One day, when I was a kid, my mother brought home a book called "Eloise" by Kay Thompson with drawings by Hilary Knight. "Eloise" is the story of a precocious outrageous little girl who lived in a castle called The Plaza Hotel and she poured water down the mail chute. That always made sense to me, but I would never dare do it. And not only because there were no mail chutes in Hazlehurst, Mississippi.
What I did do was pore over this book. Mr. Knight's fold-out, diagramming Eloise's rise and descent in the elevators and stairwells of The Plaza, appealed to the little engineer boy as well as the designing woman in me. But there was something else I couldn't quite put my finger on. A breeziness that transcended the everyday, permeated the book, and created a seminal influence that would never leave. It captured something inside me. It wasn't just a children's book. It was a way of life.
Fast forward to 1978. I have arrived in New York to pursue life's adventures. An avid movie buff, I quickly find all the pre-home video repertory movie houses and I go to screenings of every Hollywood film I've yearned to see. My friends and I live in a transient hotel on West 71st Street which seems as far from the East Village as Hazlehurst from New Orleans. So when we set out one afternoon to Theater 80 St. Mark's Place to see "Funny Face" starring Kay Thompson, Audrey Hepburn, and Fred Astaire, we haven't gauged our traveling time very well. We don't know that it takes two subway trains and several blocks to walk to get there. Finally we arrive and the movie has already started. We prefer to see the movie from the beginning but we have come a long way, so we pay our money and walk into the strange, dark theater which is damp and cool. I catch a glimpse of Dovima, the pale fashion model, on the tiny curved screen. She is leaving a bookstore. There is a charming scene between Hepburn and Astaire. Then, there is Kay Thompson, and at last I have a face to put to the name, to put to the personality.
She is stylish and brassy. I am intrigued. She traipses all over Paris shouting, "Tres gai, tres chic, tres magnifique!" I am fascinated. In a vest and a tight skirt and with a beret on her head she mops up the floor with Fred Astaire in "Clap Yo' Hands." I am hooked. I want to be Kay Thompson.
Miss Thompson was a brilliant musician and personality who was ultimately way too sophisticated for Hollywood. So she put an act together that changed nightclub life in the 50s. Once that had been done, she turned her mad creativity to "Eloise." Throughout the 60s there were the occasional TV appearances and one small role in the Otto Preminger movie "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon" starring Thompson's goddaughter Liza Minnelli. In the 70s Kay staged an extravagant Halston fashion show at Versailles. Then she pulled a Greta Garbo and retreated from public life.
Liza Minnelli understands my admiration for Miss Thompson. When Kay passed away, Liza had a small party at The Plaza Hotel to celebrate her memory and she graciously invited me. We told Kay stories, listened to her music, sang her songs and even played with her dog. It was a wonderful tribute in a fitting location.
Photo: Rex Reed, Liza, Terence Flannery, Michael Feinstein and myself at The Plaza party
At the party I thought about Kay Thompson's influence on me when I was a kid in tiny, safe, secluded Hazlehurst. And I realized that the underlying "something" that I latched onto, even then, was style and a sophistication and a joie de vivre that seems incongruous today. For we live in a beige world, and Kay Thompson was red, black and pink. Can't we bring back red, black and pink?! \
Photo: Me and the effervescent Kay in a typical outfit staging a Donna Karan fashion show in a shopping mall in New Jersey!)
Photos: Kay clowns around with Evelyn Rudie, the star of the TV film version of "Eloise"