en you think of Eloise, skibbling around the Plaza Hotel on her spindly little legs that end in black Mary Janes, staring through enormous cat’s-eye sunglasses at Weenie, her dog that looks like a cat, or sklonking Vincent the barber in the kneecap, you’re imagining a creation dreamed up by the late force of nature Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight, the eighty-eight-year-old star of “It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise,” a short documentary that airs tonight on HBO. Thompson, who was, among other things, a music arranger and vocal coach for M-G-M, a cabaret singer, the showstopping co-star of “Funny Face” (“Think Pink!”), and Liza Minnelli’s godmother, tended to turn heads; Knight, who expresses himself most dazzlingly through his drawings, has never sought the spotlight.
When “Kay Thompson’s Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grownups” was first published, in 1955, it presented a wilder and messier version of girlhood than any other available at the time. Eloise became a prefeminist hero, opinionated, playful, and free. (“Here’s what I hate: Howdy Doody,” Eloise says, watching the TV through opera glasses, an open parasol in her other hand.) In the decades since, Eloise, and Knight’s vibrant illustrations of her, have represented a freewheeling urbanity, a happy rebelliousness within a realm of sophistication, a parentless world without danger. The Plaza is a good representation of a child’s world—gorgeous, mysterious, familiar, beloved, enchanting—and Eloise is at its center. The hotel is at her disposal, and she runs amok in it. Because she’s drawn lovingly, in constant motion, with a curved belly and hair that she combs with a fork, she’s easy to imagine as a friend, or a part of yourself. Lena Dunham, the writer, director, and producer, has Eloise tattooed on the small of her back.
“It’s Me, Hilary” is a Lena Dunham project: Dunham and Jenni Konner, of “Girls,” executive-produced it, Dunham’s friend Matt Wolf directed it, and Dunham co-stars and provides its narrative hook, such as it is. Knight and Dunham met after he learned from a friend that there was a girl on TV with an Eloise tattoo. One night, Dunham came home from a trip and discovered that he’d sent her a package: signed books and a note, introducing himself, with an illustration of Eloise on it. The two became fast friends.
The trailer suggests that the film’s focus is Dunham, or perhaps that “Eloise” was a stepping stone in an artistic journey whose endpoint was “Girls,” but this, thankfully, turns out not to be the case. After a few quick, appealing testimonials about the brilliance of “Eloise” from Dunham and her fellow-enthusiasts Fran Lebowitz, Tavi Gevinson, and Mindy Kaling (who provides one of the best laughs in the movie), the film plunges faithfully into Knight’s own story.
Knight was born in 1926, and raised in Manhattan and on Long Island. His parents, Clayton Knight and Katharine Sturges, were successful illustrators. (They collaborated on this 1926 New Yorker cover.) “I was completely aware every second of the interesting life that they led,” Knight says. “I never had any thought of doing anything else but that.” He talks about the role of fantasy in his life, the fanciful things he loved as a child. (The movie “Elephant Boy,” for example: “You could be a little boy, not wear very much, and ride on an elephant.”) In his early years as a working illustrator, he did work for Gourmetand Mademoiselle. He met Kay Thompson, a cabaret singer, through D. D. Ryan, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar. “Kay was an extremely funny, inventive woman,” Knight says. “She for some bizarre reason started talking to her friends over the phone as this little girl that she called Eloise.” They met in the Persian Room at the Plaza, where Thompson gave Knight six pieces of paper with lines on them like “An egg cup makes a very good hat.” That was the beginning.
The glimpses into that world—Thompson, in yards of elegant, draping fabric, banging on a toy piano and singing in her demented Eloise voice, while Knight, in voice-over, describes her as “sort of a mad nut job that I adored”—give this documentary historical appeal, and the explorations of Knight’s life beyond that partnership personalize it. Knight has illustrated theatre posters (“No, No, Nanette,” “The Boys in the Band”), other writers’ books (I’m a big fan of his “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” work), and his own books (“The Circus Is Coming!,” “Where’s Wallace?”). He and Thompson fell out while working on the “Eloise” sequels. After they did, Knight was barred from having any real role with his most beloved creation until after Thompson died, in 1998. The film is, in part, a portrait of an artist defined and haunted by a huge success. Dunham and co. spend some time hanging out in his house and in his milieu: a whimsical realm of dress-up, imagination, and invention, decorated with Knight’s own art and that of his parents, full of eccentric collections. His niece says, toward the end of the film, that Knight taught her the value of play. “Play is important; play is part of how you prepare to work,” she says. It’s a sentiment that people who love Eloise can appreciate, perhaps best captured by a shot of Knight, at home, wearing a gorilla suit and holding a glass of banana schnapps. “I’m excellent at fucking off,” the gorilla says. He takes a sip. “Exquisite.”