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The Plaza girl: ‘Eloise’ on exhibit

  • Kay Thompson, the author of the “Eloise” books, in the 1950s.

  • These four phones, replicating a scene from the “Eloise” stories, all offer a different reading of an Eloise book by actress Bernadette Peters, as part of the exhibit "It's Me, Eloise" at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • llustration by Hilary Knight for The Plaza Hotel's children’s menu, 1956-57, offering items like “Smashed Potatoes.” Image courtesy of Eric Crale Museum

  • Unpublished drawing by Hilary Knight for the first Eloise book, 1955. Jim Gipe photo / Pivot Media

  • Unpublished illustration by Hilary Knight from “Eloise in Paris,” 1957. — Image courtesy of Eric Carle Museum

  • An Eloise prototype doll from 1957 by Vilma Kurzer, and doll clothing by Toy Guild Corporation, are part of the exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A Eloise doll by Hol-Le Toys, displayed at the "It's Me, Eloise" exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A Eloise doll by Hol-Le Toys, displayed at the "It's Me, Eloise" exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Eloise memorabilia is part of the "It's Me, Eloise" exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Entrance to the show "It's Me, Eloise" at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator of the Eric Carle Museum, points to a portrait of Eloise, by artist Hilary Knight, that was last displayed at The Plaza Hotel in New York City in 1960. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ellen Keiter, chief curator of the Eric Carle Museum, points to a portrait of Eloise, by artist Hilary Knight, that was last displayed at The Plaza Hotel in New York City in 1960. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • An unpublished drawing by Hilary Knight for the first Eloise book, 1955. — Image courtesy of Eric Carle Museum



Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2017

It’s a fantasy a lot of kids would cotton to — not having mom and dad around to tell you what to do, being free to get your meals from room service, scribbling on the walls and giving your tutor a hard time.

That’s likely why a spunky little anti-heroine named Eloise became a huge sensation over 60 years ago — and why her personality continues to reverberate today.

Eloise was the star of four children’s books in the 1950s and early 1960s written by cabaret singer and grand dame Kay Thompson, who at one time lived in New York City’s posh Plaza Hotel and reimagined that experience through the eyes of her young protagonist.

Just as central to those books were the illustrations of Hilary Knight, a young artist who created Eloise’s definitive look and gave life to her irreverent persona. On one hand, she could be the sweet little girl with a ribbon in her hair who played with her small dog, Weenie. Then there was the “hellcat,” as Life magazine dubbed her, upending life in the staid Plaza as she careened through the halls and lobby.

A whiff of scandal also added to the books’ cachet. Knight and Thompson had a falling out after just a few years of working together, and there was speculation that a large portrait of Eloise — painted by Knight — that disappeared from the Plaza’s lobby in 1960 might have been stolen by Thompson as a publicity stunt.

A new exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst has brought the story of Eloise and her creators back to life. “It’s Me, Eloise: The Voice of Kay Thompson and the Art of Hilary Knight” features over 90 artworks from the book series, as well as work Knight created for other writers and in his own children’s books. The show runs through June 4.

The “Eloise” books also created a small marketing bonanza, with Eloise dolls and clothes (also part of the Carle exhibit) and other items becoming big sellers. And over the years, the character has inspired records, made-for-TV films, an animated cartoon series and additional books produced in a similar style by different artists and writers.

Ellen Keiter, the Carle’s chief curator, says Eloise was such a well-known character that after her portrait vanished from The Plaza in November 1960, Walter Cronkite reported on CBS News that Eloise had been kidnapped from the hotel.

“She was a big deal,” Keiter said during a tour of the exhibit shortly before it opened. “The Plaza still has an Eloise room that you can book.”

There’s a second portrait of the cheeky girl, also painted by Knight, still hanging in the hotel’s lobby, Keiter notes, as well as various Eloise-inspired items for sale at the Plaza’s gift shop, like dolls, clothes, teaware and more.

“Eloise was living the kind of fantasy life a lot of kids liked to dream about,” said Keiter. “And she charmed adults as well.”

