Skip to main content

The Eloise Story

Review. The most famous resident of New York’s Plaza Hotel, a mischievous little six-year-old girl named Eloise, is the subject of a delightful and curious exhibit at the New-York Historical Society. Eloise at the Museum is currently on display through October 9, 2017.

Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grown-ups (original title, 1955), along with a series of follow-up books, became a phenomenal success in the late 1950s. Author Kay Thompson (1909-1998), a cabaret singer and drama queen with a flair for self-promotion, gave voice to the character of Eloise. Thompson lived at the Plaza. Hilary Knight (b. 1926), a trained and accomplished illustrator, gave her the look. Thompson and Knight had met in the hotel’s Persian Room in 1954, and a dynamic duo was born. By 1960, though, the two collaborators, embodying contrasting sensibilities and personalities, had a falling out. The Eloise brand lived on, not quite the same, in fits and starts. Eloise is forever a child but leaning into the pretend world of adults.

The New-York Historical Society has recreated Eloise's bedroom for the exhibit, Eloise at the Museum. Observe.

Eloise was originally intended for grownups. Invented in a milieu of sophisticated New York, Eloise spoke to post-war fantasies of being young and reckless in the Plaza. She is at turns delightful and capricious, taunting the hotel staff and summoning room service at will. She orders whatever she wants and charges everything, including bottles of champagne. Her largely absent parents have left her with Nanny, a woman with a liking for beer and broadcasts of fight night.

Nanny gives Eloise the attention and caring she needs, along with her close companions - a pet turtle Skipperdee, and Weenie, "a dog that looks like a cat." With the jet-setting parents away, Eloise makes her own fun, energetically living life to the fullest. She is a six-year-old Mame Dennis with an endless to-do list and a powerful need for sleep. She is always close to exhaustion or passing out. A favorite image of Eloise is that of a happy and sleeping little girl slumped in Nanny’s lap at Christmas, with Weenie the dog on her chest and her feet pointed to the burning Yuletide log in the fireplace.    

Patrick Dennis’s novel about his eccentric aunt, Auntie Mame, was published the same year as the first Eloise book, making both Eloise and Mame memorable creatures of their time. Just a few years later in 1958, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote was released. Together, Eloise, Auntie Mame, and Holly Golightly helped sell a powerful collective portrait of making it in New York. All were self-inventing city women in Chanel, Dior, and pinafore. Eloise didn’t have to strive like the older women, but she did have to create a sustainable fantasy life.      

Entrance to the exhibition.
 
Eloise loves to pretend. She strikes endearing and charmingly mischievous poses, with that wild hair of hers and her big tummy poking out. She is adorable when she dons a cute pair of matching sunglasses with her dog or slumps on the sofa with Nanny watching fight pictures or when she summons room service on the hotel phone, legs crossed like a real boss. In these images, we see the splendid skill of Knight, an artist trained at the Art Students League under Reginald Marsh (1898-1954). Knight draws Eloise in hundreds of poses to comical effect. Yet, when Eloise acts out or makes a boastful remark, full of herself, obnoxious in her privilege and demands, she is not that likable. This Eloise echoes Thompson’s wicked wit and voice, and while often funny, we can grow weary with her chatter.

While Eloise was marketed to children beginning with Eloise in Paris (1957), the second book, a close-up of Eloise’s world reveals a precocity and affinity for adult things. The exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, finding inspiration in Knight’s eloquent illustrator lines for its charming design, brings Eloise’s complicated relationship with adults to the forefront.

First, of all, as we can see from Knight’s illustrations in the first book, her bedroom is a mess. The museum has recreated a cross-section of the messy room. And what do we have here in a little girl's room on the tippy-top floor of the Plaza? A framed picture of a prizefighter, an empty gin bottle, and a badly damaged doll. You know, the stuff that little girls are made of.

Eloise has often said to be based on Thompson’s goddaughter, the young Liza Minnelli, or on Thompson herself, yet the inspiration for Eloise’s look may be found in a painting at the museum. A watercolor and gouache portrait (ca. 1930) by Katharine Sturges Knight (1890-1979), the artist’s mother (and herself an artist, one of the first women artists to train in Japan), depicts the profile of a young girl wearing a cropped black top and striped socks with a fashionable kimono bustle-style dress in pink. At the press opening for the exhibit, Hilary Knight acknowledged this painting as an inspiration for Eloise, along with portraits by English artist Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788).

Eloise at the Museum traces the evolution of the Eloise story.

The exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, smartly curated by Jane Curley, includes many Eloise artifacts, original drawings, and items relating to the Eloise craze of the 1950s and its aftermath. Particularly fetching are Knight’s detailed drawings for Eloise in Moscow (1959), a provocative setting for a children’s book during the Cold War. While educating museumgoers about the phenomenon of Eloise, the exhibit raises awareness of Hilary Knight’s masterful illustrations. (You can see more of his work beyond Eloise in the exhibit Hilary Knight’s Stage Struck World at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center on display until September 1, 2017.)   

One of the central items at the museum is the restored original 1956 portrait of Eloise by Knight that once graced the Plaza Hotel lobby. The painting was stolen on the night of a Junior League Ball in 1960, and its theft became a sensation. Two years later, Knight received a tip that the painting could be found in a dumpster on the East Side. The most likely culprit was Thompson herself, possibly seeking a little revenge or a dramatic closure to the whole Eloise affair. The tempera painting was found in tatters, so the restoration is rawther remarkable, as Eloise would say.

