Chapter OneKitty Fink Becomes Kay Thompson
(1909–32)In a year Which Shall be Nameless
In east St. Louis
This enfant prodique,
This miracle, lyrical,
Slightly hysterical Gal Was Born.—Roger Edens, The Passion According to St. Kate, Opus 19, #46
Like Eloise at The Plaza, Kay Thompson was a figment of the imagination.
Both were dreamed up by Kitty Fink as whimsical escapes from a mundane and sometimes painful childhood.
Kitty’s father was Leo George Fink, born on January 12, 1874, in Vienna, Austria, the son of Mark Fink, a Jew from Norway, and Antoinette “Antonie” Steiner, a Christian from Vienna. Troubled by anti-Semitism and interfaith bigotry, the Fink family immigrated to America in 1886 with high hopes for a safer and more prosperous future. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism existed on both sides of the Atlantic and so, like many others, the Finks submerged their Jewish heritage in order to assimilate into mainstream society.
When Leo arrived in the United States at the age of twelve, he was teased by bullies for his broken English and foreign ways. Afraid to draw attention to himself, he kept his mouth shut and faded into the background. As he sat on the sidelines, Leo’s youth passed him by, and when it came to dating girls, he was a late bloomer. How Leo ended up in St. Louis is not known, but it was love that anchored him there.
The object of his affection was a waitress named Harriet Adelaide Tetrick, an attractive WASP from the Midwest. Most people called her Hattie, but Kay later nicknamed her Flavia, the Latin word for “yellow-haired,” because of her bleached-blond tresses (a look Thompson later adopted). Though her ancestors were German, Hattie was as American as apple pie. Born in 1888 in Eureka, Kansas, she was raised 140 miles northwest in Abilene, home of future President Dwight D. Eisenhower, two years her junior. She also lived for a time in Iowa, but by the age of eighteen ended up in St. Louis, where she got a job waiting tables at a local restaurant. It was there that she met a shy, thirty-two-year-old admirer named Leo Fink.
For Leo, Hattie was stylish, youthful, and outgoing, an appealing manifestation of everything he was not. And that was just fine with Hattie. Though he was fourteen years her senior, she admired his gentle demeanor and saw him as a responsible man who would provide well for her and their intended family. Smitten, Leo wanted to “rescue” Hattie from the workplace, so he proposed marriage on the condition that she quit her job and become a stay-at-home wife. She agreed and they tied the knot.
Emulating family trades he knew from Vienna, Leo had opened L. G. Fink, Inc., Jeweler and Pawnbroker, at 719 Pine, on the corner of North Eighth Street, where three balls, symbolic of pawnshops, hung over the door.
The first Fink residence was a modest apartment in a lower-income neighborhood at 3966 Laclede Street. Hattie was musical at heart, so even though space and money were tight, she convinced her husband to acquire an upright piano—probably an orphan from his pawnshop.
Sociable with all the neighbors, Hattie offered piano and singing lessons to friends while her husband managed the store in town. Leo didn’t like this arrangement one bit. He believed a wife should be making babies, not earning money; that was the man’s job. Unfortunately, Hattie’s passion for fashion exceeded her spending allowance, so she saw no reason why she couldn’t help fund her expensive taste in clothes. This rebellious behavior was a constant source of conflict—with Leo assuming the role of strict disciplinarian.
The solution to their differences came on January 28, 1907, when the stork delivered a baby girl named Blanche Margaret, a dark-haired beauty. To Leo’s great relief, Hattie would now have no time for anything except being a mom. And the job title stuck.
Hattie may have acquiesced to her duties as a housewife, but when it came to religion, her Presbyterian background prevailed. However, no matter how much Leo may have desired to blend in as an American Protestant, he was never able to erase his Yiddish accent. Regardless, there were no menorahs to be found at holiday time; their house had the requisite Christmas tree and stockings were hung by the chimney with care.
On November 9, 1909, the stork made a second stop at the Fink residence, this time armed with a blue-eyed, redheaded, freckle-faced bundle of joie de vivre named Catherine Louise, but everyone called her Kitty—until the time when she left home to become Kay Thompson. Her middle name, Louise, was inspired by her city of birth, St. Louis, and it became the basis for the name of her alter ego, Eloise.
Having outgrown their tiny home, the Finks relocated three miles northeast to a slightly larger dwelling at 5965 Maple, in a more family-oriented, middle-class neighborhood. Hattie busied herself with a rapid succession of additions to the family: first, on March 20, 1911, a boy christened Leo George Fink Jr., known to everyone as Bud, and then, on August 20, 1912, a girl named Marian Antoinette.
The Fink kids were welcomed into the neighborhood, with frequent compliments on how cute Blanche, Bud, and Marian were. The comments about Kitty were not quite as enthusiastic—and it was painfully apparent why: she wasn’t blessed with beauty. Even as a toddler, Kitty could sense that her siblings got more notice than she did. She quickly learned that if she wanted to vie for attention, she would have to do something to earn it. So, she made faces. She grimaced. She stuck out her tongue, messed up her hair—whatever silliness came to mind. Hardly a coincidence, Kitty pulled the same sort of attention-grabbing stunts that later turned up in all those Eloise books—like putting toe shoes on her ears or wearing a cabbage leaf as a hat. And it worked. People began to notice her. They thought she was funny. In the midst of laughter, Kitty was no longer second fiddle. She was a self-made star.
She was also a daredevil, often climbing trees and roughhousing with the neighborhood boys. But she loved fantasizing with dolls and playing dress-up, too. This split personality—half tomboy, half girlie girl—would prove to be just one of her many dichotomies.
“I was different from my siblings,” Thompson later reflected. “I used to lie awake nights, trying to think up ways of keeping up with brilliant Blanche and good-looking Marian … whom everyone admired while they disregarded me.”
As feelings of insecurity and alienation intensified, Kitty often retreated into her own world, where, in her solitude, she developed an imaginary friend—the first signs of an alter ego that later evolved into Eloise. While others played games, Kitty played God. She created characters, not only fictional ones but flesh-and-blood personas like Kay Thompson—a calling she continued throughout her life, both for herself and for many others.
She was also obsessed with music. Before she could walk or talk, Kitty merrily banged away on the piano, composing her own discordant cantatas. To preserve the family’s sanity, her mother began giving Kitty piano lessons when she was three. To Hattie’s astonishment, the toddler took to classical music like a duck to water. Neighbors clamored to hear for themselves what this precocious youngster would master next—Bach? Beethoven? In no time flat, Kitty’s reputation switched from clown to prodigy and, with her tiny legs dangling off the piano stool, she got her first taste of applause, a genuine appreciation that she liked much more than mere attention.
The day after her fourth birthday, Kitty was enrolled in kindergarten at Dozier Elementary School, where she boasted that she was going to be an actress, “Not sometime, mind you, but right away!” And, frankly, they had no reason to doubt her.
When a larger house nearby went up for sale, Leo grabbed it and moved his family to 17 Parkland Place, the residence that became their permanent home.
Kitty’s childhood friend Virginia “Ginny” Farrar Ruane, ninety-three years old when interviewed for this book in July 2002, could still picture it vividly: “It was a very nice house, nicely furnished, on a lovely, gated cul-de-sac with a fountain.”
Despite the fact that World War I had broken out in Europe in the summer of 1914, the Finks were living out the Norman Rockwell ideal; everything on their horizon was looking bright.
Convinced that Kitty was a budding genius, Hattie and Leo enrolled her in first grade on September 21, 1914, when she was several weeks shy of five years old—even though school regulations required children to be six. A close look at her school records reveals how this rule was fudged.