A younger alter ego

As the Carle exhibit makes clear, Eloise was very much an extension of her brassy adult creator. Kay Thompson, born Catherine Louise Fink in St. Louis in 1909, grew up in an artistic family and became a talented pianist. Reinventing herself as Kay Thompson in the 1930s, she got involved in radio and then became a highly sought-after vocal coach and arranger.

Among her high-profile clients were Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland; Thompson became the godmother of Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli.

Thompson later developed a musical burlesque show that made her a big-name performer in her own right. Jane Bayard Curley, the curator of the new Carle exhibit, notes in an accompanying catalog that Thompson had a knack for imitating a young girl’s voice for her friends’ amusement. A friend with Harper’s magazine, D.D. Ryan, suggested Thompson could develop that character for a book, if she could find the right illustrator.

Knight, then in his 20s, and Thompson were introduced in late 1954 and quickly hit it off. Thompson was then performing regularly at the Plaza, living there free of charge for a time, Keither says.

Thompson originally conceived her debut book for older readers; in fact, its title was “Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grown-Ups.” However, Curley writes, when an ad for the book, together with an excerpt from the story, appeared in Life magazine in December 1955, children began clamoring for the book.

Curley says Knight’s drawings were the key. The son of artists himself, in New York, Knight’s images for Eloise were inspired in part by a British cartoon series from the 1940s about anarchic boarding-school girls; some samples from the series, “Belles of St. Trinian’s,” are part of the exhibit, as are some of Knight’s preliminary sketches for “Eloise.”

“It didn’t take him too long to come up with the image that captured everyone’s attention,” said Keiter.

Slomping and skittering

From the first book, which takes place entirely in the Plaza, and subsequent ones set in Paris, Moscow and then back at the Plaza at Christmas, Eloise makes her way as a sort of urban Huckleberry Finn. Her mother and father are nowhere to be seen, though she does have one regular adult in her life, her English nanny.

At the Plaza, Eloise, in her first-person narration, describes how she spends her days “slomping” down the hotel hallways to wake people up, “skittering” in and out of elevators, and calling room service for her meals and snacks, like a handful of raisins. She also contemplates new strains of mischief: “Tomorrow I think I’ll pour a pitcher of water down the mail chute.”

One of Knight’s memorable images shows Elosie slouching in a plush chair in the Plaza lobby, amid a clutch of dowagers in furs and flowery hats. In “Eloise in Moscow,” she parades past a line of scowling Russians in winter coats and hats as she enters a hotel (“I always stay at the National whenever I am in Moscow”), where she proceeds to peep through keyholes at night — this during the height of the Cold War.

The books charmed many people, including Groucho Marx, who quipped “I admire Eloise enormously — and I am very happy that I am not her father.”

But after four successful books, Thompson became jealous of the attention Knight was getting for his illustrations, and their partnership dissolved as they tried to develop a fifth story, “Eloise Takes a Bawth.” Thompson would go on to publish a children’s story in 1970 on a different topic with a different artist, but the book sank like a stone, Curley writes.

Thompson later moved to Rome, while Knight had a successful career working for other authors and creating his own books, like 1964’s “Where’s Wallace?” which became something of a precursor for the “Where’s Waldo?” series of books by another publisher in the 1980s.

Among the materials at the exhibit, there’s one particular gem: It’s Knight’s original large portrait of Eloise, the one that disappeared from The Plaza Hotel in 1960. According to Keiter, Knight received an anonymous phone call two years later informing him he could find the picture in a trash can in uptown Manhattan, torn from its frame and sliced up.

Speculation has persisted for years, Curely writes, that Thompson, on the outs with Knight and intent on “underlining the primacy” of her voice in the Eloise books, stole the painting herself, in part to generate more publicity for the stories.

Keiter says Knight found the badly damaged work and stuck it in his closet, where it remained for years. Now conservators with the Carle have restored it as much as possible, and its presence at the museum marks its first public display since 1960.

“It’s the return of the original Eloise,” said Keiter.

That’s an event and wild storyline the little girl-shaped tornado would no doubt appreciate.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“It’s Me, Eloise” is on view at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art through June 4. For more information, including visiting hours and ticket prices, visit www.carlemuseum.org.