“Skeezix sleeps in a bowl under a lamp in Hilary Knight’s memento-filled Manhattan apartment. Skeezix is a cat that looks like a raccoon. Eloise would feel at home here.”
Almost 20 years have passed since I penned that lead-in to my interview with illustrator/author Hilary Knight. My profile of Hilary went on to win a prestigious award, but my biggest prize was the chance to meet and get to know Hilary.
Hilary’s beloved cat companion at that time, Skeezix, was the spitting image of my Maine Coon-esque cat, Fluffy. And how could I not love a guy who doted on a cat named Skeezix? Of course, Hilary was the artist who co-created and illustrated Eloise, the book that introduced the universe to a six-year-old force of nature named Eloise who lived, as we all know, at The Plaza Hotel in New York City. Not to be outdone, Hilary held court in the most charming, artistically “curated” New York apartment I’d ever encountered. To say that bonding with Hilary Knight and Skeezix was a snap is an understatement.
Skip ahead 20 years, and now you, too, will have a chance to meet Hilary Knight and his latest cat companion, Ruff. Lena Dunham, the fearless star and co-creator of one of my guilty pleasures, the HBO series Girls, has produced a whimsical and surprisingly revelatory 40-minute documentary about her new friend, Hilary Knight. It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise premieres tonight, Monday, March 23, 2015, at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check HBO On Demand and regional listings for additional HBO playdates throughout the weeks ahead.) I urge you not to miss it!
That Lena Dunham and Hilary Knight bonded instantly is hardly a surprise. When Hilary, now 88, found out that the star of one of his favorite cable TV series sported a prominent tattoo of Eloise on her lower back, he was smitten. It’s Me Hilary–part bio pic, part whimsy–quite simply is Lena’s love letter to the man whose creative sensibilities continue to inspire her work.
The film, co-executive produced by Jenni Konner and directed by Matt Wolf, introduces Hilary’s milieu and his fantasy-filled life to the masses. Although it includes some wonderfully inventive animation and a nutty sequence featuring a frog and a nymph, of sorts… be forewarned, this is not a film for young kids.
Lena gently tracks Hilary’s life as it continues to play out in the New York apartment that I loved (I’ll never forget the crystal chandelier in the bathroom!) and most especially his East Hampton lair, where he works nonstop on illustrations for new books, theater posters, labels for cans and fantasy playlets that he produces and films with his eccentric group of friends (he even makes the costumes!). There is brief input from several female performers and writers, who acknowledge Eloise’s importance to their feminist worldview. And marvelous vintage home movies record Knight frolicking as a child with his brother and as an adult with his nieces. The latter, now middle-aged (one of whom bears a striking resemblance to Lena Dunham), recall what it was like growing up with an uncle who enveloped them in his world of make-believe.
But most importantly, we are privy to Hilary’s complex professional and personal relationship with Eloise author Kay Thompson, the eccentric song stylist, actress and mentor to MGM’s musical stars, who was Hilary’s ticket to enduring fame and, in the end, a tight-fisted demon who, even in death, continues to control and demoralize him. After creating and publishing several more Eloise tomes with Kay, their professional and personal ties disintegrated.
The coverage of Kay Thompson’s career here, via wonderful vintage photos, radio broadcasts, early TV performances and film clips, is riveting. Playwright Mart Crowley and former Simon & Schuster editor/publisher, now literary agent Brenda Bowen provide fascinating sidelights to this publishing and personal horror story (at 29, Hilary had innocently signed his rights to Eloise over to Kay Thompson). While Hilary is barred from ever drawing Eloise again, a heartbreak that continues to haunt him, he perseveres, financially strapped but clearly immersed in and emboldened by a fantasy life that he orchestrates via his artwork and “home movies.”
Hilary Knight and Eloise… the Back Story from a prior interview by Judith Trojan
Illustrator Hilary Knight was born to draw. “I was fortunate to grow up in a household of artists during the late twenties and thirties when the art of illustration was at its peak,” he told me. “It certainly helped form my style.”
Later inspired by the English illustrators of Punch and Lilliput magazines, and especially the nasty little school girls created by Ronald Searle, Hilary submitted his character illustrations to such magazines as Mademoiselle and Good Housekeeping. “They were often children, and they were prototypes of Eloise,” he recollected.
Through D.D. Ryan, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, Hilary shared his drawings with stylish singer/vocal arranger Kay Thompson, who was then performing at New York’s Plaza Hotel. “Kay invented a precocious hotel child named Eloise, who existed only as a telephone voice Kay used to entertain her friends,” Hilary recalled. In 1954, Thompson and Knight transformed Kay’s “telephone voice” into a character in an illustrated “book for precocious grown-ups.” “We spent a lot of time at The Plaza, going over places where Eloise might be,” he said.
Rumors circulated that Liza Minnelli, Thompson’s goddaughter, was the model for Eloise. “Absolutely not, although Liza would have been about the right age,” Hilary emphasized. Hilary actually “found” Eloise in one of his mother’s watercolors. Her portrait of a young girl inspired his initial pencil sketches.
Eloise was published by Simon & Schuster in 1955, and the rest is history. Life magazine spread the buzz, and Eloise rag dolls and pricey little girl dresses hit the racks. An all-star “Playhouse 90” TV adaptation fizzled, Hilary concluded, “because Eloise is not a real girl, she’s a flat, black-and-white drawing.”
“Kay decided we should do Eloise in Paris (’57),” he said. “So, I went to Paris when Kay was finishing up work on the film, Funny Face. Then Simon & Schuster sent us to Moscow for Eloise in Moscow (’59). Every night for four weeks, we went to events like the ballet or circus looking for something that would fascinate our creation, Eloise.” Eloise at Christmas Time debuted in 1958. The troubled and prolonged evolution of Eloise Takes a Bawth, published in 2002 after Kay Thompson’s death, is covered in It’s Me, Hilary.
Six-year-old Eloise continues to be the darling of Baby Boomers who share the magic of Eloise with their kids and grandkids. Eloise “was never meant as a children’s book,” Hilary told me. “But, right from the start, it went from adults into the hands of children. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to it.”
What is Eloise’s most devilish escapade? “I can’t believe she’d pour a pitcher of water down the mail chute,” Hilary told me with a chuckle. Her best attribute? “Invention, and her warm relationship with nanny, her substitute mother.”
Hilary Knight has illustrated more than 60 books, and his writer/illustrator credit appears on nine titles. Theater posters and record album covers are also among his specialties. “I work in many styles and mediums, but the elements that unify my work are motion, as in Eloise propelling herself down a Plaza hallway, and child-involving details like those found in the poetry book, Side By Side (’88/S&S).”
As we approach the 60th anniversary of Eloise’s first publication in 1955, It’s Me Hilary is a timely tribute to the film’s subtitled focus– The Man Who Drew Eloise. Kudos to Lena Dunham and her talented team! Be sure to tune in tonight, Monday, March 23, 2015, at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check HBO On Demand and regional listings for additional HBO playdates throughout the weeks ahead.)
Although not suited for young children, the film will be an evergreen addition to programs in high schools, colleges, libraries and museums exploring and celebrating Eloise, Hilary Knight http://www.hilaryknight.com and the worlds of children’s book illustration and publishing. –Judith Trojan