The Passion According to St. Kate

Of course you could have written it better, but you never would have written it. The bi-oh-my-ography of Kay Thompson. You were too busy live-live-living it. It’s like Oscar Wilde said, “[a second-rate poet] lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize.” And it’s like Samuel Taylor said, “I think a true talent for living has the quality of creation…I’d rather live a first-rate life than paint a second-rate picture.” Except that it’s not like either. You drove Wilde and Taylor-made them both, because you could do both – live and create – and what’s more, you could live a creation and create a living.

When you wrote Eloise, it was simply publicizing a character you’d grown into since birth, the most grown up child of all, who lived at the Plaza and was the death of the management. So they invited you to live there for free and you carried on where the book left off.

And after vamping an American Vogue editor in Paris with Funny Face and wearing the pants in America’s relationship with women’s wear, you master mixed the American segment of the Palace of Versailles restoration benefit fashion show,* whipping up, as one assistant described it, “a frenzy…these were not kids at a rock concert. These were the wealthiest kings, queens and royalty of Europe.”

Even while you were showing Judy Garland how to rise and shine, you became Liza Minnelli’s god and mother, steering her career with one hand and drinking a can of Coca-Cola with the other, just because it was the perfect shade of red. When you were tired of driving, Liza gave you an apartment and became your mother until you died. Then, in an electric eulogy, she did a tribute performance of your best songs and arrangements. It was “a lot of hard work, a lot of sense of humor, a lot of joy and a lot of tra-la-la!” Which was how you described the secret to life. But your life was no secret. It was created for everyone to see.

Many thanks to Sam Irvin for his comprehensive and incomprehensibly good book, Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise.

*Kay directed the models like a poet with Tourette Syndrome: “Elocution with your arms. Vocabulary with your fingers. There’s a bird trapped in your hair. Walk like you have ice water in your brassiere,” and selected a soundtrack that consisted of Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” and Cole Porter.


“I think I have a talent for living. Perhaps I’m trying to make the most of something small for want of something better, but I think a true talent for living has the quality of creation, and if that’s the talent I was meant to have, I’m awfully glad I have it. I’d rather live a first-rate life than paint a second-rate picture.” -Samuel Taylor, Sabrina Fair

I read this line and the letters are clothes warm from the dryer, clinging and comforting: You can have a first-rate life. Then they are little jurors, pointing their serifs at me, with inquiry and suspicion: Why can’t you paint a second-rate picture? Then they are little forks in the road, poking and insisting, You can only do one.

If you have a career, a relationship, travel – there’s no time for anything else. If you write, perform, create – there’s no money for anything else. So I’m working part-time and writing part-time and the whole thing is a very tall and poorly constructed wedding cake with too many layers – leaning this way and that. How can I keep it together. Who’s going to eat it. I’m not even married.

Just last night, on a family video, I saw this fiendish red-faced red-headed boy, flailing a naked Barbie by the hair. He was intimate with his imagination. Barbie was an actress in his film, a backup singer in his concert, a character in his novel. He made it look so easy. I wanted to be him again.