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I Absolutely Loooved My Afternoon With ‘Eloise’ Illustrator Hilary Knight

The illustrator Hilary Knight at the New-York Historical Society, where an exhibition showcasing his collaboration with Kay Thompson, “Eloise at the Museum,” is on view. CreditAgaton Strom for The New York Times

I am a native Manhattanite, therefore Eloise was a particular heroine of mine growing up. At a time when New York was somewhat down in the dumps, Eloise made it seem highly desirable to be “a city child.” That she lived at the Plaza Hotel, a place I associated with tourists and an old Walter Matthau movie (then in grainy reruns on Channel 9), mattered not at all.

So when the Books desk asked me to review an exhibition on “Eloise” that was opening at the New-York Historical Society, I “skibbled” at the chance. Then I remembered that the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where I’ve been intermittently conducting research for a biography of the actress Elaine Stritch, had in its lobby posters and other intriguing items crafted by Hilary Knight. Mr. Knight illustrated the “Eloise” books (along with “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle,” “I Hate to Cook Book” and many other midcentury favorites) and had a “rawther” complicated relationship with the writer who gave voice to the character: an eccentric dynamo named Kay Thompson.

Ms. Thompson died in 1998, but I knew that Mr. Knight, at 90, was very much alive and active — more so than many half his age — and after the homework of watching a 2015 Matt Wolf documentary about him with my delighted daughter (who had herself dog-eared the “Eloise” books in grade school), I asked if he would give me a personal tour of both exhibitions. Let’s just say the experience beat getting the headphones.

The keenness of Mr. Knight’s memory and the range of his work are absolutely astonishing (to use a phrase he might apply to one of his countless muses), with contributions to the publishing, theater and film industries as well as the general glamour factory. Since I toil as a fashion critic on occasion, I particularly enjoyed hearing about his friendship with the model Carmen Dell’Orefice and an early aesthetic impression, of a “very dark, dark green bathing suit” he glimpsed at the long-gone department store Bonwit Teller in the 1930s, covered in sequins. “They were made out of gelatin. Did you know that?” he asked me. I did not. “So you couldn’t go swimming in them. They would swell up.”

Frankly, I’m not sure athleisure is an improvement.

Mr. Knight also showed me a tantalizing page from an unpublished work he made not long ago called “Eloise Unlocks Her Secret Diary,” which explains among other matters why her Weenie the dog does not have, as one might expect, male genitalia. “I loved the little boy, I called him Weenie,” it reads. “But my mother thought a little girl is best.” The figure of the mother he sketched is modeled after Uma Thurman, who was woefully miscast as Eloise’s nanny in a film version of “Eloise in Paris” that never got made.

“To me it’s the best drawing I ever did, because it’s filled with information,” he said, indicating the mysterious mother’s enormous feathered hat (obscuring her face) and begloved right hand, tensely clenching the ottoman on which she sits as her daughter, quite neglected by 2017 standards, plays with gamboling puppies.

I hope that these simultaneous tributes will help Mr. Knight achieve his proper berth in history: not just as a creator of a character that is now arguably over-franchised, with subpar movie and television adaptations and cheesy tea parties, but as a champion fantasist, raconteur and observer of society.

Incidentally, Ms. Stritch was also a hotel habitué (and knew Ms. Thompson), and it turned out Mr. Knight helped design one of her first costumes, for the 1947 revue “Angel in the Wings.” Years later she told him she’d turned it into a lampshade, which seems like an echt-Eloise act.

© 2015 by Hilary Knight .

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