'Eloise At The Museum' Tells The Story Behind The Beloved Mischief-Maker

Jul 11, 2017
Originally published on July 12, 2017 10:43 am

For generations of children, the Eloise book series is a favorite. It tells the story of a 6-year old troublemaker who lives at New York's Plaza Hotel. Now "Eloise at the Museum," an exhibition at the New York Historical Society, looks at the creators of the series: author Kay Thompson, who died in 1998, and illustrator Hilary Knight, who's now 90.

Eloise was the brain-child of the multi-talented Thompson who at various points in her life was a radio personality, a vocal arranger at MGM and a popular cabaret performer. Thompson amused her friends with the voice of a little girl called Eloise, and one of those friends thought the character might make a good children's book. She lived next door to a young artist named Hilary Knight and introduced the two. It was the beginning of a close working relationship.

"We would get ideas and we would collectively paste them together," Knight says. "You know, she would talk to me and I would draw them."

Eloise has an absent mother and a close relationship with her nanny, her dog Weenie, her turtle Skipperdee and the staff of the Plaza Hotel, where she skibbles about and makes a lot of mischief. Jane Curley, the exhibition's curator, says the character became part of the cultural zeitgeist.

"She landed at the Plaza in 1955 in the midst of the staid Eisenhower era, when role models for women were June Cleaver and Donna Reed," Curley says. "And all of a sudden here's this wild, irrepressible 6-year-old rushing around, barging into things, getting into trouble. And she struck a chord."

The show features drawings and drafts, as well as ephemera to illustrate what a popular phenomenon Eloise became, including toys, dolls and even a song Thompson wrote and performed. But Thompson never thought of Eloise as a children's book. Hilary Knight points to the first book's subtitle: "A book for precocious grownups, about a little girl who lives at The Plaza Hotel."

"To her dying day, she said it was not a child's book," Knight says. "It offended her, you know, that people considered it that."

In fact, according to Curley, Thompson didn't even like children all that much. "She would waltz into Doubleday's [the bookstore] and pick up stacks of her books out of the juvenile section and plunk them down in the grown-up section, and then walk out."

The exhibition's centerpiece is a large portrait of Eloise in which the little girl looks like English royalty. Knight painted it for Thompson's birthday, and Thompson then donated it to the Plaza, where it hung in the lobby. But the painting was stolen on the night of a 1960 Junior League ball.

Curley says, "Walter Cronkite announced on national TV, 'Eloise kidnapped!' ... Kay [Thompson] offered a reward. There was a great amount of excitement, but the portrait failed to show up."

Two years later, Hilary Knight got an anonymous phone call telling him the portrait was in a dumpster on the East Side. He picked up the damaged painting and put it in storage, where it stayed until it was restored for this show. But the mystery remains: Who took it?

"I strongly suspect that this was Kay Thompson's best stunt ever," Curley says. "She was tired of Eloise. It was 1960; she'd taken the three books out of publication and only left the original book in publication. So to have the portrait disappear was a great exit."

Both Curley and Knight describe Thompson as difficult and controlling. She grew addicted to drugs and was supported by her goddaughter, Liza Minnelli, for the last 20 years of her life. But Knight says she never lost her brilliant wit. At the end of the exhibition, there's a picture Knight drew of Thompson shortly before her death. It says, "I am Eloise," with Thompson knocking the little girl off a chair.

"She did feel that way," Knight says. "And she did knock her off the chair."

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society tells the story behind the "Eloise" children's books. For one, author Kay Thompson was not a fan of children. Thompson died in 1998. The illustrator of the books, Hilary Knight, is 90 years old. Jeff Lunden talked to Knight, the curator of the exhibit and a very dedicated fan.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: For generations of children, Eloise is a favorite.

ANNIE CLARK: I'm Eloise. I'm 6. I'm a city child. I live in the Plaza.

LUNDEN: I met 10-year-old Annie Clark at the Plaza Hotel. She was dressed like Eloise.

ANNIE: I think that I do kind of relate to her because I can be mischievous sometimes, but not always like her.

LUNDEN: Eloise was the brainchild of the multi-talented Kay Thompson, who at various points in her career was a radio personality, a vocal arranger at MGM and a popular cabaret performer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO, HELLO")

KAY THOMPSON: (Singing) Hello, hello. Hello...

LUNDEN: Thompson liked to amuse her friends with the voice of a little girl called Eloise. One of those friends thought the character might make a good children's book and introduced Thompson to a young artist named Hilary Knight. They hit it off.

HILARY KNIGHT: We would get our ideas and we would collectively paste them together. You know, she would talk to me and I would draw them.

LUNDEN: Eloise has an absent mother, a close relationship with her nanny, her dog Wienie, her turtle Skipperdee and the staff of the Plaza Hotel, where she skibbles (ph) about and makes a lot of mischief. Jane Curley, the exhibition's curator, says Eloise became part of the cultural zeitgeist.

JANE CURLEY: She landed at the Plaza in 1955 in the midst of the staid Eisenhower era, when role models for women were June Cleaver and Donna Reed. And all of a sudden, here's this wild, irrepressible 6-year-old rushing around, barging into things, getting into trouble. And she struck a chord.

LUNDEN: The exhibition features drawings and drafts, as well as ephemera to illustrate what a popular phenomenon Eloise became - toys, dolls, even a song Kay Thompson wrote and performed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELOISE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Who is the little girl who lives at the Plaza in New York?

THOMPSON: That's me, Eloise. I'm 6. I live on the top floor.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Who is the little girl...

LUNDEN: Kay Thompson never thought of Eloise as a children's book. Hilary Knight points out its subtitle is "A Book For Precocious Grownups, About A Little Girl Who Lives At The Plaza Hotel."

KNIGHT: To her dying day she said it was not a child's book. It offended her.

CURLEY: She didn't like children very much. And she would waltz into Doubleday's and pick up stacks of her books out of the juvenile section and plunk them down in the grown-up section and then walk out.

LUNDEN: The exhibition's centerpiece is a large portrait of Eloise that Hilary Knight painted for Kay Thompson's birthday.

CURLEY: There's Eloise standing there, looking like English royalty.

LUNDEN: Curator Jane Curley says the painting hasn't been displayed for 57 years. Thompson had donated it to the Plaza where it hung in the lobby, but it was stolen on the night of the Junior League ball in 1960.

CURLEY: Walter Cronkite announced on national TV, Eloise kidnapped from the Plaza Hotel. Kay offered a reward. There was a great amount of excitement. But the portrait failed to show up.

LUNDEN: Two years later, Hilary Knight got an anonymous phone call telling him the portrait was in a dumpster on the East Side. He picked up the damaged painting and put it in storage, but the mystery remains. Who took it?

CURLEY: I strongly suspect that this was Kay Thompson's best stunt ever. She was tired of Eloise. It was 1960. She'd taken the three books out of publication and only left the original book in publication. So to have the portrait disappear was a great exit.

LUNDEN: Kay Thompson was difficult and controlling. She grew addicted to drugs and was supported by her goddaughter, Liza Minnelli, for the last 20 years of her life. But Hilary Knight says she never lost her brilliant wit. At the end of the exhibition is a picture Knight drew of Kay Thompson shortly before her death. It says, I am Eloise, with Thompson knocking the little girl off a chair.

KNIGHT: She did feel that way. And she did knock her off the chair.

LUNDEN: "Eloise At The Museum" will be on display through October. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP EAST MUSIC'S "COTTON WOOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.