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Talk about aging well -- Eloise is still only 6

Times Staff Writer

“Come up to the pool,” says Mr. Hilary Knight.

He stands natty and very New York in the lobby of the Four Seasons at Beverly Hills, a book tucked under his arm. Its watery blue cover peeks out from under his elbow like a spreading stain.

“I love these luxury hotels,” he says sotto voce en route to the elevator. “All the combs and everything “

He sounds as if he would like to steal one. Oooooooo, Eloise would absolutely love those combs.

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He takes a breakfast table by the turquoise rooftop pool, more books piled beside his omelet. It’s an overcast Los Angeles day, here among the blue and white striped cabanas, the palms and ferns, on the fourth floor of the Four Seasons. Yesterday, Knight met with Esther Williams, the legendary MGM Swimming Star. Knight has already been swimming this morning -- at 6:30, when the moon was still out.

“I’m trying to do everything that has to do with water on this trip,” he says.

Knight, 76, has illustrated more than 50 books, done Broadway show posters, contributed to high-end catalogs such as Neiman Marcus’ “The Book” and is a staff artist for Vanity Fair. But he is best known as the illustrator of Kay Thompson’s beloved Eloise series. He is here in Los Angeles to promote “Eloise Takes a Bawth” (Simon & Schuster), the first new Eloise book to be published in 40 years. Thus the stack on his breakfast table.

Born 50 years ago as an impish voice Thompson would use to entertain friends -- and first immortalized in “Kay Thompson’s Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grownups” -- Eloise is a saucy 6-year-old who lives in the Plaza Hotel in New York with Nanny, her pug dog Weenie (who looks like a cat) and her turtle Skipperdee. (Only the Plaza allows turtles!) She skibbles and skidders about the halls having grand adventures -- feeding her mother’s attorney rubber candy, hiding in high-up holes in the Grand Ballroom, torturing her tutor and ordering everything possible from room service. (Charge it please and thank you very much!)

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In “Bawth,” as Eloise lolls in her bathtub at the Plaza and indulges in aquatic fantasies -- water-skiing with her pet turtle and traveling the seas in a pirate ship -- and she floods the entire hotel on the night of the Venetian Masked Ball. But o my lord calamity turns to good fortune, as canals are awash and gondolas float and the Venetian Masked Ball is the sensation of the social season!

The fold-out, yard-long illustration of the ball is a riot of color and detail and full of secret jokes that only Knight can explain: There is Esther Williams, atop a spout of golden water, and there is Diana Vreeland, with a gold alligator about her neck. There is Dame Edna fleeing a suitor on the covered bridge. And there is Knight, a Pirandello pirouetting on the tip of a gondola with his cat, Ruff (identifiable by his bellybutton), balanced on the nose of his mask. And look closely, oooooo, very closely -- there are Eloises, fully 26 of them. There, among the synchronized swimmers, and there, longing for a cheese globe, and there, o look, grasping for a flask of imported Fontana Bernini with apricots. Oooooooo, Eloise absolutely loves Fontana Bernini with apricots.

It becomes clear, over breakfast at the Four Seasons, that Eloise lives on in Knight.

He strips off his shoes and socks for a photographer and dangles his feet in the hotel fountain -- even flicks some water into the air with his toes -- just as a grumpy-looking security guard strides by.

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“Kay’s voice is always buzzing around in my head. And Kay’s voice is Eloise,” he says. “She is totally part of my head, my arms, my fingers, my brain.” Indeed, there is something of the illustrated Eloise in the flick of Knight’s wet toe.

Those who knew Thompson say that in her later years, she sometimes felt the mania for Eloise overtook her life and overshadowed her. Not so Knight. He embraces the imperious 6-year-old Napoleon.

“I wouldn’t be here today if not for Eloise,” he says. “I have done lots of things I think are much better, but you are always famous for one thing.”

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The birth of Eloise

Kay Thompson was a flamboyant musical performer who trained vocal greats such as Lena Horne and Judy Garland. According to a 1996 Vanity Fair article on Thompson, Eloise began as a “vocal riff” among friends. She grew into an alter ego, allowing Thompson to express contrarian thoughts in a bratty, childish voice. One day, late for a photo session at a friend’s house in Los Angeles, Thompson drove across a golf course to save time. “Who do you think you are, coming here five minutes late,’ ” the friend reportedly said when he saw her roll up on the grass. “I am Eloise. I am 6,” Thompson responded.

