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'Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise'

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.

Excerpted from Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise by Sam Irvin. Copyright 2010 by Sam Irvin. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster.

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Sam Irvin