A fancy bowdlerized version of Eloise still lives at the Plaza Hotel (Fifth Avenue at Central Park South), though the hotel has long lost its postwar glamor after multiple renovations and partial conversion to condominiums. The hotel shows off an Eloise-themed boutique, a themed teatime service, and a Betsey Johnson-designed Eloise Suite that a pampered girl could book for a tippy-top price. Empty gin bottle not included.

The more complicated Eloise is still available to any child or precocious adult willing to open a book and carefully study the pictures.

Eloise at the Museum at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West at 77th Street) is on display through October 9, 2017. See museum website for visiting hours and more information.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from the museum’s press preview on June 28, 2017.       

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

Taking a Constitutional Walk

A long time ago individuals going out for a walk, especially to get fresh air and exercise, often referred to the activity as "taking a constitutional walk." The word "constitutional" refers to one's constitution or physical makeup, so a constitutional walk was considered beneficial to one's overall wellbeing. (Or, as some would prefer to call it, "wellness.") The phrase is more common in British literature than in American letters. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, many American commentators expressed concern that their countrymen were falling into lazy and unhealthy habits. Newspaper columnists and editorial writers urged their readers to take up the practice of the "constitutional" walk. One such essay, " Walking as an Exercise," originally printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and reprinted in New England Farmer , Volume 11, 1859, urges the people of farm areas to take up walking. City dwellers seemed to have the

The High Line and Chelsea Market: A Good Pairing for a Walk

(revised 2017) The advent of spring, with its signs of growth and rebirth, is apparent both on the High Line , where volunteers are cutting away the old growth to reveal fresh blooms, and inside the Chelsea Market, where new tenants are revitalizing the space. A walk to take in both can become an exploration of bounty and surprise, a sensual walk of adventure and sustenance. A good pairing for a walk: The High Line and Chelsea Market Walking the High Line for a round trip from Gansevoort to W. 30th and then back again adds up to a healthy 2-mile walk. Regular walkers of the elevated park look for an excuse to go there. Especially delightful is showing off the park, a model of its kind, to visitors from out of town. A stroll through Chelsea Market. Time check. If you haven't stopped into Chelsea Market lately, you may want to take a detour from the High Line at the stairs on W. 16th St. and walk through the market for a quick assessment or a sampling. Among the sampli

25 Radical Things to Do in Greenwich Village

A list of 25 things to Do in Greenwich Village with history of protest, old cafes, and signs of change. Hipstamatic iPhone images of contemporary Greenwich Village by Walking Off the Big Apple (Revised and updated.) Flipping through  Greenwich Village: A Photographic Guide by Edmund T. Delaney and Charles Lockwood with photographs by George Roos, a second, revised edition published in 1976, it’s easy to compare the black and white images with the look of today’s neighborhood and see how much the Village has changed. A long shot photograph of Washington Square taken up high from an apartment north of the park, and with the looming two towers of the World Trade Center off to the distant south in the background, reveals a different landscape than what we would encounter today.    On the north side of the park, an empty lot and two small buildings have since given way to NYU’s Kimmel Center and a new NYU Center for Academic and Spiritual Center Life. The Judson Memorial Church

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

From Penn Station to New York Landmarks: Measuring Walking Distance and Time in Manhattan

(revised 2017) How long does it take to walk from Penn Station/Madison Square Garden to well-known destinations in Manhattan? What are the best walking routes ? What if I don't want to see anything in particular but just want to walk around? In addition to the thousands of working commuters from the surrounding area, especially from New Jersey and Long Island who arrive at Penn Station via New Jersey Transit or the Long Island Rail Road, many people arrive at the station just to spend time in The City. Some have questions. Furthermore, a sporting event may have brought you to Madison Square Garden (above Penn Station), and you want to check out what the city offers near the event. This post if for you.  The map below should help you measure walking distances and times from the station to well-known destinations in Manhattan - Bryant Park , the Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Empire State Building , Times Square , Rockefeller Center , Washington Square Park , the High Line

A Walk in the Forest Primeval

Contemplating the fall of civilizations in Inwood Hill Park At times, it feels like we’re living at the end of civilization. With the arrival of the global pandemic, many governing structures are teetering at a breaking point, one measured in graphs, curves, and waves. Whole systems like mass transit and global trade are fractured as well. Steps leading to a high ridge trail in Inwood Hill Park Most threatened are our social arrangements, the ones in which most of us were socialized. The norms of human interaction are shockingly in tatters these days. Just three months ago, it was normal to hang out with others in person without worrying if being in one another’s presence would cause illness or possibly death. Political and economic structures are teetering, with a critical collapse of what was once known as the public space. A Baltimore Oriole visits a tree near the main entrance of Inwood Hill Park on Seaman Avenue. It’s easy to imagine a swift evacuation of once pr

From Manhattan to the Bronx: A Walk Over the Henry Hudson Bridge to Henry Hudson Park

At the tiptop of Manhattan Island, Inwood Hill Park offers picturesque views of the Hudson River. For one of the best views, follow the marker at Shorakkopoch Rock (see map at the end of the post), the legendary place where Peter Minuit was said to have bought the island for 60 guilders, and follow the ridge up the slope. The path leads gently higher and higher, with views of the Salt Marsh down below and then the underside of the Henry Hudson Bridg e above. This spot along the ridge is well known among birders, as the height and the proximity to the Hudson River allow access to treetops and places where birds like to go.  View of Henry Hudson Bridge from Muscota Marsh in Inwood Hill Park. Look for the path on the left that leads up and under the bridge. This post will explain how to cross the bridge on foot. Keep going around the bend and past the bridge. A few spots of open pavement at the edge of the hill provide good views of the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge, a swing bridge