Precocious Eloise brings together Lena Dunham and artist Hilary Knight
“I am Eloise. I am six. I am a city child. I live at the Plaza.”
So begins the iconic 1955 children’s story “Eloise,” written by Kay Thompson and drawn by Hilary Knight, whose title character is “not yet pretty but she is already a Person.”
Although she didn’t grow up inside the Plaza — just near it — these words meant a lot to Lena Dunham. She saw herself in Eloise, the free spirit who roamed the halls of a fancy hotel talking to adults and creating mischief. Eloise may have been a bit chubby and in need of a good hair brushing, but she was, indeed, “a Person” — precocious, creative and self-assured.
When Dunham turned 17, she begged her parents to let her go to the local mall — where she’d gotten her nose pierced sans ID — to get a tattoo of Eloise. Roughly a decade later, Knight heard that the tattoo was clearly visible in the actress’ not infrequent nude scenes on her HBO show “Girls.”
The octogenarian artist signed a book for her and wrote her a letter, asking whether she’d like to join him for Indian food.
“To know a smart, sassy fan who obviously understands this child is a thrill for me,” he said in the 2013 letter.
Upon receipt of the package, Dunham burst into tears and promptly called Knight to set up their dinner date. Soon, she found herself in his cramped Midtown Manhattan apartment, eating fried okra with him on TV trays. She was so taken with his stories — and his ephemera-filled abode — that after the meal she immediately told “Girls” show runner Jenni Konner that Knight was “a remarkable person we need to document in some way.”
Thus came to life “It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise,” a 40-minute documentary that airs Monday on HBO. The first project from Dunham and Konner’s A Casual Romance Productions, the short film explores the origins of “Eloise,” a co-creation of Thompson, a bubbly actress and singer who worked as a vocal arranger for MGM in the 1940s, and Knight, who illustrated Broadway posters and more than 50 books.
In the documentary we see evidence of Knight’s vivid imagination reflected in his homes — decorated with dozens of weird paintings and Burmese fabrics and metal palm trees. But Dunham’s connection to the free-spirited Eloise is also examined, as is Knight’s affinity for Dunham — the latest in a long line of eccentric women he’s befriended.
“Eloise doesn’t care if her hair is a mess or her stomach is hanging over her pants,” said Konner. “And that’s Lena. That’s where this project came from.”
“I was a really skinny kid with a fat stomach,” Dunham, 28, explained.
This past January, she was sitting next to Konner and the film’s director, Matt Wolf — all three bundled in sweaters, parkas and snow boots during the Sundance Film Festival, where the movie premiered. (Knight had a cold and could not attend.)
“A kid at camp called me ‘Toddler Tummy,’ ” she continued.
“That’s horrible,” Konner said.
“But looking at Eloise,” Dunham said, “I thought, ‘It’s cool.’ ”
The 88-year-old Knight isn’t exactly the target audience for Dunham’s show about navel-gazing, navel-baring millennials, but he found himself riveted by the star.
“A girl who was then 27 doing all of this was extraordinary to me,” he said on the telephone this month from New York. “And when we met, she flew in the door all dressed in pink. And gradually, over many Indian dinners, her costumes would change according to her mood or how she wanted to appear to me.”
He also liked how important he felt around her. For decades, Knight had been overshadowed by his co-creator Thompson, who had always received the lion’s share of the credit for creating “Eloise” because she was a celebrity who was like catnip to the press.
“He was in disbelief for quite a bit of time that this documentary would actually happen because he’s overlooked so much,” Wolf said. “The idea that he would become a focus of something major is completely foreign to him.”
“And every time there’d be a lag, he’d say, ‘Did HBO drop us?’ ” Dunham recalled. “Before we met, he didn’t have any close friends who were young. To find out from me how much his work meant to me, it was like I’d said, ‘Everyone likes your band!’ ”
Knight says he’s thrilled by the documentary. “It’s done a lot for me and my career,” he said. “It’s not over.”
He then began speaking passionately about his next project, “The Frog and Nymph,” a humorous film he’s finishing starring his friend Phoebe Legere. We see Knight working on the so-called frog opera in the documentary — Dunham’s helping out on set as Legere floats topless in a pond at Knight’s East Hampton home. The frog is played by a man wearing dishwashing gloves for feet. And, yes, it’s as weird as it sounds.
But having creative freedom is especially important to Knight since his falling out with Thompson in the 1960s. When they were working on their final book together, “Eloise Takes a Bawth,” Thompson was so displeased with Knight’s work that she doused all of his drawings with rubber cement. She then took legal action to make sure he wouldn’t be able to continue Eloise without him.
“It was a disappointment to have that end because we had such a close and loving collaboration for a long time,” Knight said. “It took me a very long time to feel I had done something. The impact of what the fame of this book was — it’s still hard for me to understand. I don’t understand why it is so powerful in people’s lives, but I’m thrilled that that is true.”
Wolf says he isn’t sure Knight will ever be able to move past Thompson’s behavior. When they talk, Knight still brings up the story of the broken relationship “because he’s preoccupied by that conflict and disillusion.”
So by giving Knight a platform to tell his story, “I think Lena has had a transformational effect on his life,” Wolf said.
“Obviously it’s not like we did Hilary any kind of public service — he’s an incredible artist, and he’d be just fine without us,” Dunham added. “But it is very satisfying to see someone whose work you care so much about be recognized at a late stage in their life.”
‘It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise’
When: 9 p.m. Monday
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