Kitty’s entrance form lists her birth date as November 19, 1908—wrong day and wrong year—making her appear to be a year older than she really was. Given the precocious nature of the child in question, the administration either never bothered to check or turned a blind eye. It wasn’t until Kitty was entering college that the awful truth finally surfaced.
The transfer-of-records form from Soldan High School to Washington University owns up to Kitty’s correct birth date, November 9, 1909, finally in agreement with her certified birth record and the City of St. Louis birth registry, making her a full year younger than her peers had been led to believe.
After that, Kitty kept everybody in the dark about her age and it became a running joke among friends. During her years at MGM in the 1940s, legendary joint birthday parties with her colleague Roger Edens featured endless ribbing on the subject, as evidenced by the lyrics to “The Passion According to St. Kate, Opus 19, #46,” a satiric birthday cantata Roger composed in Kay’s honor: “She drove an ambulance in the First World War,” sang MGM orchestrator Conrad Salinger. In a teasing reference to “The Trolley Song” in Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland chimed in, “All I know is, she was on that goddamned trolley ride I took. That was 1903.”
The natural aging process, coupled with too much plastic surgery, did her no favors. In 1954, Cecil Beaton and Kenneth Tynan wrote that she was “skeletal” and “hatchet-faced,” and the 1976 Who’s Who in Hollywood blithely described her as “cadaverous.”
Thompson’s lack of candor about her age backfired completely after her death. In her obituary, The New York Times had egg on its face when it cautiously guesstimated that she was “between 92 and 95.” The truth is that Thompson was born on November 9, 1909, and died on July 2, 1998—at the ripe young age of eighty-eight. Case closed.
In early 1915, five-year-old Kitty Fink breezed through first grade so fast, she was promoted to the second grade in April, completing a quarter of the curriculum by the time school let out in June. But schoolwork was just a distraction from what she really loved—playing piano. It was decided that Kitty would benefit from more advanced training than her mother could provide, so she began taking outside piano lessons.
“I practiced four or five hours a day,” Kay remembered. “When I was six, I wrote a piece and called it ‘The Billy Goat in the Woods.’ It was just eight bars.”
As teachers and adults paid more and more attention to Kitty, resentment grew among her classmates. Suddenly, her red hair, her freckles, her oversized nose, even her last name became the butt of cruel jokes.
“I had an inferiority complex,” Kay later admitted. “I always felt, when I was little, that I was ugly. My sisters and my mother were so gorgeously beautiful. If people asked my mother what she thought the children would grow up to be, she used to say that [Blanche and Marian] would probably be a writer and an artist—they were so talented—that her son might be President. Then she would add: and Kitty has a lovely personality. All this must have waked the determination in me to do something outstanding.”
At the age of seven, Kitty advanced to the fourth grade on April 6, 1917, the same day the United States entered the First World War by declaring war on Germany. This must have been an uncomfortable time for Leo and Hattie, both of whom had family ties in enemy territory.
Things were not peaceful in St. Louis, either. That summer, racial unrest erupted into devastating riots and fires that frightened an eleven-year-old Josephine Baker into dreaming of a life where the color of her skin did not matter. Josephine would eventually abandon St. Louis in favor of Paris, where she became the highest-paid entertainer in Europe—a hometown success story that later proved empowering and inspirational to the other St. Louis femme phenom.
But, during her youth, Kitty’s world was sheltered from the hell of war and race riots—even though she would suffer some minor injuries on her own turf. She got plenty of spankings because she was “as freckle-faced and mischievous a brat as ever caused a mother gray hair.”
“I always was theatrical, and lickings were a nuisance,” Kay admitted to a reporter. “So I tried a little trick.”
In the dead of night, Kitty woke everyone up, screaming uncontrollably, claiming that she was haunted by thoughts of being whipped. “It’s the idea, not the pain, that frightens me so much,” she sobbed, wiping away crocodile tears.
“I must have done a good job,” Kay recalled, “for that night I heard my Mother tell Dad she had never realized what a sensitive child I was, and that it was best not to strike me ever.”
Kitty may have saved her behind from further corporal punishment, but she continued to suffer from injuries of her own making. At the age of eight, she developed a crush on a neighborhood boy named Harry. Her heart sank, however, when she saw him flirt with her older sister, Blanche. When he finally looked in her direction, Kitty couldn’t help herself. She sneered and stuck out her tongue. Unfazed, Harry did the worst thing imaginable: he ignored her. Infuriated, Kitty suddenly ran halfway up the staircase and blurted out, “I can jump more than anyone!”
All the children turned as Kitty shrieked like a banshee and leapt from the sixth step, landing at the foot of the stairs. Unscathed, Kitty taunted Harry, “’Fraidy cat, ’fraidy cat!”
Then she scrambled up the stairs again, this time jumping from the seventh step, crashing with a thud that must have hurt, but she wasn’t about to admit it. When she threatened to go even higher, Harry finally took the bait, proclaiming, “You can’t. I can. It’s a cinch for a boy.” Harry climbed to the eighth step, jumped to the floor, then gloated at Kitty.
“I can do nine,” she retorted.
What happened after that was not pretty. Kitty landed flat on her face, breaking her nose. If her snout was considered unsightly before the calamity, now it was a bona fide eyesore. But, as far as she was concerned, her death-defying leap was worth the pain and disfigurement because, a few days later, Harry offered to carry her books to school. That episode encouraged further flights of folly, resulting in a broken arm and a second broken nose.
“My method as a kid was wrong,” Kay later admitted, “but the idea was right. Because I was homely, I learned I’d have to bestir myself and try extra hard to make the grade.”
Doctors’ visits to fix her wounds were so painful, she developed a phobia that many of her friends believe was the underlying motivation for her later conversion to Christian Science, a faith that bans medical intervention. And yet, exemplifying her many contradictions, she eventually came to rely heavily on the medical profession for nips, tucks, and pick-me-ups.
Broken body parts and interest in boys did not mix well with schoolwork. When her academic momentum imploded during the fifth grade, Leo took away her vacation privileges. He enrolled her in summer sessions at Emerson, another St. Louis school, where she began the sixth grade on June 16, 1919, still only nine years old. This sobering turn of events did not bring Kitty closer to her father, and their relationship would forever remain strained.
On April 5, 1920, Kitty transferred to Ben Blewitt Intermediate Junior High School, entering the seventh grade at the age of ten. During her two years of junior high, Kitty’s grades were highly erratic except in music and athletics, where she routinely excelled. Interestingly, she found a unique way to combine her passions. “At twelve, I wrote ‘The Tuberculosis Ball Game Benefit,’” Kay recalled in 1936. “I thought [it] was just grand. I had a record made of the ‘Ball Game.’ When last I was home and heard it, I was amazed at my nerve!”
She had nerve to spare. Her friend Ginny Farrar Ruane recalled, “Each class during the semester would put on some kind of show for the entertainment of the rest of the school, and Kitty’s class did a high-stepping cakewalk, complete with blackface, and it brought down the house. In a cakewalk there is not much choreography—you just strut your stuff Needless to say, Kitty was the highest stepper of all. Kitty’s costume, made by her mother, was entirely of red bandannas.” (Kay’s affinity for red bandannas would endure.)
Kitty was supposed to graduate from Blewitt Junior High in June 1922, but her grades were just not good enough. She was finally promoted to Soldan High School on January 26, 1923, and it took the rest of that school year and all of the next to scrape through her freshman year. So much for accelerated learning.
Protesting the threat of summer school, Kitty begged Leo to let her go with Ginny to girls’ summer camp. With the help of her mother, she got her way and spent eight weeks during the summer of 1924 at Minne-Wonka Lodge in Three Lakes, Wisconsin, her first time away from home—a much needed cooling-off period between father and daughter.
