Rabid curiosity was the force that drove me to write Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise
on the jaw-dropping life and career of entertainer Kay Thompson (1909-1998). As a kid, I had fallen in love with Thompson's series of Eloise books
(about the impish little girl who lives at The Plaza in New York). When I got older, I was blown away by Thompson's striking portrayal of the fashion magazine editor in Funny Face
, and how she so effortlessly stole the movie right out from under Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. (Her über chic opening number "Think Pink!" is a fashionista anthem.) At first, I did not realize that this
Kay Thompson was the same Kay Thompson who had written Eloise
. But eventually, I put two and two together and, from then on, I kept my eyes and ears peeled for any additional information about this fascinating woman. My jaw has not stopped yo-yoing ever since.
A major radio star in the 1930s, the head of MGM's vocal department in the 1940s, and the highest paid nightclub act in the 1950s, Kay had already cut a wide swath through the arts before Eloise and Funny Face solidified her status as a pop culture icon. But, unbeknownst to the general public, she was also a star maker. She was the indispensable vocal coach for Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and a hundred other major artists. She also mentored her goddaughter, Liza Minnelli, and lived with her during the final years of her life.
Of all her protégés, however, Andy Williams was her most beloved pet and the story behind their unique bond was perhaps the most surprising of all. From a tiny Iowa farm town, Andy and his three older siblings, Dick, Don, and Bob, had formed a singing quartet known as the Williams Brothers and had come to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune in movies. In 1944, when Andy was just 16 years old, the foursome was signed by MGM to appear in Anchors Aweigh and Ziegfeld Follies but before cameras got rolling, eldest brother Bob was drafted into military service, resulting in the group being unceremoniously dumped by the studio. However, with her uncanny ability to spot diamonds in the rough, Kay was not so hasty as to dismiss the remaining boys. She immediately hired Andy, Dick, and Don to join the large choir she arranged and conducted to sing on the soundtracks of MGM musicals. For instance, in Harvey Girls (MGM, 1946), when Judy Garland performs her big showstopper, "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" (Thompson's most acclaimed vocal arrangement), the off-screen backup chorus includes Andy, Dick, and Don.
As time went on, Kay grew weary of working behind the scenes so, in 1947, she decided to leave MGM and springboard herself to stardom on what she liked to call "the saloon circuit." By then, Bob had finished his military duty, so Kay drafted the reunited Williams Brothers into service as her personal backup group. Chemistry combusted and, in the blink of an eye, Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers became the hottest nightclub act in America, breaking records at top supper clubs in Vegas, Hollywood, Miami, Chicago, and New York.
But there was a lot more to the story. On April 12, 1948, columnist Dorothy Kilgallen raised a lot of eyebrows with her shocking scoop, "Sensational Kay Thompson's big romance is Andy Williams."
Could this really be true? Kay was old enough to be his mother — a worldly, sophisticated woman of 38 (and, oh, by the way, twice divorced). Having just turned 20, Andy still seemed like a boy fresh off the farm.
"To say that I am flabbergasted by the rumor linking me romantically with a Williams brother is a masterpiece of understatement," Thompson protested to columnist Florabel Muir in Daily Variety.
For a time, the gossip died down. Their togetherness was chalked up to the simple fact that they were touring. A business relationship. But, when the act was dissolved in 1953, Kay and Andy remained steadfastly joined at the hip for another eight years as she singlehandedly guided his every move as he became a solo sensation in television, records, and nightclubs.
Their story read like Pygmalion, including the inevitable declaration of independence, which came in October 1961 when Andy stopped the flow of commission royalties that Kay had been collecting on his work. And then, two months later, Andy up and married a 19-year-old Vegas showgirl named Claudine Longet. Kay did not attend the wedding and, shortly thereafter, she dropped everything on her plate (including her Eloise cottage industry) and moved to Rome.
The dissolution of any business relationship can be traumatic, but the split between Kay and Andy felt much more like a divorce. The more I researched, the more I became convinced that they must have been romantically involved — but how could I prove it? Kay had gone to her grave denying it. And when Vanity Fair's writer-at-large Marie Brenner broached the subject for her 1996 profile of Thompson, Andy pooh-poohed the notion as poppycock.
In 2002, four years after Kay died, I met face-to-face with Andy in the palatial dressing room of his Moon River Theater in Branson, Missouri. I hoped that, by then, he might be more open to delving into the particulars of his relationship with Kay. After taking the scenic route, I finally got around to posing the big question: "Is there any truth to the rumors that you and Kay were romantically involved?"
By rote, Andy parroted the answer he'd always given: "No." But then, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he looked at me and said, "I'm not going to tell you everything. I have to save some stories for my memoir."
Aha! I was onto something. I could feel it. But, like an unspoken gentlemen's agreement, he was saving that scoop for his book, not mine. Luckily, I was in no rush. I had years of research ahead of me. I just hoped that, in the meantime, Andy would follow through with his memoir.
Seven years later, during the final nail-biting weeks before my manuscript was due at Simon & Schuster, an advance galley of Andy's 2009 memoir, Moon River and Me (Viking Press) landed on my desk. To my great elation, though hardly a surprise, Andy had finally come clean. They had been secret lovers for years. Everything I had come to suspect was true and now I could write about it as fact.
When advance galleys of my book were ready, I had my editor at Simon & Schuster, the legendary Alice Mayhew, send one to Mr. Williams, inviting him to provide an endorsement blurb for the dust jacket. A few weeks later, my phone rang. It was Andy. He said he had thoroughly enjoyed reading the book but asked if there was still time to make changes.
My heart sank. Fearing the worst, I admitted, "Yes, there is still time."
"Good," Andy responded, "because on page 186, it mentions that my brother Bob had settled down to raise a family in San Francisco, but it was actually the San Fernando Valley."
"That's an easy fix," I said. But what about the elephant in the room? Gingerly, I inquired, "Was I fair in how I presented your relationship with Kay?"
"Yes," said Andy. "Very fair."
Whew. My patience had paid off. And having Andy's blessing was worth every minute of the seven-year wait.