A girl crosses her arms, looking up, and her hair drifts with static electricity as though she’s rubbed it with a balloon.
‘Here’s what I like to do,’ she says — ‘Pretend. … Sometimes I am a giant with fire coming out of my hair.’
Eloise, the six-year-old girl who lives the Plaza Hotel, has a force of character. She’s always in motion. She skibbles up the hallways, skidders sticks along the walls — leaping tour jetés, fencing with kabobs, exploring a closet in the dark as a cavern full of tigers and lions.
When she first appeared, in 1955, she became a phenomenon. Her books became best-sellers written by a woman who — in the 1950s — built her own creative career from scratch as a singer and radio star, composer and arranger of music, head of the vocal department for MGM and star of a night club act worth $1 million at her height. She wore slacks, made a name for charisma and vigor, found her own voice and taught a younger generation of women to find theirs.
Almost 70 years later, Eloise has come to Stockbridge with visions of New York — a look into the mind of the artist who brought her to life.
Eloise and More: The Life and Art of Hilary Knight appears at the Norman Rockwell Museum now through March 12. Exhibition curator Jesse Kowalski and Don Bacigalupi, the founding president of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art have curated a retrospective, sharing the extent and the sheer variety of Knight’s work in 70 years as an artist and illustrator in New York.
“It’s a real event for me, the Norman Rockwell Museum show,” Knight said by phone from Manhattan.
In this broad retrospective, he offers visions from Charles Dickens to Harper’s and Vanity Fair, mythological creatures and imaginary worlds, theater and fashion design. In sketches from city scenes, he recalls speakeasies and jazz clubs from the 1930s. Posters from Broadway shows fill the room with the energy of women singing, dancing, flinging their arms wide and laughing.
Look below the surface, and their worlds can overlap with Eloise, he suggests, sometimes in unexpected ways. Eloise too has roots in the backlots of MGM studios and in New York nightclubs. She knows the Plaza behind the scenes because her writer, Kay Thompson, did.
“Kay was an extraordinary person,” Knight said, “and she was very interested in the workings of everything, as I am. … I had a lot of friends in the mode of Kay Thompson — inventive — there was no one like Kay.”
He recalls her as strong, forceful, brilliant as an artist and a professional — the charisma evident in her performing ability and her incredible full-range voice.
Thompson knew the Plaza inside out, knight said, because she lived and performed there. He learned of her first through her night club act, he said. She became famous for her sophisticated top-speed presentation.
“She started in the early 1950s,” he said, “and there was no night club like it.”
Eloise began as a character Thompson would play for fun with friends, an alter-ego. Like Thompson, Eloise lives on the top floor of the plaza — with her Nanny, her small dog and her turtle. (Her never-present mother seems to be off touring the capitals of Europe.)
In her stories, she’s helping Johanna the day maid from Bavaria and rushing her feet off with Bill the busboy, who goes to night school, and Thomas the waiter, who tells her about his son in the marines. She’s eating breakfast in the kitchen in her scuffs with an egg cup on her head.
Hilary Knight draws theater images, illustrations and fashion designs in his Manhattan studio.
In her own worlds, in music and film, Thompson worked her way up and knew wide constellations of people behind the scenes. Beginning as a radio star, she became highly influential at MGM for many years — the head of their vocal department, composing and arranging music.
She taught and coached constellations of actors — Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe — and became a mentor and very close friend to Judy Garland.
And yet film and theater declared her not conventionally beautiful enough to perform, Knight said, though when she finally took to the screen in Funny Face, she won worldwide acclaim.
“The world didn’t know Kay when the movie came out,” he said, “and they learned.”
When she left California to form her nightclub act in New York, she was performing with a group of young men, including the Williams brothers, and with the support of old friends.
“Robert Alton was choreographing (for her) — he was a choreographer at MGM and a close friend. Don Loper designed costumes for her, including the slacks she was known for with a sash. …. Roger Edens, music director at MGM, was an old friend in the 1930s, and (playwright) Nöel Coward was important to her in every possible way.”
And in this time, as her cabaret performances held national attention, she and Knight met and began their collaboration. So Eloise — mischievous, imaginative, intensely active — came into being in a dynamic and sometimes challenging background. She charges with gusto and a backstage view of her world.
She lives without family, Kowalski said, and with independence and humor. Thompson did not intend to write a children’s book, he said. She called Eloise a book for precocious adults.
“She never considered Eloise a children’s book,” Knight agreed, recalling her moving the books to the adult shelves whenever she saw them in the children’s section in a bookstore. “She would get very upset — she would say ‘that’s the last thing I would ever do,’ and that’s true.”
In the 1950s, picture books for children and and graphic novels for adults were still comparatively rare, he suggested, books that give images as much room as text, or more. The first Eloise book in November 1955, just before the holidays.
‘Here was a book on the best-seller list for years that looked nothing like anything anyone had ever seen.’ — Knight said.
“Here was a book on the best-seller list for years that looked nothing like anything anyone had ever seen,” Knight said.
The book just skyrocketed, Kowalski said. (According to Thompson’s biographer, Sam Irwin, the book sold more than 130,000 copies within the first year.) And over Thompson’s protests, it moved into the children’s section. Eloise has a definite spirit to her, he said, and she appealed widely.
Knight and Thompson would work together on three more books. He traveled with her to Paris, filming Funny Face, and to Rome, finding her powerfully intellectual and well-connected.
‘Kay was continuously a fantastic person to be with, because she was so sharp, and she knew everybody.’ — Hilary Knight
“Kay was continuously a fantastic person to be with,” he said, “because she was so sharp, and she knew everybody.”
He recalled the adventure of going to Russia with her. It was 1959, at the height of the Cold War, a bare few years past the end of Stalin’s rule and Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist defamation trials.
Thompson and Knight stayed in the Kremlin in a hotel that faced the square, Red Square, he said. He remembers looking out the windows to see a line that stretched for miles to see the waxed remains of Stalin and Lenin (which have long since moved now elsewhere.
“I think the best and most interesting of the Eloise books is Moscow,” he said, “because of the drawings and elaborate research. We were there for four weeks, and we did all we could do. You had a tour guide with you all the time.”
His guide did not want him to draw anything with historic roots, he said. He recalled beautiful wooden houses through the countryside — he and Thompson traveled to Leningrad briefly and saw some of community life outside the city, though they stayed most in Moscow.
Knight would walk with a sketchbook and draw people there and scenes outside the cities — trying to catch hold of what was left from earlier times in the country’s history.
Thompson withdrew from the fifth book they were working on together, Eloise Takes a Bawth, and so Knight moved on.
And the show moves with him, before their collaboration and through the decades since then — through more than 50 books, seasons of Broadway shows, magical worlds and enchanted woods in the sunlight.