“I am Eloise, I am six, I am a city child, I live at the Plaza”
So begins the 1955 classic book “Eloise,” written by Kay Thompson with drawings by Hilary Knight. The New York Times called Eloise “one of the most recognizable characters in children’s literature.” Time Magazine pronounced her “a magnificent moppet.” Her countless fans over more than 60 years include the Beatles, Lena Dunham, and Groucho Marx. And children of all ages have adored the adventures of irrepressible 6-year old Eloise, her Nanny, pug dog Weenie and turtle Skipperdee. Let’s not forget, though, that Thompson called the first edition “a book for precocious grown-ups!”
For all devoted Eloise fans, and for new ones, too, here’s a tip. Scamper over to the exhibit “It’s Me, Eloise, The Voice of Kay Thompson and the Art of Hilary Knight,” on view at the New York Historical Society until October 9th. Pick up each of the four hotel telephones to hear Bernadette Peters and Kay Thompson greet you as Eloise from the books (Eloise, followed by Eloise in Paris in 1957, Eloise at Christmastime in 1958, and Eloise in Moscow in 1959.) Then immerse yourself in the drawings, text, photographs, and memorabilia that made Eloise an icon.
Thompson and Knight were quite a team, miraculously blending their talents to create Eloise and her rollicking world. Thompson was Eloise’s alter ego; she adopted an Eloise voice and characterization years before anyone imagined the books. A gifted, eccentric performer, she was also a renowned Hollywood vocal coach to Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Lena Horne, and Liza Minnelli. Knight, still vibrant at age 90, has written and illustrated books and magazines and designed theater posters, portraits, and murals. Together they produced this cheeky, irreverent, gleeful child, who leads a charmed life without, it seems, the constrictions of parents. She has a mother and father, but they are usually conveniently out of the picture. Nanny is her parental substitute, and she is clearly no match for her mischievous charge (frankly, no one is!)
The exhibit gives equal attention to Thompson’s ingenuity and Knight’s artistic flair. Knight’s early sketches for Eloise and her companions show the characters’ visual development. Taking center stage is Knight’s painted portrait of Eloise that graced the Plaza lobby until its mysterious disappearance in 1960. The curious backstory of its reappearance is explained (no spoilers here!), along with a video of its amazing restoration. Later drawings reveal his mastery of detail as well as his satiric humor. One example: look in the Eloise in Moscow illustrations for a spy wearing a black hat and spectacles. Samples of Knight’s other work include a 1958 book cover for Truman Capote’s unpublished “Can a Pig Fly?”
Listen to Thompson sing the Eloise theme song, played on a vintage record player. Her handwritten notes show how she perfected Eloise’s quirky expressions and speech patterns. A video clip of Thompson performing “Think Pink” in the 1957 MGM film “Funny Face,” highlights her musical career. Her character, Maggie Prescott, was based on Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who reportedly was not amused.
Thompson herself was not amused as Knight’s illustrations became increasingly celebrated, eclipsing her writing, and threatening her ego. Her resentment and imperious behavior ended their partnership in the mid-1960s.
Eloise’s fame inspired toys, dolls, a Plaza Hotel children’s menu, an emergency hotel kit, and her version of French post cards (quite innocent, thank you). They are all displayed, as are doll-sized Eloise costumes and the tale of the misguided 1956 Playhouse 90 television special. Her legendary Plaza bedroom is recreated, including her very own gin bottle on the shelf.
The stories of Eloise and her creators, artfully presented on the walls, are a delight to read. Once you’ve had a swell visit, treat yourself and the Eloise fans in your life to a book, doll, bathrobe and slippers, key chain, or other goodies in the shop specially designed for the exhibit.
To give Eloise the last word, which no doubt she deserves and expects, “Oh, I could tell you a lot but I am only six.”
By: Lois Farber