“Every Saturday night we’d have skits and musical things,” Ginny enthused, “and of course Kitty was so fun, so full of pep, and the life of everything. We’d have canoe trips that took three to five days. We all did lifesaving together and things like that. It was just grand.”
With growing independence and maturity, Kitty was determined to make her life at home more enjoyable, too.
“We had a little pitiful high school sorority,” Ginny recalled. “Xi Delta Sigma. We’d all get together, sing, sit around, gab, and have dumb fun.”
Another favorite distraction from homework was attending movies, although it wasn’t exactly for the love of cinematic arts. “We went to ’em all, didn’t matter which ones,” Ginny chuckled, “because we just wanted to see who else was there.”
On Saturdays, Kitty and her friends would go shopping in downtown St. Louis. When Kitty needed to get her five-dollar weekly allowance from her father, however, she never let anyone come with her to his “office.” She was so ashamed of her father’s pawnshop, she’d make her friends wait several blocks away. Even Ginny, her closest confidante, did not discover this secret until years later.
“The malign exercise of snobbery in ‘middle American’ life”—as Tennessee Williams labeled it—was alive and well in St. Louis. Kitty worried that her social standing would be irreparably stigmatized if her father’s profession were known. Even later in life, she steadfastly characterized Leo as “a jeweler,” never once admitting the pawn brokerage side of his trade. It is telling that as far back as high school, Kitty was carefully crafting an idealized public image.
Keen to be up on the latest fashion trends, Kitty was a shopaholic. “There’s one department store that we’d always hit called Vandervoort’s,” Ginny related, referring to Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney. “It was a big deal. We’d look at all the clothes.”
Kitty and Ginny became fast friends with one of the store’s young employees—a vivacious new girl in town named Mary Lorena “Billie” Cantrell, who worked as a sales clerk in women’s sportswear. Department stores must’ve been in Billie’s blood, because later, in 1932, she would marry Stanley Marcus of Neiman-Marcus in Dallas, the most prominent and influential department store outside of New York City.
In St. Louis, Billie’s family lived in an apartment building on Maple, just four blocks from the Fink residence. Jerrie Marcus Smith, daughter of Billie and Stanley Marcus, recalled hearing stories about the Finks’ wild child. “Kitty came over to my mother’s house to pound on the piano all the time,” Jerrie said, laughing. “My grandmother was always worried about the neighbors complaining.”
Among her late mother’s personal effects, Jerrie found a 1926 handwritten invitation “to pledge membership” with Xi Delta Sigma, signed “Catherine L. Fink.” And the sorority bond they pledged never ended. In later years, Kay kept in close touch with Billie, bringing her nightclub act to Dallas—twice—and making several personal appearances at the flagship Neiman-Marcus store, where she promoted Eloise and also served as a creative consultant on its International Fortnight expositions.
So, it was only fitting that Kitty had first become acquainted with Billie at a department store—and Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney was the favorite haunt among Kitty’s group of high school friends.
“It had a lovely tearoom,” Ginny recalled, “and we’d always end up having lunch there. Then we’d go and listen to the records in the music department. They had several listening booths. We just listened, though. We never bought ’em.”
“I’m a miser at heart,” Kay later admitted. Recalling her youth, she added, “I’d deprive myself of a lot. I’d much rather have money in the bank than anywhere else.” And at the age of sixteen, Kitty’s bank balance was about to increase.
Lalla Bauman, who ran a nearby dance school, suddenly found herself without an accompanist, so she called Kitty and asked how much she would charge.
“Three dollars an hour,” Kitty boldly replied.
“Why, that’s preposterous!” the woman responded. “The usual rate is a dollar-fifty at the outside.”
“Not my usual rate,” Kitty lied, never having worked a day in her life. “I always get three dollars.”
“Goodness,” said Miss Bauman. “Who do you think you are? Paderewski?”
Aware that the teacher was in a tight spot, Kitty held firm: “That’s my price.”
After a prolonged silence, the woman finally caved: “O.K., you little Big Shot. I’ll have to give it to you.”
“That was the first money I ever earned,” Kay later recounted. “It seemed so easy to make forty-five dollars a week.” In no time, she had saved six hundred dollars, a tidy reward for her brazen negotiation. It would not be the last time she drove a hard bargain.
While tinkling ivories at the dance studio, she came down with a serious case of dance fever. She enrolled at Clark’s Dance School, where she took lessons alongside Ruth Elizabeth Grable, seven years her junior, who later changed her name to Betty Grable and became the famous movie and pinup star. One of Grable’s other teachers at Clark’s was Robert “Bob” Alton, and, although Kitty only met him in passing back then, he later became her indispensable choreographer for stage, screen, and nightclub appearances.
Like Toad in Wind in the Willows, Kitty was mesmerized by motorcars. They made her shoulders tingle—a feeling she always got when something was especially thrilling.
Kitty’s automobile fixation led to dating a fellow classmate named Krenning Duncan “Dunc” Dorris, son of George Preston Dorris, founder and chairman of the Dorris Motor Car Company. First introduced in 1906, the Dorris was a St. Louis–made luxury car, and when Kitty turned sixteen, there was nothing she wanted more than to get behind the wheel of the latest model. And Dunc had exactly the equipment she craved. Not to be outmaneuvered, Ginny was dating Dunc’s older brother, Pres (George Preston Dorris Jr.), so between the two, these industrious young ladies had managed to just about corner the high school market on automobile access. And, according to Kay, Dunc was one of several boys who tried to corner the market on her.
“I’ve been telling men I don’t want to get married ever since I was sixteen,” Thompson later bragged, “but they just wouldn’t believe me!”
The question is, should we believe her? Although she later made two trips to the altar, it is hard to imagine marriage proposals coming her way during adolescence, a time when even she freely admitted, “I was the official ugly duckling of the family.”
Far more believable is the anecdote in which Kitty and Ginny had a typical Lucy-and-Ethel moment. “One time we borrowed another boy’s car,” Ginny said with mischief in her voice. “His name was Chester Wolfe, a friend of the Dorris boys. While he was doing football, he let us borrow it. That was his big mistake. We slammed the door and accidentally broke the grind-up window on one side. Oh my Lord. We ran to some place that fixed windows and cried and carried on. It is just embedded in my memory how we had to sweat that out until they fixed it.” But, with impish satisfaction, Ginny added, “Chester never knew about it at all.”
Everyone thought they were such angels. When asked about Kitty’s churchgoing habits, Ginny said, “I went to Westminster Presbyterian Church and she went to West Presbyterian. I’m not sure how often they went, or even if they went.”
As it was only a five-minute stroll from her address, Ginny was a frequent visitor to the Fink home. “The whole family was fun,” she recalled. “They enjoyed each other. They always seemed to have such a good time together—a wonderful, close family.”
However, when pressed, Ginny admitted that the men of the house were decidedly on the fringe. “Mr. Fink was a lot older than Mrs. Fink,” Ginny remarked, “and I think he was just overwhelmed by them all and he’d take a backseat. The women were all so extroverted—entertaining and singing and having such fun—he didn’t know what hit him! He just shook his head and paid the bills.”
Kitty’s brother, Bud, also made himself scarce. “He was a nice kid,” Ginny recalled, “but I mean, you know, nobody wants a little brother hangin’ around. I know. I had one, too.”
Ginny’s memories of Kitty’s mother, Hattie, were especially fond: “Oh, she was quite sharp, always dressed up, looked so nice. She liked to sing and when you would go over there, she was like one of the girls. So much fun.”
