‘Kay Thompson’ by Sam Irvin

As a fan of Kay Thompson’s precocious storybook character Eloise, it was with great excitement that I began reading Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, the new biography written by Sam Irvin. Although I’d known very little about her show business career, I was interested to learn about the woman behind the storybook, especially details surrounding her rumored queerness.

Thompson’s ultimately highly successful career was a product of hard and strategic work. She was born in St. Louis and began performing locally as a teenager before moving to California. Once there she began working with MGM, becoming friends with Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Lucille Ball amongst other celebrities/now gay icons.

Over the course of her career, and despite several heterosexual marriages, Thompson was rumored to be a lesbian. It’s difficult to ascertain just how Thompson herself identified, and Irvin cited instances and accounts that seemed conflicting.

A strong basis for the rumors appeared to have been connected to Thompson’s abandonment of what were considered the appropriate gender roles of the time. Friends described her as always and only wearing pants, and others said that they considered her to be “mannish.” Elizabeth Newburger Rinker, a chorus member with Kay in the 1930s, was quoted in the book as having said, “Kay was the kind of girl that all the other girls in camp would have crushes on.”

At another point she was referenced as “the elegantly butch Kay Thompson” by writer Carolyn Wheat. One popular rumor was that she and Judy Garland were romantically involved. Garland’s daughter denies the rumor, but Irvin discusses the fair amount of gossip connected to it in 1945. I was, however, interested and surprised by how Irvin seemed set on discrediting all rumors about the possibility of Thompson being gay.

On the whole, it is Thompson’s fascinating life that carries the book. Irvin’s writing was at best weak and at worst distracting. His continued reliance upon the most tired of clichés had me cringing page after page. Despite Irvin, the book is an interesting read for those with any interest in the life of Kay Thompson, or fascination with show business and the golden age of Hollywood.
From Funny Face to Eloise
By Sam Irvin
Simon & Schuster
Hardcover, 9781439176535, 432pp.
November 2010