“I am Eloise. I am six. I am a city child. I live at the Plaza.” And so begins the intriguing, zany, wonderful story of Eloise, written by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight. This book was given to me in the late 50’s, and, I’m delighted to report, has become a three generation must-read for me, my daughter and granddaughter. My daughter loves Eloise because of her amazing imagination and “joie de vivre,” and my granddaughter says, “…giggles pile up as you turn each page…charming and witty, the book is a delight to all.” Each of us has our very own copy—it is one of those books that will never leave our respective libraries.
It’s not difficult these days to think of a young girl living at the Plaza Hotel in New York City with her nanny, but it’s fun to imagine this same child running amok in what used to be one of the most luxurious hotels there. Wouldn’t we all feel a vicarious thrill reading about Eloise and her shenanigans? Of being able to (mostly) get away with things that would get the rest of us in trouble? Of course we would. And do.
Eloise is a one-of-a-kind whirlwind. She begins her days in the lobby, then checks the mail desk, makes several phone calls, rides up and down in the elevator, and runs down the halls “slomping” her feet against the woodwork for extra noise. She is in perpetual motion and emphasizes that “getting bored is not allowed; sometimes I comb my hair with a fork; sometimes I wear my arm in a sling; sometimes I put a rubber band on the end of my nose; toe shoes make very good ears—sometimes I wear them to lunch…Oh my Lord there’s so much to do…” Nanny is her nurse and “mostly companion,” Weenie is her dog “that looks like a cat,” and Skipperdee is her turtle that “eats raisins and wears sneakers.” They all live together in a gigantic suite, complete with room service and clothing designed by Dior. Apparently Mother travels constantly to “Europe and Paris and sends for me if there’s some sun…my mother knows Coco Chanel.” Eloise’s run-on sentences and made up words are part of her charm and add to the enjoyment.
The author, Kay Thompson, was a force of nature herself, and although she is probably most famous as the writer of the book about the little girl at the Plaza, she was also a gifted performer, singer, dancer, choreographer, clothing designer, voice coach, and mentor (and godmother) to Liza Minnelli and also to the young Williams brothers (Andy and sibs). Some of you may remember her show-stopping performance as a fashion editor in the movie Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. In an interview with the New York Times, she said that she had discovered the secret of life…”a lot of work, a lot of sense of humor, and lot of joy and a lot of tra-la-la”!
Kay Thompson based Eloise on many precocious children she had known, but, as an adult, she would often speak in a little girl voice with friends. Many think that Eloise was Thompson’s alter ego-living life to the fullest with few boundaries. Thompson was full-throttle all the way–look out, here I come. She never compromised or apologized–a genuine tough cookie. She brought a lot of tra-la-la to her new project, and when she was introduced to illustrator Hilary Knight, who was still in his 20’s at the time, they joined forces to work together to publish Eloise in 1955. This original Eloise and its four sequels have sold two million copies.
Knight’s capricious pen and ink drawings make Eloise, Nanny, Weenie, and Skipperdee seem to jump right off the page—the facial expressions are priceless. He must have had a small child in his life at the time as he captures the frowns, pouts, and exaggerated faces that only an observer of children would be able to do. Now 88, he recently appeared in an HBO documentary “It’s Me, Hilary,” giving an overview of his career and highlighting his delight in bringing Eloise to life on the page. He considered himself to be a co-parent and has never lost his fondness for this wild child. His collaboration with Thompson didn’t last—she so dominated the artist, that, after arguing over the future of Eloise, they never spoke again. He describes her as “a mad nut job that I adored.” When the book became an instant bestseller, he painted a life-size portrait of Eloise, which hung in a place of honor at the Plaza.
Although there are four other Eloise books, the one set at the Plaza Hotel continues to be my personal favorite. There is something that speaks to my inner child, I guess. Truly unique and loads of fun, Eloise is going to be around a very long time for generations of children (and adults) to enjoy. I visited the Eloise corner and “shrine” many years ago, stopping in for tea and to glory in the beauty and elegance of this amazing hotel. It’s quite easy to sit in the lobby and imagine Eloise busily finding obnoxious new ways to live her life to the fullest.
“Oooooooooooo—I absolutely love the Plaza!” And Eloise.
Please share your thoughts on this post, OR consider this question: Do you have a children’s book that you have always loved and will keep in your library forever?