Most of Ginny’s time in the Fink home was spent around the piano. In adolescence, Kitty’s voice developed a squeaky quality that had become the butt of family jokes, so she stuck mostly to the keyboard while her mother sang along with Blanche, Marian, and visitors like Ginny.
There was never a need for sheet music. “Kitty played by ear,” Ginny marveled. “Anything you wanted to hear, she’d come up with it—all the popular songs, current jazz, musical comedy tunes, whatever was current at the time. ‘Tea for Two’ was a favorite.”
“Kitty could play serious music, too,” Ginny added. Her accomplished classical skills pleased her father and he hoped that she would find her calling as a concert pianist. To that end, in early 1926, during her junior year in high school, sixteen-year-old Kitty made her debut as a piano soloist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Fantasy” at the Odeon Theatre on Grand Boulevard. Making the event all the more momentous was the fact that the concert was broadcast live over KWK, Kitty’s very first radio exposure.
For her big night, she wore a very special new dress. “It was the kind of thin white stuff,” Kay later told a reporter, drawing the shape of it in the air with her manicured index talon. “It wasn’t long enough and it wasn’t short enough, and it had scallops around the skirt. But my mother thought I looked grand.”
In preparation for the performance, Kitty had to memorize the entire ninety-page concerto. “[My mother] sat in the front row,” Thompson recalled, “and she was more nervous than I was. I told her to hold her breath till I came to an eight-bar passage I had to play alone. If I got past the place where I crossed my hands, she could go on breathing—the worst would be over.”
Just before her solo, however, the unimaginable happened: Kitty went blank. The distinguished conductor, Frederick Fischer, knew something was dreadfully wrong when he glanced over to the piano and saw the expression of a deer caught in the headlights. All Kitty could do was whisper, “Go right ahead, Fred.”
Balding, plump, and bespectacled, Mr. Fischer was not accustomed to brain-dead pianists any more than he was used to being addressed as “Fred.” He stared back at her in utter disbelief.
Kitty shrugged. “I’ll join you later.”
Somehow, the maestro managed to wing it through Kitty’s solo without missing a beat. After sixteen measures, when her next cue came up, Kitty hopped on board and gave the performance of her life. By the end, the audience was on its feet, cheering.
Kitty took her bows to thunderous applause, especially thrilled to see her father beaming with pride. It wouldn’t last long. As she stepped back toward the wings, Kitty stumbled into a row of potted palm trees, which fell like dominoes. The poor creature ended up sprawled on the floor amid a hopeless tangle of chiffon and palm fronds.
Kay later claimed to have made the decision then and there to renounce all aspirations of classical keyboarding. “I wanted to have long fingernails!” was her practical excuse.
In truth, the renunciation took quite a bit longer, due to strict orders from her father. Though she was loath to admit it, Kitty continued as the pianist for the St. Louis Symphony for three full years.
Despite the pressure to be a classical musician, Kitty favored popular tunes—which she handily parlayed into social invitations. “She was always the life of the party,” Ginny remembered, “because she’d sit down at the piano and that was it. She was just great.”
“I was always the one to play the piano while the others danced,” Kay confirmed. “Of course the ones that danced got the men. So I hit on this scheme: I’d sit down at the piano and sing blues. The tempo was impossible for dancing. Pretty soon all the men would be grouped around the piano—and the other girls would be thinking of forming an organization to work for the repeal of the existing laws governing homicide.”
Kitty’s transformation to torch songstress did not happen overnight. She longed to be taken seriously, like Fanny Brice, an ugly duckling Jewish girl from New York’s Lower East Side who had become a national sensation singing weepy ballads. They may have shared homely looks, but Kitty didn’t have Fanny’s distinctive voice or range. One night at a local vaudeville show, however, Kitty heard something that made her shoulders tingle: a female African-American blues singer with a deep, husky voice. Kitty announced that her latest goal was to be a blues singer, an aspiration met with considerable skepticism by her family.
“If my sisters hadn’t made fun of my voice,” Kay later explained, “I would never have buckled down to taking singing lessons seriously. And if they weren’t so sure I could never become a singer, I wouldn’t have fought for a career!”
Seething with resentment, Kitty set out to prove them wrong. “Mother, who gave singing lessons, had often said you could change the range of your tones,” Kay recalled. “I decided to get rid of my squeak and develop a lower range for blues singing.”
Using the keyboard as her guide to the depths of hell, Kitty groaned, growled, and grunted guttural sounds that could wake the dead. Eventually, the nightmare paid off. Incredibly, she had developed a lower register—an entire octave—rich and throaty. Not only did she sound great singing blues, the full range of her voice had miraculously arrived.
Stretching her newfound talent, Kitty landed a supporting role in, of all things, an operetta—the Soldan High production of The Bells of Beaujolais, performed on April 16, 1926. Since the entire student body was required to attend, she had a captive audience—including a schoolmate named Tennessee Williams.
Born on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi, Thomas Lanier Williams and his family had moved to St. Louis when he was eight years old. Thomas would eventually be nicknamed Tennessee because of his thick hillbilly drawl, but back then, Kitty and his other neighborhood friends knew him as Tom. For three years starting in 1918, Tennessee resided in a furnished six-room apartment at 4633 Westminster Place, just a few blocks southwest of the Fink’s Parkland Place home. (The apartment would later be the setting for Tennessee’s play The Glass Menagerie.)
“[My sister] Rose and I made friends,” Tennessee recalled, “and we had an agreeable children’s life among them, playing ‘hide-and-seek’ and ‘fly, sheep, fly,’ and bathing under garden hoses in the hot summer.”
Tennessee’s older sister, Rose, was the same age as Kitty and Ginny. “We would run around together,” Ginny recalled, “and Tom would tag along, trying to keep up with us.” More often, he hung out with Kitty’s brother, Bud, his senior by only six days. Tennessee’s father worked for Ginny’s father at the Friedman-Shelby branch of the International Shoe Company in St. Louis (a factory where Tennessee later worked).
“Our mothers were co-joiners in the UDC, United Daughters of the Confederacy,” Ginny explained. “Once a month there was a meeting of ‘the children of the C’ and my brother and I were dragged kicking and screaming to a get-together where we sang ‘Dixie,’ had refreshments, and listened to another member play the cello. Kitty, Rose, and Tom were victims, too, but they seemed to enjoy it.”
Kitty was the local ham and Tennessee’s keen interest in student theatrical productions kept him abreast of her rise to stardom—first at Blewitt Junior High, then at Soldan High, and finally at Washington University. After leaving St. Louis, they would cross paths on many occasions around the world.
Another famous graduate of Soldan High was actress Agnes Moorehead. She was nine years older than Kitty and, by 1926, had left St. Louis. Nevertheless, they later became friends and shared stories about their Missouri upbringing. There was also Vincent Price, born in St. Louis two years after Kitty. But even though the two grew up just a couple of miles from each other, they were worlds apart in terms of social standing. Born into a wealthy family, Vincent was sent to private schools and attended Yale. Still, Kay and Vincent became friends as adults via showbiz circles and their shared passion for fine art.
Sans silver spoon in a class-conscious society, Kitty used her musical skills to parlay herself into a higher bracket. In the middle of her junior year at Soldan High in February 1926, Kitty was elected to serve as librarian of the Chaminade Glee Club, the fifty-member girls’ choral group, known for singing songs like “S’wanee River.” And that summer, for the third year in a row, she returned to Minne-Wonka Girls’ Summer Camp, this time leading all the campfire songs.
