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Kay Thompson; Singer Wrote ‘Eloise’ Books

<i> From Times Staff and Wire Reports</i>

Kay Thompson, the singer, dancer and comedian who wrote the “Eloise” books about a 6-year-old girl’s adventures at New York’s Plaza Hotel and elsewhere, has died. She was believed to be in her 90s.

Thompson died Thursday in Manhattan, said her attorney, Arthur E. Abelman.

Thompson was a singer on radio and then a musical arranger and composer for Judy Garland, among others in Hollywood, before turning to nightclubs and then books.

She worked behind the scenes on such films as “The Ziegfeld Follies” in 1944 and “The Harvey Girls” starring Garland in 1946, and played the role of the fashion editor in the 1957 Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn film “Funny Face.”

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But Thompson was best known for creating the fictional Eloise, the poor little rich girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel with her nanny, her dog and her turtle while her mother is off seeking the sun.

“ ‘Eloise,’ as anybody can see, is not a children’s book. It was obviously written for precocious adults,” Thompson told The Times’ Digby Diehl in 1969. After the interview, Diehl concluded that Thompson herself was a cross between Eloise and Auntie Mame.

“Eloise,” published in 1955, led to an Eloise doll, a record, fashions, a TV special and three sequels: “Eloise in Paris,” 1957; “Eloise at Christmastime,” 1958; and “Eloise in Moscow,” 1959. The original story is still in print and has sold more than half a million copies in the past 15 years.

Eloise was created in Thompson’s nightclub days when she entertained her backup singers (one was Andy Williams) off-stage by taking the persona of a little girl, saying in a high-pitched voice: “I am Eloise. I am 6.”

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Dede Ryan of Harper’s finally persuaded Thompson to turn those improvisations into a book, and arranged a collaboration with illustrator Hilary Knight to create the image of Eloise.

“You see, I really am Eloise,” she told The Times in 1969.

Thompson was born in St. Louis in an indeterminate year and by age 15 had performed with the St. Louis Symphony. She went to California to teach diving but wound up singing with the Mills Brothers, beginning an eclectic career. There were two marriages, one to bandleader Jack Jenny, the second to producer William Spier, but no children.

“Along the way I think I’ve discovered the secret of life,” she told an interviewer in 1975. “I’ll give you a few clues--a lot of hard work, a lot of sense of humor, a lot of joy and a whole lot of tra la la la.”


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