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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.       

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