That fall, Kitty entered her senior year at Soldan High and involved herself in just about every extracurricular activity on campus: Song Committee, Orchestra, Chaminade Glee Club, the Athenaeum (a twenty-five-girl debate and speech club), Scrippage Committee (the school newspaper staff), Dancing Club, and the Girl’s Athletic Association, where she excelled in hockey, tennis, and swimming. And, in addition to her regular gig as pianist for the St. Louis Symphony, she somehow found time to star in the school production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe.
All this took its toll on her schoolwork; by the time she graduated in June, she mustered an average of only 67 (out of 100), ranking 209th in a class of 214 students. Diplomatically, the quote in her yearbook focused on her strengths: “A friendly maid and likewise gay is she; her touch upon the keys is heavenly.” But by then, she’d given up piano lessons—another thorn in her father’s side. On the verge of burnout, she insisted on recharging her batteries at Minne-Wonka Summer Camp.
In the fall of 1927, Kitty enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, which offered a broad range of academia. But the social whirlwind of sororities was what girls like Kitty and Ginny craved. “I became a Kappa Alpha Theta,” Ginny said. “Kitty became a Delta Gamma first—her sister Blanche’s sorority—and then broke that pledge and joined Kappa Kappa Gamma.” After a freshman year best described as one long party, Kitty and Ginny spent the summer of 1928 at Minne-Wonka again—their fifth annual retreat to Wisconsin—this time as camp counselors.
Once they returned to school for their sophomore year, however, Ginny didn’t hang out with Kitty as much. Differing sororities played a role. “We sort of grew apart,” Ginny lamented.
There were other gravitational pulls. Kitty was devoting more of her time to the music and theater departments. Surrounded by scores of extroverted actors and ambitious singers, Kitty had her hands full trying to elbow her way into these highly competitive cliques.
“While other girls posed in front of mirrors trying to look like Norma Talmadge and Vilma Banky,” Kay later mused, “I wore myself out working for personality.”
Don’t let her fool you. Kitty was equally concerned about her looks. She had matured early into her adult size: 121 pounds, five feet five-and-a-half inches tall. “I know that I give the impression of being tall,” she was later quoted, “so I avoid stripes especially. When I have my shoes on, with their higher heels, I am about five feet six-and-one-half or seven inches.” She may have had the body of a woman, but she still had the face of a kid with red hair, freckles, and an unfortunate nose. This mug worked fine for comedic performances, but if she was going to be taken seriously as a torch singer, she needed sophistication.
“Make me like Carole Lombard,” Kitty told flummoxed hairdressers and makeup artists at the Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney cosmetics counter, showing them magazine photos of her favorite actress. At that time, the young Lombard was a teen idol who, after a disfiguring automobile accident, had just undergone her very own makeover with the aid of advanced plastic surgery, state-of-the-art makeup, and a tireless publicist. Lombard’s ordeal was great fodder for fan magazines and Kitty attentively followed her every move on the road back from tragedy. Details from Lombard’s life story—dropping out of school, her use of a stage name, her hair and makeup techniques, even her plastic surgery—all eventually became essential to the creation of Kay Thompson.
However, even after her accident and recovery, Lombard was still a knockout, so Kitty’s wish to look like her was a very tall order indeed. Without the aid of Hollywood magicians, Kitty had to rely on St. Louis hair and makeup folk to do the best they could.
When she turned eighteen, Kitty got the first of many nose jobs—a battle zone that would forever remain a work in progress.
“With my new appearance, my collection of fraternity pins jumped by leaps and bounds,” Kay later boasted. “I’ve got more than fifty tucked away at home.” It also helped her land a part-time singing job with a band, earning a whopping $125 per week. She ran home and reported the news to her stunned father.
“I won’t need my allowance anymore,” Kitty proudly announced.
“What?” Leo said, shocked by her good fortune. “They pay you for making those noises that drove us crazy? Something is wrong somewhere.” In spite of her father’s hurtful cynicism, Kitty had become a campus celebrity.
In June 1929, her sister Blanche graduated from Washington University with flying colors, but Kitty’s sophomore year made a crash landing. After she’d skipped three-quarters of her classes, there was no way Kitty could pass. When she sat down to take her Greek exam, the only thing she knew were her sorority letters. After several minutes of painful squirming, she decided to write the teacher a note, in plain English: “Dear Mr. Durfy, I am very sorry I will not be able to answer these questions today. Mother has been ill and I haven’t been able to concentrate. This is no reflection upon your teaching. Sincerely Yours, Catherine Fink.”
Concerned, Mr. Durfy contacted Kitty’s parents, and soon discovered that Mrs. Fink was in perfect health. Leo grounded his daughter, canceled her annual trip to Minne-Wonka, and ordered her to take Greek lessons all summer for a reexamination in September, which, by the skin of her teeth, she managed to pass. “My days as a Greek student, though, were over,” Kay later expressed with no regrets.
Unfortunately, Kitty had to repeat most of the other courses from her sophomore year. So, in the fall of 1929, she was back for a third year at Washington University as a half-baked sophomore while Ginny and her other contemporaries were already juniors. Unfazed, Kitty kept her sights set on the stage, volunteering to produce the annual Co-Ed Vodvil show. Delegation was not her strongest suit; after appointing herself director, writer, composer, choreographer, chorus leader, pianist, and stage manager, she had no time to appear in her own show. That unintended deprivation would be rectified when she landed the female lead in Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, the melodramatic story of a self-destructive alcoholic.
“Oh, at seventeen,” Kay reminisced, “I decided I was going to be another Sarah Bernhardt.”
That ambition, however, was not embraced by her peers. The school yearbook, appropriately named The Hatchet, sliced and diced the production in its review and, even worse, ran an unflattering photograph of Kitty with a severe expression and a hideous black wig.
Undaunted, she appeared in another production that same school year, Si, Si, SeÑorita, the story of a Mexican ghost rider and his schemes to scare off gullible American tourists. She also served as assistant musical director and was the lead singer of the Trio, alongside Harriet Ingalls and Louise LaRue. The yearbook review stated, “From the overture to the final curtain the whole concoction was grade A sour goat milk. The chorus wasn’t bad in its dances but ouch! when they sing.”
On October 29, 1929, eleven days before Kitty’s twentieth birthday, Wall Street hit rock bottom. It was Black Tuesday, the inauguration of the Great Depression.
As the Fink family’s income plummeted, Kitty figured out a way to twist the dilemma to her advantage. She was more than happy to drop out of school in the spring of 1930 in order to go to work. Even though Leo disapproved of career women, he did not have the financial luxury to stand on ceremony. Completely out of character, he casually suggested, “I thought it would be nice if one of you girls would sing on the Capitol Family program someday— ballads, you know.” Broadcast from New York, Major Bowes’ Capitol Family was a nationally heard amateur hour that provided early exposure for such rising stars as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and a seven-year-old Beverly Sills.
Overjoyed by her father’s seeming enlightenment, Kitty announced, “I’ll sing … but not ballads. Right now I’m going to get myself a radio job as a blues singer.”
Although the genre is today considered mainstream, back then blues was still ghettoized as “Negro music”—the very last thing Leo had in mind for his daughter. But her mind was made up. “Blues singers have done for the radio what the self-starter did for the automobile,” she declared.
In the spring of 1930, Kitty began singing on KWK, but her insistence on blues numbers did not go over well with station management or listeners. Frustrated, she decided to resurrect her singing group, the Trio, with her sorority sisters Harriet Ingalls and Doris Shumate (replacing Louise LaRue). A few local gigs came their way, but once the money was split three ways, it hardly seemed worth the effort. Times were getting tougher by the day and Kitty needed to get a real job.
