Kay Thompson’s Other Life

With her goddaughter (and some say model for Eloise) Liza Minnelli

I’m not going to expound tons on Kay Thompson (Catherine Louise Fink, 1909-1998), but I do want to spring on you a fact, well known only to one American subculture, which may come as a relevation to many.

If you were a kid who loved books, than you already know Thompson in one very specific connection: as the author of the Eloise books throughout the 1950s, about a little girl who has the run of New York’s Plaza Hotel. I would venture to guest that these days not only is she primarily known in that connection, but nearly exclusively known for those books. The rub is, that she only wrote those books as a side project, a lark. The main focus of Thompson’s life was very different. Her main career was that she was a singer and vocal arranger. She’d started out in the early ’30s on radio, on the programs of Bing Crosby, Fred Waring, and others. From 1944 through 1947 she was a vocal arranger for Hollywood musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), and ‘Til the Clouds Roll By (1946). (All of those I just mentioned featured Judy Garland, who was to become her good friend).

In 1947 Thompson formed a night club act called Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers. One of those brothers was of course, Andy Williams. Thompson was to become his vocal coach, arranger, manager, mentor and lover (despite an 18 year age difference) through 1961. In 1957 she had a memorable supporting role in the musical Funny Face, for which she also did vocal arranging. (She played bit roles in many films prior to this). In 1970, she appeared in the film Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, with her god-daughter Liza Minnelli. She continued to perform in night clubs and cabarets while living in New York in her last decades.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,