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Hilary Knight Celebrates Eloise’s 60th

In March, HBO released “It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise,” a documentary in which Hilary Knight, illustrator of the Eloise books, reflected on his life as an artist and his connection to the immensely popular series, which was written by Kay Thompson, a singer, actress, and writer.

During a visit to Mr. Knight’s house in East Hampton, on a shy acre that feels much larger and a world away from the bustle of the Hamptons in summer, the courtly 88-year-old told a visitor, “What is so interesting is that anybody who looked at that documentary would come away with the feeling that my life is more or less over. But it has truly just begun.”

November will mark the 60th birthday of “Eloise” — “as a book, never herself,” according to Mr. Knight — and the anniversary has spawned a number of projects. He is especially enthusiastic about the publication by Simon and Schuster in October of “The 365 Days of Eloise: My Book of Holidays,” which will be both written and illustrated by Mr. Knight.

“I really think this book will be better than almost anything that’s ever been done in the series. It will appear to be a children’s book, but it’s not at all.” He opened a dummy of the book, which was filled with detailed drawings. One entry, titled “March winds,” shows Eloise and the Plaza Hotel standing straight up while all the other buildings and people are blowing away. “It’s laid out as a calendar, but it’s really her rambling on about different holidays, and it takes up some important things, like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, that were not addressed in the original book.”

The cover of the original bears the inscription “A work for precocious grownups, about a little girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel.” “It wasn’t a child’s book and was never meant to be,” Mr. Knight said. “It just looks like a little child’s book, so it became one. It went into the children’s department and stayed there.”

As the film makes clear, Mr. Knight and Ms. Thompson had a falling out over the ownership of Eloise. After the publication of the fourth book, “she lost interest. She no longer cared, and she took all the books out of print except for the first one.” Ms. Thompson wanted total control over the franchise, including his illustrations, and she barred him from ever drawing Eloise again. When she died in 1998, he was finally able to finish “Eloise Takes a Bawth,” on which they were working when the split occurred.

“Nothing happened for a very long time,” Mr. Knight said, but those dark days are over. “I’ve got five Eloise books lined up, one of them called ‘Eloise a la Mode.’ It will be a sticker book in which Eloise goes through a bunch of events — a flower show, a day at the beach, a power breakfast — and she doesn’t know what to wear.” The reader will get to cover her familiar clothing with outfits of his or her choosing.

Simon and Schuster and Little Simon are also releasing book and CD combinations of “Eloise,” “Eloise in Paris,” “Eloise in Moscow,” and “Eloise at Christmas Time,” for which the Grammy Award-winning actress Bernadette Peters will provide the narration. Audiobook-only versions will also be available.

Mr. Knight has done and will continue to do work that has nothing to do with the 6-year-old. “I’m doing portraits now that are very different from anything I ever did. They’re like miniature stage sets, in which photographs of the subject are reduced to three inches, like little paper dolls, and placed in diorama-like settings.” He is working on one of Lena Dunham, the actress, writer, and director, as an odalisque. She was Mr. Knight’s “date” throughout the documentary, which she co-produced. “She’s quite thrilled about it. Zac Posen is going to be a Persian prince. And I started one years ago of Bernadette Peters as a pussycat.”

He will also have an exhibition of his drawings at the New York Historical Museum in 2017 that will be organized by Jane Curley, the museum’s curator, who last year put together “Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans.” It will include, but not be limited to, drawings of Eloise.

Several years ago, Tommy Hilfiger asked him to paint a mural in his apartment, which was on a corner of the top floor of the Plaza. “I had the greatest time. It’s always referred to as an Eloise mural, but it isn’t. It’s all about Tommy’s family. It just happens that his apartment is directly above what Kay and I decided was Eloise’s apartment.”

Mr. Knight has a long history of painting murals. During World War II, while stationed in Okinawa, he painted a mural of naked Geishas in an officer’s Quonset hut, and he has a photograph of himself in front of the work to prove it. After his discharge, he paintedmurals in people’s apartments. “I love doing them, but it’s too much work now. At Tommy’s I was up on scaffolds for two months, though I loved every minute of it.” He is currently working on a jungle mural in the bathroom of his home. A monkey who is reading a copy of the book is the only reference to Eloise.

Born in 1926, he was the child of two illustrators, Clayton Knight, who illustrated aviation books, and Katharine Sturges Dodge, a fashion and book illustrator. He grew up in Roslyn, where his mother had a studio in their house. “I watched her work. My father had a studio in the city. I never thought of doing anything but illustration. I was fascinated by my father’s work, but I was mostly inspired by my mother’s.”

He dropped out of high school to enlist in the Navy. “I knew I would probably be drafted, and I didn’t want to go into the Army because I didn’t like that uniform. I did like the Navy’s, which was reason enough to enlist.” In order to get his parents’ permission to leave high school, he had to promise to complete it when he returned from the war. “I knew I wouldn’t do that,” he said with a smile.

Before enlisting, he took classes at the Art Students League. His first teacher was George Grosz, “who had totally changed. He was doing funny, dainty little watercolors. I wasn’t getting much from him, so I switched to Reginald Marsh, from whom I learned everything. He taught everybody how to draw.” He returned to the League after the war, but then developed an interest in stage design and worked for a season at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine. “I wasn’t prepared for how much work it would be.”

He subsequently took courses in drafting, and then attended the New York School of Interior Design. “I use it all in the new book, all the places I took courses. I’m fascinated by interior design and I’m using it more and more, including in the dimensional portraits.”One of his passions is film. The HBO documentary includes some of his handheld video footage, shot on his property with Phoebe Legere, a singer and performance artist, as a nymph, and Wilson Lopez, his landscape designer, disguised as a frog. “I have all this material I’ve filmed over the years, so I figured I’d make up a little story. Phoebe was ready and willing. I’m still working on it.”

About the HBO documentary, he said, “I love Lena Dunham, she’s a terrific person. I didn’t always agree with what the filmmakers wanted me to do, but I’m thrilled the film was done. I’m not famous for my smiling, but when I look at the film I can see myself smiling and I’m really happy.”

Mr. Knight clearly has much to be happy about. In addition to his many projects, he has created, over the last 30 years and with the help of Mr. Lopez, a lush escape from his apartment in New York City. The centerpiece is a large man-made pond created 40 years ago by the developer of the neighborhood. The winter was hard on the property; all the carp in the pond died because of the cold, as did his bamboo. “But I have hundreds of turtles, and they’re still there.”

A rustic pathway created by Mr. Lopez from large, upturned logs leads to a little island in the center of the pond. “It’s called Cocktail Island,” Mr. Knight said. It is home to a table, chairs, a television, and, one assumes, the occasional libation. It’s difficult to imagine a more exotic, less Hampton-like location, even though it’s just minutes from the village. Visiting Mr. Knight on a sunny June afternoon is like discovering a hidden glade in a remote paradise.

© 2015 by Hilary Knight .

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