After sending a bunch of applications to every summer camp advertised in the classified section of her favorite magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Kitty lined up a job as a counselor at Toyon Summer Camp, a ritzy girls’ enclave on Catalina Island within eyeshot of Los Angeles. In addition, she wangled the hiring of her singing partners, Harriet and Doris, so the Trio went west for the summer of 1930. Earning $175 for the season, Kitty proved to be a skilled swimming, diving, and sailing instructor, and she led the campfire songs.
“Finky was one of the favorite counselors,” recalled celebrity biographer Cynthia Lindsay at the age of eighty-eight in 2003, identifying Kitty by the nickname for which she was known at Toyon. “She was funny, friendly and darling. We all absolutely adored her.” In 1957, Cynthia wrote a profile of Kay Thompson for McCall’s magazine.
“Finky wanted things done her way,” Cynthia observed, “and they were done her way or else there was a lot of trouble. But she was the best disciplinarian I have ever known—never mean, never without humor. To reprimand campers, she would break into the voice of a little girl and say things like, ‘You better do what I say or you’ll have to answer to me, Eloise.”
The official story has always been that Eloise extemporaneously came into being in 1947 when Kay was late for a rehearsal with the Williams Brothers. Asked why she was tardy, Kay had supposedly improvised in the high-pitched voice of a little girl, “I am Eloise and I am six.” Debunking that mythology, however, Cynthia testified she’d heard the prehistoric voice of Eloise ages before the sanctioned chronology.
When the summer was over, Kitty found herself longing to be at school again, missing the social outlet campus life provided. Hardship or not, her father was thrilled to have Kitty resume her studies—as if that were her true intention.
“I did have one ambition unfulfilled,” Kay later explained. “I didn’t have a Phi Beta Kappa to my credit. I managed to get back into school again and set about getting one. In the process I developed my first real ‘crush’—on an assistant instructor. He was terribly attractive and the Phi Beta Kappa key on his watch chain was like a piece of hamburger in front of a kennel. Our first date was a terrific success. He quoted Shelley and Swinburne and I thought I’d found romance for sure. We drove into the country, and under a full moon he stroked my cheek. He whispered, ‘Your skin is as smooth as velvet,’ which was hot stuff for St. Louis in those days!”
However, when Kitty discovered that he’d said the exact same thing to her sister Marian, she saw red.
“So the next day, when he called up,” Kay explained, “Marian got on the upstairs extension and I got on the downstairs phone. ‘Oh, darling, your skin is as smooth as velvet!’ we both shouted at the top of our lungs. He hung up—and that was the last we ever heard of him.”
Once she’d gotten her fill of fraternity pins, Kitty set her sights on another sort of prey. She got herself all dolled up and marched over to the Mayfair Hotel in downtown St. Louis, where, on the second floor, she found the headquarters of KMOX, the top radio station in the city. Without an appointment, Kitty demanded to see George Junkin, the managing director and announcer, adding haughtily, “and I haven’t much time to give him.”
The bluff got her ushered right into his office because everyone assumed Junkin already knew her—including Junkin himself.
“All you have to do is to keep ’em guessing and you’ve got ’em!” Kay later remarked. “That goes for men—and everything.” It was a mantra she lived by.
Once she was inside Junkin’s office, it became clear what was up. Intrigued, he gave her the once-over and said, “So you think you can sing.”
“I know I can sing,” Kitty replied.
“Go ahead.” Junkin waved his hand, granting her an impromptu audition. With a bluesy style, she sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” a cappella. Moved, Junkin pondered, “You sound a little like Libby Holman.” Deciding the time was right for a St. Louis knockoff of “the first great white torch singer,” Junkin said, “All right, we’ll take you on at twenty-five dollars a week.”
“That’s not enough,” she said. “Look how much Libby gets and you said I sound just like her.”
“Keep still or I’ll make it twenty dollars,” Junkin countered, flabbergasted by her chutzpa.
“Go ahead,” Kitty shot back. “I’ll be making more than you will, someday.”
By all rights, he should have kicked her sassy ass right out the door, but cooler heads prevailed. After caving to his “insulting” offer, Kitty joined the ensemble of The Anheuser-Busch Antics, a hit variety show for CBS, the first national radio series broadcast from St. Louis, sponsored by the local Anheuser-Busch brewery. (During this time of Prohibition, Anheuser-Busch had switched from beer to producing ginger ale, yeast, and sarsaparilla.)
On Kitty’s debut show, she began by singing “Rockin’ Chair.” Unfortunately, the height of her microphone had been adjusted for a much taller person and so, while teetering on tiptoe, she fumbled with the screws on the stand, trying to lower the darn thing to her level.
Suddenly, the delicate crystal microphone toppled off its perch and crashed to the floor, exploding into a million tiny particles. While conductor Ben Feld kept the band playing, Kitty charged over to host Tony Cabooch’s podium, commandeered his mike, and finished the song.
As soon as the show went off the air, Junkin bellowed, “That mike cost us three hundred dollars! How did you ever dare touch it? You’ll have to pay for it.”
“Pay you three hundred dollars?” Kitty scoffed. “You can’t draw blood from a turnip.” Nevertheless, her pay was docked for the next three months.
Other than her grumpy boss, Kitty was well liked by her colleagues, especially Ted Straeter, a pianist four years her junior. His first association with the Fink family came at the age of eight when he passed by the window of L. G. Fink, Inc., and a secondhand Victrola caught his eye. Like a dog in heat, he sold Christmas cards door-to-door until he had earned enough money to buy the record player. In his teens, he worked as a pianist and bandleader at KMOX, where he accompanied Kitty on countless occasions. (Years later, when they both had migrated to New York, Kay would help Ted land jobs as the choral director for The Kate Smith Show and as the house conductor for the Persian Room at The Plaza.)
In late 1930, not long after Kitty’s twenty-first birthday, KMOX added her to the cast of The Phillips 66 Flyers variety series, sponsored by Phillips Petroleum, and broadcast Monday through Saturday at 6:00 p.m. One hot Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1931, Kitty and one of her many fraternity escorts—this one named Jimmie—were at a big party at Creve Coeur Lake, northeast of St. Louis at the end of the electric trolley-car line. Caught up in the fun, Kitty lost all track of time until Jimmie happened to point out the beautiful sunset. Glancing at her watch, Kitty realized The Phillips 66 Flyers was due to go on the air in only ten minutes!
“We made forty miles in thirty minutes, doing 80 an hour,” Kay remembered vividly. “Sure we got there late, but the broadcast was still on.”
Realizing she had not rehearsed the song the band had prepared for her, she scribbled a note and passed it to the conductor, Mike Child: “Play ‘Some of These Days’ in G Minor.”
“He just glared at me,” Kay said, shuddering at the memory. Mike winged the number well enough, but her performance was dreadful. Not only was Junkin fit to be tied, so, too, was the president of Phillips, who shot off a telegram: KEEP THE BAND BUT DISMISS VOCALIST. On Sunday, Kitty got eighty-sixed.
“I was young and foolish,” Kay later admitted. As long as Mr. Junkin was the managing director at KMOX, Kitty would remain persona non grata. With bridges smoldering at the only St. Louis radio station that really mattered, she was left with no choice but to focus on other endeavors.
Kitty’s 1930–31 school year at Washington University was spent mainly in the drama department, where she performed in Princess Nita, a musical comedy about a young royal in ancient Egypt, with such intriguing song titles as “Sahara Sarah” and “Jazz Rhythm Strut.” She also served as assistant music director under Edmund L. Hartmann, the show’s librettist, lyricist, and composer, who later went to Hollywood, where he wrote and/or produced nearly fifty movies, including two Sherlock Holmes adventures starring Basil Rathbone, five Abbott and Costello vehicles, and seven Bob Hope comedies.
