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Hilary Knight: Artist Of 'Eloise'

 

Of course most of us remember Kay Thompson's "Eloise," the hit children's book of 1955 with the witty scarlet, black, and hot-pink drawings by Hilary Knight.

 

Subtitled "A Book for Precocious Grownups, About a Little Girl Who Lives at the Plaza Hotel," it's still in print today, selling briskly to a whole new generation of kids who think the Plaza belongs to Donald Trump when - if long-term occupancy and staff devotion count -it's really Eloise's.

 

To celebrate Eloise's 40th birthday, Vanity Fair ran a story last month about Ms. Thompson, now 94 and living in seclusion in Connecticut, and Mr. Knight, who just turned 70 and lives in East Hampton when he's not in New York.

 

English Influence

 

Mr. Knight did the drawings for the article, and recently joined the Vanity Fair staff as a contributing artist, covering the New York Collections for the January issue.

 

His dust-jacket drawing for the first "Eloise" book shows a bratty little girl standing on tiptoe, scrawling her name in scarlet lipstick on a mirror above a marble mantelpiece. It's a sassy image, but also full of pathos: the spunk of the lonely kid scrambling to make her mark on the Plaza's majestic decor.

 

"I'd always admired the pen-and-ink drawings by English artists in Punch and in a tiny magazine called Lilliput, which first published the work of Ronald Searle," Mr. Knight told a visitor recently.

 

Wicked Schoolgirls

 

"He did these dreadful, vicious little schoolgirls terrifying their teachers: one, for example, with a boa constrictor draped over her shoulders. I loved the wicked style, and in the early '50s began doing contemporary drawings along those lines."

 

These humorous works were first published in Mademoiselle, and later in House & Garden and Gourmet. They caught the attention of D.D. Dixon, Mr. Knight's neighbor in their East Side apartment building and a fashion editor under the legendary Diana Vreeland at Harper's Bazaar.

 

Ms. Dixon was just back from a shoot at which Richard Avedon had photographed Ms. Thompson posing with a coq-feather fan Mr. Knight happened to have designed.

 

"She said I must meet Kay, who had this alter ego, Eloise, whose voice she did on the phone. Kay was writing a book about her, and D.D. thought my drawings might be right for it."

 

First Meeting

 

The author and the illustrator met at the Plaza - where else? - where Ms. Thompson, a noted singer and voice coach, was appearing in a nightclub act. (She later starred in the movie "Funny Face," playing a Vreeland-like fashion editor who commands her staff to "think pink.")

 

"Kay showed me her manuscript, I did some drawings, and we worked very closely for a year: It was the birth of an exhilarating collaboration."

 

Ms. Thompson is quoted in the Vanity Fair article as saying she once desperately drove her car across a golf course, rushing to get to the choreographer Bob Alton's house on time: "I opened the door . . . and he said, 'Who do think you are, coming here five minutes late?' I said, 'I am Eloise. I am 6.' "

 

And that is how the book begins.

 

First Spinoffs

 

"Kay really was like this mischievous waif with the absent parents, who lives with her Nanny and hobnobs with the Plaza staff," Mr. Knight said. "But there was a lot of her in the mother-substitute Nanny, too, and I drew her that way."

 

After getting a big spread in Life magazine, "Eloise" was an almost immediate success, and the first children's book to generate a line of toys produced in the heat of one of publishing's maiden merchandising binges.

 

The following year Mr. Knight went to Paris, where Ms. Thompson was filming "Funny Face," to begin work on a sequel, "Eloise in Paris," published in 1957.

 

"Eloise at Christmastime" followed in 1958, and "Eloise in Moscow" in 1959. The two were working on "Eloise Takes a Bawth" when "the collaboration became utterly devastating for us both, and fell apart."

 

"Bawth" Submerged

 

"By the end of our association," said Mr. Knight, "Kay wanted total control over the little girl's every movement, and really would not let me contribute anything. I realized that it was getting to be less and less fun, and that the later books were not up to the quality of the first."

