Illustrator Hilary Knight lives in a small apartment in Manhattan’s Tudor City, made to look even smaller by the black lacquer paint that coats every wall like fresh tar. The wall itself is barely visible, hidden behind hundreds (perhaps thousands) of framed artwork by himself and others. The subjects range wildly—Nefertiti in profile, Parisian can-can girls, a fighter jet, posters announcing the opening nights of now iconic Broadway shows. And in the den corner, propped up against an armchair in two-dimensional repose: a life-sized, cardboard cut-out of Eloise.
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The character—a 6-year-old blond girl with, as Knight puts it, “a horrible little face,” a pudgy gut, a tiny pleated skirt, and a big pink hair bow—is without a doubt Mr. Knight’s most enduring creation. She was first drawn in 1955 to complement a children’s story by Kay Thompson, who at the time was a striking, 46-year-old cabaret performer and actress. Thompson, who lived at the Plaza Hotel (like a grownup version of Eloise herself), was one of New York’s great eccentrics—as Knight says, gesturing to a photograph of her as he speaks, “You only have to look at that face to see this is a mesmerizing person, and not your ordinary, everyday woman.”
“She never wanted to do anything to promote the book, for anniversaries. I said, ‘Kay, can’t we do a special drawing or something?’ And she said, ‘Oh no darling, the book sells itself.’ Of course nothing ever does.”
Kay Thompson’s Eloise was an immediate hit when it was published 55 years ago. The subject was irresistible: A little girl living at the Plaza—along with her nanny, pug, and turtle—who has carte blanche to run around the hotel and city, getting into trouble at every turn. Thompson, who died in 1998, staunchly believed that Eloise was a book for grownups with childish impulses, rather than the other way around.
And while Thompson may have provided the unforgettable voice of Eloise (“Paper cups are very good for talking to Mars.”), it was Knight’s drawings that truly brought the character to life. “This was the best thing that ever happened to it,” says Knight, “though Kay wouldn’t ever say so. The first four books published during Thompson’s lifetime ( Eloise, Eloise in Paris, Eloise at Christmastime, and Eloise in Moscow) were all incredible successes, breaking records one after the other.
On Monday, Knight, who turned 83 last weekend, will receive a significant birthday present—he is being honored by the New York Public Library in a gala celebration for his entire body of work. Though the award is certainly focused on Eloise, Knight gently mentions that he has done much more than create a tiny, cosmopolitan Frankenstein. “Oh, I am proud of a great many other things,” he says. “I worked in the theater, illustrating for Broadway. I did 50 books, I have done murals and fashion drawings for Saks Fifth Avenue. I have done thousands of drawings for magazines—and now, I even have a blog.”
For his blog, which began on Vanity Fair’s Web site this fall, Knight is intent on capturing the city’s institutions that he loves, but feels are fast disappearing. “I am doing a project to draw all these old restaurants that have endured, inspired by Café Des Artistes closing,” he says. “My favorite so far is Le Veau D’Or, over by Bergdorf Goodman. They used to serve tête de veau, which as you know is the entire head of a calf, and children would squeal when it would come out. So I have drawn an elegant French woman very pleased with this order, and her little ones, not so much.”
“You’d never see Eloise with a cellphone,” he jokes. “Not in my lifetime”
Knight is also working on a new book with June Havoc, the 97-year-old sister of Gypsy Rose Lee (“Baby June” from the musical), creating an “adult graphic novel about her life in vaudeville in the 1920s when she was a huge star. It’s quite grim.”
Knight met Havoc through Kay Thompson, as they both were married to the same man, Bill Spier (“separately, of course”). “They are totally connected,” says Knight. “They are both Scorpios. And Eloise is a Scorpio, and I am too. I’ve always been drawn to these strong, captivating women.
Knight met Thompson through his neighbor, socialite D.D. Ryan, who used to wake up with drawings slipped under her door, and who met Thompson on a photo shoot with Richard Avedon. The author and illustrator immediately bonded after meeting and with only a few phrases to start with (“I have a dog that looks like a cat.”), Knight started drawing. Less than a year after meeting, the pair published the first Eloise book. “From there, the demand exploded,” explains Knight. “But Kay went off to make Funny Face, because everyone then wanted her for movies. She was miserable on that set; the only one she liked was Audrey Hepburn. So she invited me to Paris and we did that, and Christmas, and Moscow, because it was very hip back then, with all the Cold War talk and spies.”
And then, as quickly as the phenomenon started, it was over. “She just stopped wanting to do Eloise,” says Knight. “It was done for her, and that’s always her way. She cut things off, she molted. She was a jazz singer, then a voice coach, then a cabaret singer, then an author, and she had to keep moving. But four years later, from Rome, she called me and said, ‘We have to do another book. Eloise Takes A Bawth.’”
“The lost Bath Book,” as Knight refers to it, was doomed from the start. Thompson’s heart wasn’t really in it, and she was trying to push Eloise into the political realm. “It was right around the time of the assassination of the president,” recalls Knight. “She wanted to make it a very dark, claustrophobic book about disasters. The original concept of it was that Eloise taking a bath flooded the hotel, and the entire lobby was filled and they had boats coming in and Walter Cronkite discussing all this. I had a feeling this is never going to happen. And it didn’t. After four years we killed the book because it just wasn’t very good. Her writing wasn’t great, and neither were my drawings.”
After the bath book was shelved in 1968, Thompson attempted to completely divorce herself of the Eloise franchise, a move that permanently corrupted the pair’s relationship. “We got along famously until the very end,” says Knight. “She never wanted to do anything to promote the book, for anniversaries. I said, 'Kay, can’t we do a special drawing or something?' And she said, 'Oh no darling, the book sells itself.' Of course nothing ever does. She forgot that this was my livelihood, the royalties from the books.”
Following Thompson’s death, Eloise Takes a Bawth was finally published in 2002. Since that time, however, Knight has not had any access to or say in Eloise’s fate. “Withholding is a nice way of saying what her estate is,” he grumbles. “But Kay would not be happy with the new book, or any of the re-printings. You see, she didn’t want anything done. I know deep down that we will someday see more Eloise, and I hope I’m here to do them. I would love to see an animated movie, because live-action cannot capture how terrible she really is.”
A new live-action, feature film version of Eloise in Paris is in the works (with Uma Thurman rumored as the nanny), though Knight says he knows nothing about it, and “is completely out of that loop."
And while Knight is thrilled Eloise is being reimagined for a new generation, he can’t see himself digitizing his characters or bringing them culturally up to date. “You’d never see Eloise with a cellphone,” he jokes. “Not in my lifetime. The worst thing she could do would be watch television. She is too interested in what’s going on in the outside world. As Kay was, and as I am.”
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.