When the academic semester ended in June 1931, Kitty decided to quit school for good. Having accumulated barely enough credits to qualify her as a junior, she never came close to graduating.
Fed up with St. Louis and her stifling father, twenty-one-year-old Kitty announced her intention to head for Hollywood. Leo refused to finance her trip, but that would not stop her from going. Toyon, the girls’ camp on Catalina Island, wanted her back for the summer, offering to increase her pay to $250 for the season. Kitty could not have packed her bags faster.
Upon arriving in California, Kitty used every second of her free time to pound the pavement in Hollywood. In July 1931, she stormed the headquarters of KFI (part of the NBC Pacific Coast Network), one of the top radio stations in Los Angeles—owned by Earle C. Anthony, who also happened to be “the largest Packard automobile dealer in California.” She bamboozled a meeting with the station’s thirty-three-year-old programming director, Glenn Dolberg, and to her surprise and delight, he agreed to give her a shot on an amateur talent show. But he made it clear that to get a regular slot on the schedule, she would have to impress his mother, who always listened to the show at home. Kitty thought this was a peculiar stipulation, but who was she to argue? She sang her heart out on the program and apparently made a good impression on Mama Dolberg, because her son offered Kitty a job as a staff singer—to start in eight weeks, as soon as her summer camp commitment was done.
Finally, things were looking up, so she rented a $75 flat in La Marquise (later a residence of Errol Flynn), a brand-new apartment building on Gramercy Place, just northwest of the Wiltern—the highly anticipated Art Deco theater at the intersection of Western and Wilshire that would open in October.
With her luxury address all set, Kitty got another nose job, had her teeth capped, bought fancy cosmetics, and acquired a new wardrobe. Brimming with confidence, she reported to Dolberg’s office at KFI on the prearranged date in early September, only to find that things were not quite what they seemed.
The mama’s boy had come down with a serious case of bad memory, claiming he had never met Kitty and that he was unaware of any job promise. Dazed and confused, Kitty was politely ushered to the sidewalk. With wobbly legs, she made it back to the new apartment she could no longer afford, wondering if she had stepped into some sort of alternate universe.
Later reconnaissance revealed the raison d’Être for Dolberg’s sudden amnesia. During a routine background check, Dolberg had called George Junkin, the KMOX station manager in St. Louis, and gotten an earful about the notorious Miss Kitty Fink. Consequently, she was blacklisted at KFI.
Realizing that her sullied reputation had followed her all the way to California, Kitty decided that now would be a very good time to assume a new name. And so, henceforth, she called herself Kay Thompson (although the stage name was not made legal until fourteen years later on September 25, 1945). “Kay” came from the pronunciation of the letter K, the first letter of Kitty. No one knows where she came up with “Thompson,” but it certainly suggested Waspier breeding. Together, “Kay Thompson” rolled off the tongue emphatically, with an authoritative, staccato beat. In addition to providing a clean break from her checkered past, the new identity would forever erase her Jewish surname. Tellingly, she never again mentioned it to the press. As far as she was concerned, Kitty Fink was dead and buried.
Even though Leo Fink had spent a lifetime rejecting his own heritage, he was deeply offended by his daughter’s repudiation of his family name. His reaction to the KFI debacle was summarily unsympathetic: an “I told you so” followed by a command that she return to St. Louis at once. Kay did not want to crawl back home with her tail between her legs, but she was down to her last dime.
Her confidence reached an all-time low. “I was a singer, [but] I wasn’t a good one of them,” Kay told her old Camp Toyon chum Cynthia Lindsay for her 1957 article in McCall’s. “It took a close friend, a black Irishman he was, to wise me up to what I did have—musicianship. ‘Kiddo,’ he said, ‘you have creative talent obviously, so if you’re not getting it across there’s something wrong. There’s a reason.’ As soon as he spoke the whole thing unfolded and I knew the reason. I was doing the wrong thing.”
Up until then, Kay had been copying other singers. What she lacked was a style of her own. At the same time she was changing everything on the outside, it clicked in her brain that she had to reinvent herself from the inside, too.
Providence also intervened. “At a party, I met the daughter of the President of Union Gas Company,” Kay explained in Radio Stars, referring to oil baron L. P. St. Clair. Not letting on that she was all but destitute, Thompson “kidded around, and sang and played for the guests, as though she were on top of the world.”
One of those guests was Don Forker, a thirty-seven-year-old Iowan go-getter who created radio shows sponsored by the Union Oil Company of California (makers of Union Gas and 76 Gasoline), for which he served as manager of advertising and publicity. Forker was impressed with Kay and decided on the spot that she would be just the talent to revitalize their flagship radio program.
“I got the job,” Thompson recalled, “singing for the Union Gas Company on the air, at ninety dollars a week.”
With an orchestra conducted by Gus Arnheim, Kay would sing, play piano, and arrange songs on The Kay Thompson-Union Gas Show, broadcast from KTM, the local Santa Monica station. The miraculous timing saved her from financial ruin and her father’s wrath.
She obviously made a good impression on Arnheim, too, because he invited her to perform with his red-hot, fourteen-piece dance band, appearing nightly at the Cocoanut Grove, the mythic ballroom in the Ambassador Hotel—coincidentally within easy walking distance of her apartment.
Not only was Kay suddenly performing in front of the rich and famous, but Mondays through Fridays, from ten o’clock to midnight, her singing was broadcast live over the radio. The remote was heard throughout the West over the Warner Brothers station, KFWB, and the program had already gained considerable fame as the place to hear tomorrow’s stars, like the young Bing Crosby, member of the Rhythm Boys trio with Al Rinker and Harry Barris.
In November 1931, Arnheim left to go on tour, leaving his arranger, Jimmie Grier, to wave the baton. Without missing a beat, Kay continued having a grand ole time, delighting Cocoanut Grove patrons as well as KFWB radio listeners, until it was announced that the broadcasts of Jimmie Grier’s Cocoanut Grove Orchestra would switch to, of all the rotten luck, KFI. When Glenn Dolberg discovered that Kay Thompson was really just Kitty Fink in sheep’s clothing, he barred her from appearing on the show.• • •
Humiliated, Thompson decided to skip town and spend the Christmas holidays with her family in Missouri. “When one door closes, another one always opens,” Kay told her California chums as she waved good-bye at the train station. And she was right. Upon arriving in St. Louis, she was greeted with the news that her hometown nemesis, George Junkin, had just quit KMOX. Not only that, but starting January 1, 1932, the station was moving to brand-new headquarters in the St. Louis Mart Building, featuring five state-of-the-art broadcasting studios.
With its increased capabilities, KMOX was looking to launch a number of new shows that its parent company, CBS, might pick up for national broadcast—reaching a sizable percentage of the nearly 17 million homes then equipped with radios. With her two sisters, Kay immediately formed a new vocal trio called the Debutantes. In no time flat, the girls were headlining their own radio show two nights a week. “The Debutantes, a regular feature of KMOX, are one of the most popular girl trios in the Middle West,” read a promotional brochure. “The trio features modern renditions of the latest popular tunes in a unique style of presentation.”
Just when things were settling in, however, Kay got word from Los Angeles that, “having established herself in the hearts of followers,” she was being sought to host Brighten-Up with Kay Thompson, a new morning show being mounted by, to her great surprise, KFI. Kay thought it was a cruel joke until it was explained that Glenn Dolberg had been persuaded to give her a second chance. She soon discovered, however, that his about-face had, in fact, been motivated by the almighty dollar. It turned out that the sponsor for the series would be Union Oil, thanks to that company’s marketing whiz Don Forker, Kay’s most ardent supporter. Forker’s vote of confidence—and the vast riches he brought to the table—trumped Dolberg’s concerns about Thompson’s murky past.
