top of page

Remarkable. Extraordinary. Eccentric: The Man Who Drew Eloise Recalls His Muses

Long before there was millennial pink there was rose carthame, a chemical but warm paint hue favored by Katharine Sturges Dodge, mother of the artist Hilary Knight, and an artist herself. “She used it in cheeks, especially,” Mr. Knight said the other afternoon.

“Think pink!” his most famous collaborator, Kay Thompson, belted in the 1957 movie “Funny Face.” And because of the blockbuster success of their fictional and widely franchised character Eloise, the 6-year-old girl who first appeared in “Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grown-Ups” in 1955 and has been running amok at (and raking it in for) the Plaza Hotel ever since, one might believe Mr. Knight not only thinks but bleeds pink ink.

But as two new exhibitions reveal, he is a many-shaded man, a chameleon, a “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” — apparently one of the few musical stage shows for which he has not designed a poster.

Dozens of these (advertising, among others, Angela Lansbury in “Gypsy,” Eartha Kitt in “Timbuktu!” and Twiggy in “My One and Only”) adorn a lower floor at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, where Mr. Knight had arrived, dapper in pinstripes at 90, to give a tour of “Hilary Knight’s Stage Struck World,” devoted to his many eclectic creations and muses and curated by David Leopold with considerable input from the subject.

“You know, the walls were like this and I said we cannot have that,” Mr. Knight said, waving dismissively at a shelving area. “Perforated orange wood!”

Filled with enough plastic baubles, china, dioramas, feathers and fabric swatches to send the Etsy crowd into ecstasy, the bi-level exhibition complements “Eloise at the Museum,” which opens on Friday at the New-York Historical Society. Both supply a thoughtful counternarrative to the teas, ballets and craft sessions unspooling in somewhat saccharine perpetuity at the Plaza.

A tempera painting of Eloise from 1956, in the New-York Historical Society show “Eloise at the Museum,” which opens on Friday. Credit Kay Thompson; Collection of Hilary Knight

With her typical impishness, Eloise at times threatens to obscure Mr. Knight’s other work, like the “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” series written by Betty MacDonald; the “I Hate to Cook Book” and the “I Hate to Housekeep Book” with Peg Bracken; and the prescient “Where’s Wallace?” (years before “Where’s Waldo?”), for which he did text as well as illustrations. During the golden age of magazines his drawings were published widely, in the dearly departed Mademoiselle and in Cricket for children, and they continue to appear in Vanity Fair.

A 1987 poster for Dance Theater of Harlem in the exhibition “Hilary Knight’s Stage Struck World,” at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Credit Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

Constitutionally au courant, he is working on a graphic novel with his twin nieces, Kitty and Lily Knight, as well as a memoir for St. Martin’s Press, “Hilary Knight: Drawn From Life,” scheduled for publication next spring.

“I’m trying to get it together,” Mr. Knight said. “There’s a lot to do.”

In his spare time he tinkers with a revue in which he plans to wear a sequined ensemble inspired by both the 1940s costume designer Adrian and the rapper LL Cool J. “I don’t like the word burlesque, but that’s what it is,” Mr. Knight said. “I’ve got it all planned, whether it happens or not. I mean, I have no qualifications!”

He does have a longstanding appreciation of theatrical women, beginning around 1937 with Connie De Pinna, of the defunct department store bearing the family name on Fifth Avenue. “She was going into town one day — we’re in Westport renting a house — and she has a black Persian lamb circular skirt in the summertime with black fingernails. Pretty good.” Mr. Knight said.

He was born a decade before then, in Hempstead, N.Y., following a brother three years older, Joey. Their father, Clayton Knight, who had flown in the Royal Air Force, was also an illustrator, specializing in aviation, and after moving to Manhattan the Knights traveled widely: to Paris (where Eloise would later pop up with her nanny, as well as Moscow), Bermuda, South America.

Mr. Knight attended Friends Seminary, studied with George Grosz and Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League, and enrolled in the Navy at 17, painting ships with occasional flourish. “I was a little boy, so they felt sorry for me — they would give me all these cushy jobs,” he said. “It taught me a lot.”

Perhaps his most important education, though, occurred in movie palaces and at the lushly outfitted live entertainments that used to be Broadway staples. Vitrines at the library contain collaged homages to a chorus line of showbiz muses like Liliane Montevecchi (“the most remarkable person,” said Mr. Knight, a connoisseur of the appreciative adjective), Ann Miller (“like a steam engine”) and Dame Edna (“extraordinary”).

Mr. Knight designed the posters for “Sugar Babies,” a combination of burlesque and vaudeville that opened in 1979 and starred one of his muses, Ann Miller. Credit Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

He is surely one of a very select number to have worked with both Lena Horne and Lena Dunham.

Displayed also is Mr. Knight’s affinity for members of the fashion world: the magazine editor Isabella Blow (“eccentric but very sweet and touching”), who committed suicide a decade ago; the mogul Tommy Hilfiger (“terrific”), for whom he did a living-room mural; and the clothing designer Norman Norell. “He was a fascinating man,” Mr. Knight said of Norell, after nimbly clambering into a taxicab with minimal help from a cane. “He loved going to Schrafft’s; he had a black standard poodle and they would sit up at the counter. You remember Schrafft’s? God, we need Schrafft’s.”

No kidding.

At the historical society, Mr. Knight was welcomed by the curator Jane Bayard Curley, who along with rare publishing artifacts, like sketches for an abortive project with Truman Capote (“Can a Pig Fly?”), has installed crowd-pleasing special effects like old-fashioned black house telephones over which the actress Bernadette Peters can be heard reading the books, and a gramophone playing a 1956 novelty record: “Eloise, Eloise....”

“Is this going to drive the guards nuts?” Ms. Curley wondered.

“What’s interesting about the book surviving all this time is that there’s so much that’s not in it, like cellphones,” said Mr. Knight, who recently, gingerly snapped his first selfie. “I always felt guilty about the TV set, that we shouldn’t really be encouraging that.”

The cover for a 45 r.p.m. record with artwork by Mr. Knight, in the New-York Historical Society show. Credit Agaton Strom for The New York Times

In a nod to “the department of shameless commerce,” Ms. Curley said, the show culminates in a gift shop, though she had the wit to theme it to a work that Thompson — who tired of the character even as she reaped most of the profits through an exploitative contract — suppressed until after her death in 1998: “Eloise Takes a Bawth.”

Mr. Knight was reminiscing about the Plaza’s various owners, who have included Conrad Hilton and, for a stretch, Donald J. Trump. “I loved Ivana — I had a great time with her,” he said of the president’s first wife. “I will never forget her walking through the lobby. She said: ‘I see this painting, and I said, “Who is this?” They told me Eloise. I never heard of her.’”

He smiled like a Cheshire cat. “She knew exactly who she was.”

© 2015 by Hilary Knight .

Website by Cathy Marshall Websites for

bottom of page