Every little girl thinks she is Eloise. So did Lena Dunham. And she kind of had a point.
Ms. Dunham, the star and creator of “Girls,” is the narrator and an executive producer of “It’s Me, Hilary,” a short, curious HBO documentary on Monday about Hilary Knight, the illustrator of the “Eloise” books. In it, wearing a glittery Eloise wig with bow, she makes clear she has a proprietary interest in Eloise, whom she describes as her “heart’s twin.” Eloise “does what she wants when she wants it and she doesn’t brush her hair, doesn’t care that her stomach hangs over her skirt,” she says. “So there’s a lot to relate to when you are a slightly weird child.”
That’s also a pretty good description of Kay Thompson, the dashing, wildly madcap and willful show business figure who created Eloise and teamed up with Mr. Knight, then a young illustrator, to make that immortal book for precocious grown-ups, “Eloise at the Plaza.” Ms. Thompson, who died in 1998, overshadowed everybody, and especially Mr. Knight. Their friendship and magical collaboration didn’t last. Once they fell out over control of their creation, they never spoke again.
Ms. Thompson was such a powerful personality that in her presence, Mr. Knight says he would “dissolve into the background.” In the right wind, Ms. Thompson can still be heard belting “Think Pink!,” her signature song in the movie “Funny Face.” This film is Mr. Knight’s chance to get in a last word or two.
And, as is always the case, it’s not what he says that tells the real story, though at age 88, Mr. Knight is still courtly and droll as he describes his fun, privileged life growing up in New York City, the son of two successful illustrators. He never had any doubt about his own vocation. “My childhood was just an incredible adventure,” he says. “Fantasy is probably the most important drive in my life.”
An editor at Harper’s Bazaar introduced him to Ms. Thompson, who had the character of Eloise in her head but not yet on paper. They hit it off and instantly found a way to bring Eloise to life. “That’s all it was: We both were having fun,” he recalls.
Ms. Thompson was a controlling author who so hated a 1956 television version of her book that she restricted the marketing of Eloise a few years later, and also yanked three of her sequels out of publication.
Mr. Knight explains that his former partner also got him to sign a contract that banned him from drawing Eloise again. He did lots of other work, including children’s books and Broadway posters, but Eloise remains his most lasting creation, and the enmities and restrictions that followed are his most enduring source of pain. He calls Ms. Thompson a “mad nut job that I adored.”
The documentary is a loving tribute to his personal charm and other talents, but it doesn’t hide the fact that he spent much of his life trying to get back into the Eloise business — there is footage of Mr. Knight on a Hollywood conference call trying fruitlessly to be heeded.
“It’s Me, Hilary” also suggests that Mr. Knight spent much of his life trying to recreate his friendship with Ms. Thompson, on slightly more equal terms.
Years ago, he spotted and fell for Phoebe Legere, a musician and cabaret artist who had a cult following in the 1980 and ’90s. He sent her a drawing of Eloise looking at a poster of Ms. Legere and saying, “Oh my Lord! it is me ... Eloise.” So of course their friendship was sealed for life. Ms. Legere became the mad nut job that Mr. Knight could indulge, showcase and also better control. The documentary shows Mr. Knight filming a home movie that stars Ms. Legere as a water nymph, kissing a man in a frog suit, a scene from a children’s musical they created together, “The Frog and the Pond Nymph.”
Mr. Knight approached the talented, powerful Ms. Dunham in much the same way. A friend told him that Ms. Dunham, the creator and star of “Girls,” has an Eloise tattoo on her torso. So he sent her two of his books with a note and drawing: Eloise holding up a sign that says, “For Lena.” Ms. Dunham says she cried when she saw the note.
And Mr. Knight obviously knows a mad nut job when he sees one. He says of Ms. Dunham, “It was as though I had known her all my life.”