And so, when her thirteen-week commitment to The Debutantes series on KMOX in St. Louis ended on April 8, 1932, Kay replaced herself with Louise LaRue (formerly of the Trio) and raced back to California, where she signed a thirteen-week contract for Brighten-Up on KFI. From April 18 to July 15, the half-hour wake-up call was broadcast Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings from the Cocoanut Grove, featuring Kay’s singing and piano playing (sandwiched between histrionic news updates on the Lindbergh kidnapping). A press release, written by Don Forker and issued by the Union Oil Publicity Department, noted that Kay’s “blue” singing style was “devoid of the moan affected by so many other blue singers.” Kay was accompanied by the backup vocals of seventeen-year-old Jack Smith (later host of ABC-TV’s You Asked for It), Martin Sperzel, and Johnny Smedburg, better known as the Three Ambassadors—the first of many male backup groups Thompson would utilize.
On August 30, Kay joined the cast of KFI’s Fun Factory, a nighttime sketch comedy series that mined her comic abilities. The very next night, however, she committed something akin to treason by appearing on rival station KHJ, the local CBS affiliate. Though, contractually speaking, she was nonexclusive to KFI and free to moonlight elsewhere, Dolberg took it as a personal affront.
Nevertheless, Kay accepted an offer to be the featured singer and piano soloist for Tom Coakley and His Orchestra during their three-month gig in the Blossom Room overlooking the roof patio at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. On September 9, 1932, KHJ broadcast a live special from the Roosevelt featuring Coakley and company to coincide with one of the biggest social events of the year: the Gala World Premiere of Rain (United Artists, 1932) at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. All the stars and klieg lights in Hollywood were shining for the highly anticipated Joan Crawford vehicle, with much of that glitter and excitement spilling right across the street into the Roosevelt, where the after-party was taking place. This gave Thompson and Coakley a captive audience of A-list celebrities. After that enchanted evening, their stock rose dramatically. So, beginning Monday, September 26, the orchestra “featuring Kay Thompson” was broadcast over KHJ six nights a week through the end of Coakley’s engagement on October 25.
Kay could not help but notice Coakley’s handsome eighteen-year-old saxophone player and vocalist, an affable fellow by the name of Alvin Morris, who, in 1936, would change his name to Tony Martin and become a big-time singer and movie star. Kay alternately called him “Mr. Suede” (because he always wore it), or simply “Mr. M.,” nicknames she was still using on the air in 1939 when she and Tony co-headlined the series Tune-Up Time (CBS Radio).
Kay quickly became known for her startling vocal arrangements. She loved to take a song, do the first verse straight, then reinvent it, changing the tempo, adding lyrics, and improvising improbable flourishes that spiraled into the wild blue yonder. Her groundbreaking swing arrangements oozed Thompsonian gusto at every fast-and-furious turn. Not everyone appreciated her tampering, however. To the ears of Übercolumnist Walter Winchell, she crossed the line by reinventing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” Appalled that Kay had “messed around with it on the air,” Winchell chastised her for being “sacrilegious.” Winchell did not forgive and forget, either. In 1937, he declared, “Kay Thompson simply spoils lovely hits by rewriting them.”
The Winchell-Thompson controversy fueled an onslaught of cover versions of “Stardust” from just about every band and vocalist on the map. In his autobiography, Carmichael credits Winchell for turning “Stardust” into the standard it is today, though it was Thompson’s “desecration” that got the fire started.
During the fall of 1932, three young male singers caught Thompson’s eyes and ears. They were eighteen-year-old Hal Hopper, a tenor from Oklahoma City (later the father of actor Jay North of Dennis the Menace fame), eighteen-year-old Woody Newbury, a tenor from Dallas, Texas, and seventeen-year-old Chuck Lowry, a baritone from Los Angeles. They called themselves the Three Rhythm Kings, inspired by Bing Crosby’s recently defunct trio, the Rhythm Boys. Kay took them under her wing and helped them create special arrangements to showcase their three-part harmonizing. Kay adopted the Three Rhythm Kings as her new backup singers, succeeding the Three Ambassadors.
Building on the group’s exposure with Coakley’s orchestra, Warner Brothers’ radio station, KFWB, launched a new series called Kay Thompson and the Three Rhythm Kings on Sunday night, October 2, 1932. Amazingly, with concurrent radio shows broadcasting over KFI, KHJ, and now KFWB, Kay had managed to become the belle of West Coast radio.
As Kay turned twenty-three that November of 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president, to serve the first of four terms, a regime that would lead the nation out of the Great Depression and into the Second World War.
Kay had been so busy in California, she hadn’t made it back to St. Louis since April. The Finks were laying the pressure on thick for her to come home for Thanksgiving, but Kay replied that she was too busy to get away. Then, in mid-November, just minutes before one of her radio shows, Kay received a telegram from her mother: FATHER TERRIBLY ILL COME HOME AT ONCE.
“I stayed for the whole broadcast,” Kay recalled. “I couldn’t walk out on them.” As soon as it was over, she boarded the next train to St. Louis only to find that the seriousness of her father’s condition had been greatly exaggerated. Leo had been diagnosed with a heart condition known as angina pectoris, but he clearly was not on his deathbed. The panic had been a ruse—a rather sadistic one—to get Kay home for the holidays.
While Kay had been away, her St. Louis-based trio, the Debutantes, had morphed into Three Best Girls, featuring Blanche Fink, Louise LaRue, and Georgia Erwin, regularly featured on KMOX County Fair with pianist Ted Straeter. Marian Fink, who did not have as strong a passion for showbiz as her sisters, had decided to leave the group but would occasionally fill in when needed. Kay was happy to see them and enjoyed getting caught up on all the local gossip.
Jimmie, the young man who had partied with Kay the day she got canned from KMOX, asked her out on a Saturday night date to the Beaux Arts Room, a fancy dinner/dance club at the Coronado Hotel in downtown St. Louis. After the first course, he proposed.
“I don’t want to get married,” Kay responded. “My place is at a microphone in front of an orchestra like that one. Now, be a good boy and wangle me an introduction to that bandleader.” The puppy dog obeyed and, a short time later, Jimmie formally introduced conductor Al Lyons to his non-fiancÉe, “Kitty Fink.”
Winking at Jimmie to keep his mouth shut, Kay took over the conversation: “I have a friend who was a sensation at the Cocoanut Grove and she’d love to sing with your band.” With devil horns practically growing out of her head, Kay added that her “friend” was a West Coast singer named Kay Thompson, in town for the holidays.
Mesmerized by two magic words—“Cocoanut Grove”—Lyons said, “Send her around to the Fox Theatre tomorrow for an audition.”
The next day, when Kay came sauntering down the aisle at the Fox, Al asked where the Cocoanut Grove vocalist, Kay Thompson, was.
“Here I am,” she said with a smirk, sashaying over to the piano. “I’m the girl.”
The hoax went over better than the audition itself. Suddenly, Kay was stricken with stage fright. Her voice cracked through the first eight bars of “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”
Thinking fast, she exaggerated the deterioration in her voice, whispering pathetically, “I’ve got laryngitis. But I’m really very good.”
“I’ll never forget it! It was horrible!” Kay later recalled. “But he said to return to work, to my astonishment.”
Pulling herself together, Kay performed with Lyons regularly at the Fox Theatre, the Coronado Hotel, and the Meadowbrook Country Club, plus two nights a week on KMOX.
Around Christmas, however, after she’d been back home only a month, fate dealt Kay a card that took her right back to Hollywood for her biggest break yet.
© 2010 Sam Irvin