she do more movies?" Liza Minnelli: "She didn't like it [filmmaking]... It was too slow", Private Screenings, TCM, December 11, 2010; accessed May 15, 2014.
  11. "kaythompsonwebsite.com", page 337~339. Whitburn, Joel. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 3rd ed. New York: Billboard Publications, 1987, page 304.
  12. "Kay Thompson sings - YouTube"
  13. "RARE Novlety Record "Eloise" by Kay Thompson - YouTube"
  14. Amy Benfer. "Will the real Eloise please stand up?", salon.com, June 1, 1999.
  15. St. Louis Walk of Fame. "St. Louis Walk of Fame Inductees". stlouiswalkoffame.org. Retrieved April 25, 2013.
  16. "Kay Thompson & Fred Astaire - Clap Yo' Hands - Song from Funny Face (9 of 10) - YouTube"
  17. "Liza's At The Palace - Clap Yo' Hands - YouTube"
  18. "Kay Thompson Website"
  19. "kaythompsonwebsite.com", page 244, 311.
  20. "Liza's At The Palace - Hello, Hello - YouTube"
  21. Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, by Sam Irvin, published in November 2010 by Simon & Schuster
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