That became the first line of her first book, retitled “The Absolutely Essential Eloise,” published in 1955 with illustrations by Knight. It became a bestselling sensation, and the two collaborated on three sequels, “Eloise in Paris” (1957), “Eloise at Christmastime” (1958) and “Eloise in Moscow” (1959).

As perfect as this collaboration seems, Knight wasn’t her first choice. He says Thompson met with Andy Warhol and the prize-winning Swiss children’s book illustrator Tomi Ungerer in her efforts to find someone to draw Eloise. They didn’t get on.

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“I think what frustrated her was she couldn’t draw,” Knight says of Thompson, whom he describes as “very, very smart and interested in everything -- politics, fashion, art. She would have liked to have been able to draw the books herself.”

Knight was introduced to her by his neighbor, D.D. Dixon, a fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. He was 27. Thompson was in her 50s. “She liked working with me,” he says. “I was very easy because I was totally in awe of her.”

Knight’s parents, Clayton Knight and Katharine Sturges, were artist-writers, and he was inspired by the illustrators he found in their library and on the bookshelves of his bedroom -- Edmund Dulac’s “exotic fantasies” (“Tales From the Arabian Nights,” “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”) and Ernest H.Shepard (“The Wind in the Willows”).

From 1960 to 1964, Thompson and Knight worked on and off in Rome, where Thompson had an apartment, on “Eloise Takes a Bawth.” But in the mid-'60s Thompson, a temperamental perfectionist, removed the three Eloise sequels from print and refused to allow “Bawth” to be published.

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When she died in 1998, the rights passed back to her estate, which passed them back to her publisher. The three sequels have since been reissued. And “Eloise Takes a Bawth” has just appeared in bookstores for the first time.

This time, Eloise is Knight’s baby. Knight says the revival began with the Vanity Fair story on Thompson and a request for illustrations. He began digging through his New York apartment, where stacks of his portfolios overflow from closets and shelves. He found illustrations he had almost forgotten about. “All I had were hundreds of sketches,” he says. “None of them were finished with.”

After the story ran, which included some of the never-before-published pencil sketches for “Bawth,” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter hired Knight. “I want you to draw just like you drew Eloise,” he told him. That forced Knight to brush up on the pen-and-ink technique he used for Eloise, which he hadn’t used for nearly 40 years. Then the estate consented to publish “Bawth.” But the text was unfinished.

“That is when I went to Mart Crowley,” Knight says. Crowley, a playwright who wrote “The Boys in the Band,” had worked with his friend Thompson on a never-completed book titled “The Fox and the Fig.” “We need you,” Knight told Crowley. “You knew her. You know the sound of Eloisiana.” Crowley helped flesh out the story. As it says on the cover of “Bawth”: “Additional plumbing by Mart Crowley.”

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A Hollywood jaunt?

So where would Eloise stay if she came to Los Angeles? The Beverly Hills Hotel, the Peninsula, Chateau Marmont?

“I wouldn’t put her here,” Knight says. He surveys the cabanas that look like forts, the chairs that look like trampolines, the pool that looks like a big bathtub. “Her base is the Plaza.”

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But Eloise did almost take a trip to Los Angeles. In 1956, Kay Thompson was here shooting “Funny Face,” in which she played a fashion editor modeled on Diana Vreeland. The musical starred Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn and began with Thompson’s opening number, “Think Pink.” Knight was here too, doing preliminary sketches for a magazine piece on “Eloise in Hollywood.” It was never published. Could those sketches still be hiding in a closet too?

“It never developed into a story,” Knight says. “But I did lots of research, drawing mechanical cameras, make-up rooms, Fred Astaire’s toupee taped to a mannequin head -- things that would interest Eloise.”

Now his mind is revving up, the ideas are coming, you can practically see the sketches of Eloise sprouting from his head as he surveys the L.A. skyline.

“She might have a little bungalow somewhere with Nanny,” he begins. “Because she would be traveling to the studios. She might have her own dressing room....”

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Maybe he’ll put aside his fork and start scribbling on a napkin.

"[William Randolph] Hearst built Marion Davies a little cottage on the soundstage. I think she moved the whole thing from MGM to Warner Bros. when she left. Eloise might do that.... She might have a beach cabana. She would do what moguls do.”

He pauses. “She would definitely have a cottage on the set,” he says. “A mobile cottage....”

Ooooooooooo, Eloise would absolutely love L.A.!

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