The childlike artist that helped create one of the best-loved children in literary history is still a kid at heart.
Hilary Knight, the 88-year-old illustrator who drew Eloise to match the writings of Kay Thompson, is still an illustrator, but he’s also an oddball overseeing a fantasy world in his East Hampton home.
Knight’s rise, fall and return are documented in “It’s Me, Hilary,” a new HBO film produced by Eloise fan Lena Dunham and directed by her pal, Matt Wolf.
“Mentally, he’s a 10-year-old,” says Wolf, who spent about a year filming Knight in his backyard world of make believe.
Sometimes Knight downs a cocktail in a full gorilla costume. Another time, his cat carried in a dead mouse, so Knight made a tombstone for the vermin with a whimsical font.
Knight even teamed up with fading performance artist Phoebe Legere to perform a “frog opera” in his backyard for Wolf’s cameras. Knight’s fable, “The Frog and the Pond Nymph,” featured a schlubby actor in a handmade frog suit with dishwashing gloves for feet, and a topless Legere floating in a pond.
“They don’t look like a frog and nymph,” says Wolf, begrudgingly. “You have Phoebe, this queer performance artist, homemade costumes that Hilary made in his living room. But if you squint, you’re in this fantastical world.
“That’s what makes Hilary’s imagination so singular,” Wolf continues. “The ability to look at real life, and to embellish it.”
It all started in the 1950s. Knight was drawing theater posters and illustrations for Mademoiselle magazine when a friend introduced him to Thompson, the eccentric socialite/actress who created Eloise, but needed an artist to bring the rebellious 6-year-old to life.
In just five books, Eloise influenced legions of fans, including Dunham, whose first tattoo was of Eloise; Tavi Gevinson, who calls the Eloise books a feminist primer; and Fran Lebowitz, who delights in the glamour of Eloise’s parent-free existence on the top floor of The Plaza Hotel.
Knight and Thompson’s partnership was magical and financially successful — but it ended when Thompson wanted complete control.
“I had to accept that Kay was the star,” Knight says in the documentary, recounting how the partners’ collaboration on the final Eloise book, “Eloise Takes a Bawth,” ended when Knight woke up one morning to find that Thompson had covered all his drawings with rubber cement.
After that, Thompson barred Knight from ever drawing Eloise again.
“It was demoralizing,” Knight says.
When Thompson passed away in 1998, Knight was finally able to complete “Eloise Takes a Bawth,” which was published in 2002.
To this day, he still loves strong, powerful women like Thompson and his new friend, Dunham.
But even he admits that they’re “probably completely mad but never committed.”