 

Ms. Thompson evidently agreed, for she let all but the first, "Eloise," go out of print.

 

As for the "Bawth" book, it never saw the light of day.

 

In The Family

 

"It started out as a funny story about a bath that culminates in a giant flood in the Plaza lobby, a parody of the disaster film, that lost its humor because we worked on it for nearly four years," Mr. Knight said.

 

With several non-Eloise books already to his credit, as well as mag-

 

azine illustrations and, notably, many theater posters, he went on to work with other authors, and to write his own material as well. Among his solo works is the beguiling "Where's Wallace?", about a disappearing orangutan a young reader can find hiding in a new, surprising place on every page.

 

He also did the drawings for "Algonquin Cat," with story by Val Schaffner, and illustrated Judith Viorst's "Sunday Morning," entirely with silhouettes. His art work for Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat" perhaps shows him at his most charming as a visual storyteller.

 

Illustrating runs in the family. "I grew up in an amazing household in Roslyn with two very active and successful illustrator-parents," Mr. Knight said. "In the '20s, illustrators painted huge six-foot canvases for various magazines before photography took over; it was a big thing."

 

Art-Filled House

 

His father, Clayton Knight, a World War I pilot and Chicago Art Institute graduate, did aviation illustrations for boys' books and World War II magazines and literature.

 

His mother, Katharine Sturges, worked for the Ladies Home Journal, designed fabrics, and filled their house with murals: circus animals for Hilary's bedroom, exotic Art Deco scenes in the dining room. The couple collaborated on a New Yorker cover in 1926.

 

When Hilary was 6 the family moved to New York, where he learned "absolutely nothing, not even how to add or write script" at the progressive City and Country School.

 

He later floundered academically at the High School for Music and Art and at Friends Seminary, until his mother finally let him go to the Art Students League, where he studied with George Gross and Reginald Marsh.

 

In The Navy

 

"I never wanted to do anything but be an artist anyway," he said. "Marsh was a great draftsman who taught me how the bones and muscles moved around, and gave me a sense of action in drawing."

 

Later, drawing children's fashions for Saks Fifth Avenue newspaper ads, he found this background allowed him to work without a model, "really whipping out the drawings and having a lot of fun."

 

Mr. Knight was drafted into the Navy in 1944. "I was an 18-year-old midget," he said, "and a complete innocent. I remember trying to look invisible on the train to boot camp, and being totally amazed at how often the F-word was used."

 

He spent the war literally painting ships, and in a logistic support company that set up camps on Okinawa. "I had no idea what was going on. Sometimes I'd hear distant gunfire, but I was in another world, reading and drawing in my little tent and waiting to get out."

 

Stage Design: Short Run

 

Back home, a decision to become a stage designer led to an apprenticeship at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, then run by George Abbott.

 

"Nancy Davis Reagan was in the company, and Ruth Chatterton, Jane Cowl, and Richard Widmark. Set designing and building was very hard work, and too big, somehow. I wanted to be back at a drawing board."

 

After studying art and decorative-art history at the New York School of Design, Mr. Knight took a job as a room renderer for the decorating firm Amster Yard Inc. "I did slightly over-the-top renderings of room designs that made them look impressive and flashy. It was fun," he said.

 

He recently completed an Eloise display at the Museum of the City of New York on upper Fifth Avenue, where "New York Toy Stories," an exhibit of New Yorkers' playthings, has just opened.

 

Museum, Gallery

 

Eloise, fittingly, is the only character with her very own installation: a recreation of her pink Plaza bedroom that includes real '50s room-service plates from the Plaza collection. "She's the quintessential New York kid," Mr. Knight said.

 

For this summer, East Hampton's Giraffics gallery is planning a three-person show of works by Mr. Knight and his artist-parents.

 

"It should be interesting," he said. "We all have wildly different styles."

 

"I was very influenced, however, by a huge painting of my mother's of a sassy little Victorian girl in a big pink bow. She's prettier than Eloise, but has her smart-aleck attitude."

 

"As my mother used to say, 'She knows how many beans make five.' "

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